The brief, poignant life of MarShawn McCarrel

Suzanne Goldsmith
MarShawn McCarrel in December 2014, two weeks after his 22nd birthday

On the steps of the Ohio Statehouse, a young black activist named MarShawn McCarrel found a "life-giving" sense of purpose. It was the fall of 2013, shortly after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and the Ohio legislature was considering a "Stand Your Ground" bill similar to the law in Florida that had supported Zimmerman's defense. The Ohio Student Association, a grassroots organizing group that included McCarrel, was concerned at the speed with which the bill had passed the House and moved to the Senate. OSA organized a series of actions across Ohio in opposition to the bill, including an Oct. 2 "die-in" at the Statehouse. McCarrel, a 20-year-old volunteer wearing an "Unafraid Together" T-shirt, took the megaphone and delivered a spoken word piece of his own composition, sounding both angry and solemn, as all around him protesters, both black and white, lowered themselves to the ground as if dying.

We're from more guns than job applications

But they don't hear us

We're from where young brothers play triggers like music

The sound softer than our screams

But y'all don't hear us.

We're from drugs, where the system melts everything but the prejudice from our skin.

You say my generation's troubled

I say my generation's on fire.

McCarrel was a different kind of recruit to OSA, then a year-old, campus-based organization born in the aftermath of the "Occupy" movement. He was not a student. He had the manner and appearance of a "street kid," says organizer Aramis Sundiata. But he impressed the group with his energy and passion.

After the protest, organizers asked McCarrel and the other first-timers what they learned from their first action. McCarrel's words moved Stuart McIntyre, a founder of OSA.

"He said that a lot of his life he had been exposed to death," McIntyre says, "that when he walked around his neighborhood, the Hilltop, he could see death, he could smell death, he felt like in some ways he couldn't escape it. That it consumed him. And the feeling that he had, reciting this poem and leading the symbolic die-in at the Capitol, was something that was life-giving. That it filled him up with this feeling of purpose. And life. And he said he wanted to share that with everyone who came from where he came from and had experienced what he had experienced."

McCarrel went on to do just that. For the next two and a half years, he threw himself into agitating for social change: organizing activists, speaking and reciting his poems at rallies and becoming recognized as a leader in the developing Black Lives Matter movement in Ohio. He fought against police brutality and harsh school disciplinary policies. He registered voters. He taught teenagers. He founded his own initiative to feed the needy and build community. He took his poetry to a national competition. And on Feb. 5, McCarrel was honored as a "Hometown Champion" at the NAACP Image Awards gala in Los Angeles, proudly bringing his mother as his date.

Three days later, he walked to the very spot where he first found that sense of empowerment and purpose. And there, on the Ohio Statehouse steps, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

We waste so much time not loving each other. MarShawn McCarrel on Twitter, Feb. 6, 2016

MarShawn McCarrel's life ended on the steps of the Statehouse. But his influence did not. Vigils, sadness, confusion and outrage followed in the immediate aftermath of McCarrel's suicide, as did press coverage. The Washington Post published a story about depression and the need for mental health services in the Black Lives Matter movement. A model walked a New York Fashion Week runway holding a sign that quoted McCarrel's last Facebook update, posted a few hours before his death: "My demons won today. I'm sorry." And reporters, friends and acquaintances, none of whom had perceived him as depressed or hopeless, discussed and decoded his final, angry tweet: "Let the record show that I pissed on the state house before I left."

There was ugliness as well. A Dayton area police officer was fired after he posted "Love a happy ending" on Facebook about McCarrel's death.

Admiration, however, was the prevailing emotion. "MarShawn was a great man," says Ethan Rivera, a poet who competed alongside MarShawn in a national poetry slam. "He loved strangers the way we hope to love our family. The world is better place because he was in it."

"He was a poet in every sense of the word," says McIntyre. "He put words to things that people felt."

"People talk about an old soul. His was ancient," says Sheila Fagan, McCarrel's teacher in high school who later produced an independent film about a poem he wrote.

"He had that kind of light and passion about him that was unstoppable," Fagan says. "That's what made it so unimaginable that he stopped it himself."

I fall in love with the smallest things and moments. MarShawn McCarrel on Twitter, Feb. 3, 2016

MarShawn McCarrel II was born in Columbus in 1992 and lived here most of his life. His mother, Leatha Wellington, teaches fifth and sixth grade language arts at West Side Academy, a charter school. She and his father, also named MarShawn, are divorced; MarShawn and his fraternal twin brother, MarQuan, were raised primarily by their mother. The boys were always good in school, she says-both were identified early as gifted students-but MarShawn was the passionate reader. "He kept to hisself a lot, and he used to read, read, read," she says.

