She shows off her shirts in no particular order. The one on top of the pile says "RIP Kristi" above a school picture of a smiling high school girl. This is Kristi Carroll, shot to death in 2002 during a party at the Troostwood Banquet Hall. Carroll and Banks were schoolmates.
"I wanted to go to that party so bad. I literally cried," Banks recalls. But she couldn't find a ride. "It was one of those where everyone was supposed to be there. I was so mad that tears were actually shed because I didn't get to go to that party."
Lately, Banks has been showing up at "stop the violence" marches and vigils held around Kansas City. But though such shirts are worn at funerals and vigils, Banks doesn't reserve her collection of memorial shirts exclusively for such occasions. "You can wear it anytime. I wear it with an outfit, just any day. I get kind of sad when I pick them up and wear them."
She pauses. "Ready for some more?"
T-shirts for the dead might seem cavalier to some, but for kids on the city's east side, murder is common.
Last year, 127 murders nearly set a record in Kansas City, Missouri. With another 85 slayings this year, memorial shirts remain in high demand. Inner-city kids tell each other, "Don't let me see you on a T-shirt." Last year at Fairview Alternative Middle School, the glass case outside the office held the memorial T-shirt of a 14-year-old shot on Mother's Day 2005.
The shirts always have a picture. Often, it's someone laughing, hanging out at a party, mixing a drink. Sometimes it's a school photo, with its familiar gray-blue background. Sometimes the photo implies a violent end: glaring eyes, a gun, a hand sign. More often, the figure flashes only a contagious smile.
That's the kind of photo on the next shirt in Banks' collection, which reads "In Loving Memory" and depicts a guy named Deondre Thomas. It was made at the Landing Mall.
"Ron he was my boyfriend at the time," Banks says. To check the date, she pulls out a photo album thick with funeral programs. He died on September 20, 2003. "'Course, he was killed on 40th, near Warwick. I'd been liking him since I'd seen him in the neighborhood, and we'd just started dating. We were sneaking because my mom didn't want me to be dating."
Click play above for a slideshow of photos.
When a friend called her to tell her that Ron was dead, she threw down the phone and ran outside screaming. "He had just been at my house that night. We were sitting in his car out front for one hot second. I gave him a little hug and said, 'I guess I'll see you later.'" She shrugs. She thinks they caught his killer, but she isn't sure. "Yep," she says, popping the p at the end of the word.
She pulls out the next shirt, for a guy who was killed on February 20, 2005. In the picture, the man stares out the window of a white car. A tree-shaped air freshener hangs from the rearview mirror. "This is Jason Smith. They call him Brother J. He was killed at 55th and Park in a home invasion." The details pour out matter-of-factly. "The people, I guess they wanted money, so they went either to his mom's house first and pistol-whupped her, or else they went to his house first and kicked in the door. The police said they killed him in front of his children. They shot his kids' mother, also, but she didn't die. I think she's blind in one eye. The bullet came out her eye or something."