Semaj Miller 3/21/2006-7/29/2020
Semaj Miller was shot to death two weeks ago in South Los Angeles.
The 14 year-old Miller had enrolled at his hometown high school, Compton High, and was going to start his freshman year in a few weeks, preparing for a four-year tour of Compton and Long Beach as a star basketball player. Miller was a basketball prodigy who had been drawing comparisons to local legend DeMar DeRozan since he was in sixth grade.
His death was a heartbreaking blow to a community that’s reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an illustration of the multi-faceted challenges of shutting down youth programs in the inner city in response to the virus.
“The only way we can honor Semaj is to live,” said Compton mayor Aja Brown at a candlelight vigil for Miller last Thursday. “To love each other and to protect each other. Everyone deserves to live, everyone deserves to have a future.”
Miller was a well-known youth basketball standout in the city, and was 6’7” going into the eighth grade, with size 16 shoes. Derrick Cooper was his coach at the Wildcats Youth Academy, a middle-school aged basketball program designed to help keep kids busy when they weren’t at school, specifically to avoid tragedies like the one that befell Miller.
The challenge for youth leaders in inner-city Compton and Long Beach is that most of those programs operate out of facilities that have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Long Beach, for example, is just now allowing youth sports to hold group activities again this week after four months of inactivity.
“What is heartbreaking for me and hard to wrap my mind around,” said Cooper. “Is that if we were open, Semaj would have been at practice when the shooting happened.”
Compton coach Tony Thomas said that he felt like aside from the closures, other systems failed to protect Miller as well, including the Compton Unified School District.
“He was playing at McDonald Park, where a lot of the Compton and Long Beach kids have been playing this summer,” said Thomas. “These are older kids and Semaj hadn’t started high school yet, so I was taking him over there, making sure he’s safe, making sure the kids don’t do anything stupid. Well, the principal heard I was going and we aren’t supposed to be in contact with the kids because of the shutdown–so they told me to stop going. I said, ‘There are kids there and things happen, I’m going.’”
Former Millikan basketball coach and Compton native Chris Francis was a mentor of Miller’s, and said the loss was too big to comprehend.
“We have to get our youth programs going again to protect these kids,” said Francis. “That’s what we’re here for, to get them off the streets and protect them.”
The leaders from Greater Zion Church in Compton made an offer of help at the vigil, promising to open their large parking lot for any youth teams that want to hold practice and workouts while city and school facilities are shut down due to the pandemic.
Several other speakers called for an end to the gang violence that has plagued Compton and Long Beach this summer, and that authorities say took Miller’s life.
“My best friend died when I was 15,” said Chico Brown, a longtime community leader and a former gang member who’s dedicated his life to youth outreach and intervention. “I was shot at 12. I’ve been a pallbearer 25 times for my friends. It’s been 40 years of this for me, and it has to stop.”
Percy Miller, better known as the rapper Master P, also spoke against gang violence.
“‘We’ have to protect ‘us’,” said Miller, who is not related to Semaj. “It doesn’t have to happen. We have to stop killing our future. This kid could have been the next–we don’t know. We’ll never get to find out. We have to hold ourselves accountable and keep this from happening again.”
Cooper presided over the vigil, comforting Miller’s mother, Taloma, and his younger siblings.
“What do you say to a mother?” asked Cooper. “This isn’t supposed to happen.”
Cooper also made an emotional address to gang leadership.
“The streets–you guys run it,” he said. “I get that. But run it in the correct way. Protect our kids.”
The ceremony closed with a diploma presentation to Miller’s mother. He had been out of school since March because of the closures, and was killed on what should have been the day of his eighth grade graduation.