He also was interested in history and current events. "The TV always had to be on the History Channel," says Wellington. "Or CNN. He wanted to know what was going on all the time."

"He was really good for sitting you down and giving you a lecture just out the blue," says his brother MarQuan. "You'd be talking about sports, and all of a sudden it would be a history lesson."

It was early, too, that MarShawn fell in love with the spoken word. When he was 8 or 9 years old, he received a karaoke machine for his birthday and would record himself rapping. MarQuan loved video games, not music, he says, "So we would do tradeoffs. He would want me to beatbox for him on one of the microphones while he'd make a song, and I'd go, 'Well, I'm not going to do that unless you play the game with me for an hour.' He happily obliged."

The twins attended Franklin Heights High School. Fagan says MarShawn was a brilliant student, though not particularly focused on structure and deadlines. "He was one of those kids that I just had to get out of his way and let him work. The gift was already there, the voice was already there."

As a junior, MarShawn attended Mosaic, an arts- and humanities-focused alternative high school, and he began to develop his poetry. He became involved in Columbus' live poetry scene. "I met him when he was 16, and he was already good back then," says Rivera, who serves as SlamMaster of the weekly Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam, held at Ruby Tuesday. "He kept coming out when he could; he kept getting better and sharing new work. I don't know of many things that MarShawn wasn't amazing at when he tried. But poetry really was a beautiful part of his soul."

We don't know how much we belong to each other. MarShawn McCarrel on Twitter, Jan. 29, 2016

After graduating from high school in 2011, MarShawn and MarQuan both enrolled in Ohio State's satellite campus in Newark, but MarShawn soon dropped out. He moved out of his mother's home for three and half months and had no regular place to live. There was some couch surfing, his mother says, as well as time spent sleeping in a shelter. Those who knew him say it was a time of struggle, but he shared few details with those interviewed for this article.

Whatever personal struggles MarShawn experienced during his time on the streets, there was a concrete outcome. Along with his brother, he founded Pursuing Our Dreams, an organization aimed at helping those who lack resources on the West Side. Its signature project is Feed the Streets, a monthly gathering of volunteers who make sandwiches, assemble bag lunches and walk the streets handing out food and starting conversations. The project targets areas where people are homeless, but to receive a lunch, you don't have to be poor; you just have to be present.

"It was very clear when you went to Feed the Streets," says Steve Shapiro, MarShawn's teacher at Mosaic, "that it was no saviors, no heroes ... MarShawn was always very clear about that. No heroes in the 'hood. People don't need handouts, people don't need heroes, they just need community."

Life is incredible. The Good and the Bad. MarShawn McCarrel on Twitter, Jan. 7, 2016

Throughout this time, MarShawn continued to refine his skills at writing and performing poetry, and he recorded music and rap with a range of collaborators. In 2014, he won a spot on the Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam team along with Rivera and two others. The team finished fifth at the Rustbelt regional competition in Detroit and continued on to the national competition in Oakland, where they finished in the top 50.

"The crowds loved him," says Rivera. "The poets couldn't stop talking about his poems."

MarShawn spoke about his creative process in a video recorded by Sheila Fagan. "Poetry is my healing," he said. "It's how I deal with my own pain and trauma from things that I see. Poetry keeps me sane. There's a lot going on in this world. A lot of ugliness. Sometimes I just gotta drown it all out. Into words."

Yet even as his poems grew more political, more focused on racial injustice, says Rivera, they were not gloomy. "Everything he wrote down was about struggle and still felt uplifting. You can't really get that anywhere else in the poetry scene. Most of us write the pain. It's easier and it's really what we got into this thing to do. But MarShawn always wrote the hard things and still made you feel like the world wasn't the worst place. He made you feel like there was so much light and love, and he wanted to show it to you."

In the winter of 2014–15, his poetry caught the attention of Amsterdam filmmaker Bob Yothers. A Columbus native, Yothers was home for a visit and scouting for a project when Fagan, a friend, introduced him to MarShawn over tacos at El Camino Inn.

"He seemed to be a really unassuming, gentle soul," says Yothers, who asked him if he had a poem he'd like to share. MarShawn brought out a poem titled "Down South."

