On the night of 15 April, gunfire broke out at the dance studio in Dadeville, Alabama, where Alexis Dowdell was celebrating her 16th birthday.
The shooting turned a joyful gathering of teenagers into a chaotic and bloody nightmare, cutting short the lives of four young people in the small rural town north of Montgomery: Marsiah Collins, a 19-year-old high school graduate and musician; Shaunkivia Nicole “KeKe” Smith, a 17-year-old senior who managed the basketball and track and field teams; Corbin Dahmontrey Holston, 23, who graduated from Dadeville high school in 2018; and Alexis’s brother, Philstavious “Phil” Dowdell, an 18-year-old star football player.
In the days following the tragedy, authorities arrested six people, including four teenagers, in connection with the shooting. Officials have shared no details about possible motives of the suspects, who came from two towns 25 and 30 miles away. Investigators said the shooters used seven guns to fire 89 shots into a packed room.
For Martin Collins, the father of 19-year-old Marsiah, the massacre has led to profound questions over America’s relationship with guns. Since the death of his son, Collins has been living in “a fog” of shock, anger and sorrow, he told the Guardian in an interview last month, reflecting on the future Marsiah will never have, the cruelty of US mass shootings and the nation’s abject failure to protect its children.
“There is a sickness in this country,” the 40-year-old said from his home in Baton Rouge. “I couldn’t have asked for a better, more phenomenal son … and now I have to talk about him in the past tense. It doesn’t make sense.”
The massacre in Dadeville was one of 268 mass shootings in 2023 in the US through the end of May, more than one a day, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks incidents in which four or more people are shot or killed. The gun death toll in that period includes 760 children and teenagers, with another 1,901 youth injured.
The frequency of massacres in the US this year has meant that headlines fade even as the names of the deceased are still being released. But to Collins, it seems the lack of widespread outrage and attention on Dadeville was also due to the fact that all the victims were Black, in a country that has long normalized the loss of young Black lives.
“When it happens in Black and brown communities, it’s easily swept under the rug,” said Collins. “It’s national news for a moment, then we move on. We have to stop just moving on.”
In the weeks since Dadeville’s brief time in the national spotlight, Collins has been fighting to keep his son’s name alive in any way he can.
Marsiah, who also went by Siah and Super Si, was inquisitive and a deep thinker as a young kid, said his father.
Martin was 20 years old when Marsiah was born, and said his son was a “child with so much wisdom”.
“He watched his father grow into manhood. He became the more perfect version of me, with his perfect smile.”
Marsiah was an honors student, won a track state championship, and played football throughout his school career, but did not want to keep playing in college after reading about the links between brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
He also loved making music, was interested in audio engineering and psychology and had planned to attend Louisiana State University (LSU) this fall.
Marsiah, Martin said, was deeply kind – at home, at school, on the football field: “This boy made such an impact in his 20 years.”
Since the day Marsiah died, more than 100 additional mass shootings have taken place in the US – in a mall, in an RV, on the freeway. Each one he’s learned about has compounded his grief, Martin said, serving as a devastating reminder that shooting deaths are now treated as ordinary casualties of life in the US. “It is absolute insanity. It’s been trauma and hell every single day since my son was murdered in a mass shooting. How many more have we had since then? I’ve lost count.”
The rate of shootings has made Collins, a law school student and former US Marine deployed to Iraq in 2003, reflect on his service and oath to a country that refuses to protect its own youth from violence.
“I’ve seen what guns do to people when I was in Iraq, where I was looking at death every day while dreaming about what my son would become, hoping and praying I made it home before he was born,” he said. “We nurtured and loved him, and then 20 years after I went to war, my son is dead? Murdered. In America.
“When the hell is America going to realize that we’re tearing ourselves down? We need to decide what our society is going to be in 10, 15 years,” he continued. “We say we’re a democracy and the world’s greatest nation, but we have the highest mass shooting rate of any civilized country. We’re killing our children.”
The inaction and lack of urgency feels especially pronounced when, like in Dadeville, the victims are all Black, he said. After Collins posted about his son’s death on Twitter, rightwing accounts dug up a screenshot from a music video Marsiah made with friends that involved a prop gun, and falsely suggested Marsiah might have been the shooter: “You try to blame my son for his own murder. I didn’t know how to process that.”
Black youth experience the highest rates of gun violence across all demographics, with Black Americans ten times more likely to die by firearm homicide than white people, yet they often receive the fewest resources and least attention, he added. “They say, oh it’s just Black kids, ‘Black on Black crime’, thugs or some type of gang situation. ‘There had to be a reason for it.’”
In recent years, violence prevention experts and commentators have noted how high-casualty shootings at private events, parties or homes are often labeled as “not random” or “targeted” and sometimes don’t even register as “mass shootings” in the media, especially if the victims aren’t white. A 2019 California shooting that killed five young Black people at a Halloween party, for example, fell under the radar as anonymous police sources vaguely implied it was gang-related, and the case remains unsolved. Research shows Black homicide victims are less likely to get news coverage.
“These kids didn’t know when they walked into a Sweet 16 party that people were going to shoot. Every shooting is random,” Collins said.
Collins said he was also pondering the conditions that led to the shooting: “How did we get to this point? How did this happen? These six [people arrested] were young Black people. What happened in their lives and homes? What economic or educational disadvantages did they face? I lost my son, but those six others lost their lives, too. Somewhere along the line something broke. I mourn for all of them.”
Collins has been in a state of disbelief since his son’s death.
He is pained by seeing LSU signs, a reminder of the future his son was denied. Most days, he has a hard time eating or sleeping. He tries to take deep breaths when anxiety and grief overwhelms him, but it doesn’t always work. He prays the days will become easier, but he’s not sure they will. “I want my joy back.”
He had planned a surprise party for Marsiah’s 20th birthday in September. He still wants to do the celebration, even if his son won’t be there.