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A Stray Bullet Took My Friend's Life

An ESSENCE intern remembers her friend Matt Shaw, shot and killed on July 4, on what would have been his 22nd birthday. 
Independence Day is usually a time for family and friends to relax and enjoy each other’s company around good food and music. But I’m usually spending the day praying that violence doesn’t break out in my community yet again.

This year, on the morning of July 5, I woke up and checked my Instagram feed, only to read “RIP Matt.” Panicked, I opened my eyes wider — I could only think of one person. Within minutes, I confirmed that it was my high school friend Matt Shaw. I was in complete disbelief. Frustrated and confused, I tried to figure out what happened and how his young life ended so soon.

Matt Shaw was only 21 when he was shot and killed right before midnight on July 4 in Harlem, New York. He recently returned from a trip to Atlanta with plans of celebrating the holiday. That night, after buying a soda at a deli, he was chatting with some friends on 128th Street and Lexington Avenue; moments later, gunshots were fired. Matt was shot in the torso and the bullet traveled to his heart. By the time he reached the emergency room at Harlem Hospital he was pronounced dead. Matt was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like many victims, he was not the intended target.

Just two months ago, Matt had graduated from Le Moyne College in Syracuse with a degree in finance. He was planning to pursue his master’s degree in economics at the State University of New York in Albany this August. Last week, instead of watching Matt prepare for an exciting new chapter of his life, I attended his wake with knots in my stomach, trying to remember all the good things about my friend. People flooded the outside of Unity Funeral Home waiting patiently to say goodbye. I saw many of our former classmates and heard voices of both sadness and anger. It took almost 30 minutes before I finally got inside and approached his casket. There was Matt wearing his blue Yankee cap, peaceful as always. I prayed over him and opened my eyes, but I couldn’t see because of the tears that overwhelmed me. This suddenly felt like a dream. Voices were fading, people looked blurry and all that flashed in my mind was this image of Matt in his casket. His brother embraced me, but what I began to feel was less sadness and more anger.   

No one wants to walk around his or her community feeling unsafe. People are shooting one another down instead of building each other up. Is this what we have become? A society that values more prisons over recreational centers and where more guns are being picked up than books?

I will always remember my friend as a laid-back, cool guy who could make anyone laugh out loud within seconds of meeting him — a man who was raised by his family to be responsible, intelligent and respectful. His mother, Paula Shaw-Leary (pictured with Matt), decided to donate his organs to help others live longer lives. As we celebrate today on what would have been his 22nd birthday, it’s my belief that his death wasn’t in vain. Instead his story will inspire and become something we can all learn from.  

Kelsie Bonaparte is a recent graduate of Delaware State University and is currently interning in the News department at ESSENCE Magazine.