Inspired by the life of his grandmother, the poem links images of lynchings and burnings with images of contemporary inner-city gun deaths and book-starved schools. "My grandmother lives down south," it begins. "Where the trees still have night terrors of bodies tugging rope/ like childish games."

"I fell in love with the poem," says Yothers. "Instantly, images came up in my mind."

They shot the film quickly. Both Yothers and Fagan say they'd never experienced such a frictionless passage from concept to film. Friends stepped up to volunteer as actors, locations were secured easily and the shooting went smoothly, despite the bitter cold. MarShawn was a natural, says Yothers. "He's so sweet … and then he opens his mouth and these amazing words come pouring out. I've got take after take where he delivers his words with the same power. Over and over."

The images in the final production are startling, given what would happen a year later. "His words were really provocative, so I wanted my images to be provocative," says Yothers. In one scene, MarShawn's younger brother, 13, posed as a shooting victim, face down and bleeding in the snow. In another, MarShawn himself posed as if in a coffin, with a lily on his chest.

Following his suicide, Yothers and Fagan checked in with Leatha Wellington to ask if she minded the inclusion of these images of her sons in the film. "She said MarShawn was so excited about this film that they were behind it 100 percent," he says. The film, not yet released, is an official selection at two upcoming film festivals, Raindance, in London, and the Mill Valley Film Festival in California. The producers hope to have a screening in Columbus.

Don't ever think it could never be you. MarShawn McCarrel on Twitter, Jan. 17, 2015

Following the 2013 Stand Your Ground rally, MarShawn remained involved with the Ohio Student Association, volunteering as a community organizer. In June 2014, he was arrested for trespassing during a peaceful protest in Nashville, along with four other black activists (three of them from OSA) who had traveled to Tennessee to urge attendees at the annual National Governors' Association convention to increase the minimum wage, reduce the cost of higher education and end no-second-chance school disciplinary policies. No charges were filed in that incident.

Two months later, on Aug. 8, 2014, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, followed by days of civil unrest. Later that fall, Eric Garner died in a police chokehold in New York City. Demonstrations organized by the Black Lives Matter movement gained national attention.

Around the same time in Ohio, John Crawford was killed by a police officer in a Wal-Mart in Beaver Creek while carrying an air pellet rifle he had plucked from a shelf. A few months later, 11-year-old Tamir Rice was killed, also by police, in a public park in Cleveland, where he was playing with a toy pellet gun. The Ohio Student Association made it a mission to draw attention to those deaths and seek justice for the victims. OSA organized marches and rallies across the state and soon became recognized as the state's leading Black Lives Matter organization.

McCarrel helped organize those protests. "He was always the guy with the megaphone that they were pushing to the front," says Wellington.

OSA organizer Sundiata tapped McCarrel in 2015 to help as a teacher and youth organizer with the Freedom Schools summer program for at-risk teens. "MarShawn was ... an excellent mentor and an excellent teacher," says Sundiata. McCarrel, he says, inspired a group of teenagers to march into the Ohio Department of Education to seek changes in school disciplinary policies. "He ?was galvanizing."

The OSA, says MarQuan, "really kind of groomed [MarShawn] as to how to be effective. And they taught him just the philosophy: organize money and organize people is how you build power. They gave him some tools, and he really took it and ran with it."

Other OSA organizers say he was a brilliant strategist. "He was an even better organizer than he was a public speaker. Organizing is about building relationships, building trust," says McIntyre. "He was an incredible listener. He could sit down with someone and really show himself to them and see them fully and invite them into the process of building power."

Spread yourself out too thin for everybody and end up with nothing and no one. MarShawn McCarrel on Twitter, Jan. 29, 2016

Those who worked with MarShawn say that perhaps it was his passion and commitment that left him vulnerable. "MarShawn didn't take time for himself," says his mother. "He was carrying a lot, trying to deal with a lot. Maybe trying to change the world himself."

Tammy Fournier Alsaada, a community organizer with the Ohio Juvenile Justice Coalition, supervised his work leading a group of youths on a voter registration drive. "This young man," she says, "would go and pick up his whole team to go do voter registration, get them all here to work, take them all home in a borrowed car or a friend's car … He would make sure they ate, he'd make sure they got to work on time … he was the one that would show up for them."

"At times we felt he was extending himself too much in his role," she says.

MarShawn described the weariness he sometimes felt in his interview with Sheila Fagan, which was used as a trailer in the Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the film, "Down South." "I feel depleted often," he said. "Just today, with our Feed the Streets campaign, I didn't want to get up this morning. I was like, 'Yo, you're doing so much.' But just thinking about my family, my community-I got a little brother, 13 years old, most amazing being on earth. He looks up to me. I care about him, I care about the community, I care about the future he's going to grow up in. That always rejuvenates me."

I'm okay with not being okay. MarShawn McCarrel on Twitter, Jan. 26, 2016

McIntyre says that MarShawn's work exposed him to painful rejection. "This was someone that didn't go to college himself, but was willing to be on a college campus and be open and engaged in a way that some of, especially, the white students would just ignore," he says. "They would avoid or move away from him or dismiss his energy and his spirit. I actually saw how that really hurt him.

"To live with an open heart the way that he did, you feel a lot more pain."

Fagan agrees. "I think he felt things far more deeply, as artists do in our society and culture, and he suffered from it," she says.

Then there were the overtly racist insults and even threats that MarShawn was subjected to as a result of his work. On Jan. 14, just three weeks before his death, he shared a screenshot of a threat he had received. "We gonna keep making your life hell until you keep your NIGGER mouth closed," it said.

In posting the exchange on Facebook, he commented: "1. I usually don't share these because they're ugly and powerless. 2. I'm usually not petty and don't respond but I'm up today lol #MyBigNiggerMouth"

Takes pressure to make diamonds. MarShawn McCarrel on Twitter, Jan. 29, 2016

The month prior to his suicide was an eventful one. MarShawn's Twitter feed was filled with entreaties to his friends to vote for him as Radio One's Hometown Champion. But after he learned that he won and would be awarded $1,000 and a trip for two to the NAACP Image Awards in LA, his response was muted. "I'm going through a weird 'nothing really matters' phase I know," he wrote. "But a lot of things we invest our energy in don't make sense to me."

Many of his posts in the weeks that followed were filled with weariness or pain.

Jan. 16: I got demons I have to deal with before the(y) deal with me.

Jan. 19: Kingdom on the outside. Ruin on the inside.

Jan. 27: I don't want anyone to think my decisions are about them. My path belongs to me.

Jan. 30: Too many battles on the inside for these battles on the outside.

These plaintive posts contrast poignantly with the forward-looking moments of celebration that he also posted during the same period. He wrote about how nice it would be to take his mother to LA and share her first airplane ride. And on Jan. 21, he announced on Facebook that he would be moving to the DC area to take a new job as a community organizer with Progressive Maryland, excitedly telling supporters he would be bringing Feed the Streets to the nation's capital. "I'm really excited to start this journey," he wrote. "I believe it will allow me to grow as a leader and a young man."

"I need a pistol that shoots hope. I would light the hood up." MarShawn McCarrel on Twitter, Jan. 6, 2015

On Feb. 3, the day before he left for Los Angeles, a Hilltop acquaintance, 23-year-old Marese Collins, was killed by a Columbus police officer after a car and foot chase. He was armed and, according to police, refused to drop his gun. "Everybody dyin' man," MarShawn tweeted. "Smh." And then, "I just be starin' at the sky wondering where my homies went."

On Feb. 4, after his flight to LA, he was philosophical: "I watched the Sun rise from 38,000 feet in the air this morning. It made me happy. It brought me peace. I think I'll call that moment God." And later that day, "I fall in love with the smallest things and moments. I wanna string it all together and save it in a bottle for the hard days."

The day of the awards ceremony was a good one. "We had a ball," says his mother. "MarShawn was still MarShawn." In a video of his speech accepting the award, he is smiling and excited. "I know when we get home, we're gonna keep going hard, keep turning up my people. When we see any injustices we gotta kill it, because we lit. That's what we do."

Three days later, he was dead.

Was he planning suicide all along? Was it an impulsive act? "Young people want a revolution," says Fournier Alsaada. "And they're willing to put their life on the line for that revolution."

"I feel that his suicide was a statement to the movement to wake us up."

"Something that I think is true of some of the most inspiring human beings that I know," says McIntyre, "is that the light that people have, it comes from the darkness that they have experienced. And MarShawn was a very bright light."

Leatha Wellington posted this on her son's Facebook page a week after his death. "Please people do not try to define my son by the way he lost his life but remember him for the legacy he left. MarShawn charged us all to get out and make a difference in our communities. Let's get this work done."

For all the attention MarShawn's final, angry tweet received, it was not his only tweet on Feb. 8. Before he wrote about urinating on the Statehouse steps as a final act, he sent these three messages out into the world:

Sending love today.

I love y'all.

All of you.