We were on our way to Oklahoma City when we heard the devastating news: A local teen, Channing Smith, in our former town of Manchester, Tennessee had died by suicide. The catalyst? Cyber bullying.
photo courtesy of the Justice for Channing Facebook page
Two weeks ago, two teens Channing Smith thought were his friends posted screenshots of sexually explicit messages between him and another teenaged boy outing him as bisexual. He posted of the betrayal on social media, went to work at Burger King, then came home and shot himself. His father found him early in the morning on Sept. 23.
I didn’t have the pleasure of ever meeting Channing, sadly. This is tragic by any circumstances, but the more I read about him—and the more people who stopped by the new mural have told me—the more I wish I’d known him while living in Manchester. He was a musician with a sense of humor. He was in the marching band at Coffee County Central High School. He appreciated the arts. Although he wasn’t forced to, according to his brother, he went out and got a job at 16 years old so that he could make his own money and start saving up. He had the kindest eyes and warm smile.
An investigation into the cyber bullying is apparently ongoing, though the rumor in the community is that Coffee County’s controversial district attorney Craig Northcott is not going to press charges, which has sparked endless debates in our area over whether youth or their parents should be punished for acts of social media bullying.
Still, the outpouring of love in the community since his passing on Sept. 23 gives me hope for small towns like Manchester where bullying is sadly prevalent, something we have experienced firsthand and so many others before us have, too. Hundreds of students launched a #JusticeForChanning movement, making T-shirts and posters, and celebrating his life via a vigil last week. Billy Ray Cyrus came down on Sunday morning and also held a small memorial concert for Channing at the Rotary Park Amphitheater. The students also have protested outside of the DA’s office demanding that the bullies be prosecuted.
The making of the Channing mural
We first connected with Tallahassee artists Sarah Painter and Cosby Hayes nearly a year ago after being moved by a civil rights portrait they’d painted in Memphis. Sarah reached out this summer and said they’d be passing through and asked if they could come paint in Coffee County. We were in the middle of three consecutive mural installs, as well as going through the process of transitioning DMA-events to a nonprofit, but responded with a resounding “YES,” figuring we’d sort out details (like location) at a later date. The painting duo and life partners are known for their gorgeous portraiture and ability to bring awareness to important issues like the gender wage gap and racial discrimination, and any community would be blessed to have their work as a permanent fixture.
When they got here, they spent some time exploring the community, searching for a connection to the place before they began painting. Channing died the day before their arrival, but it took a day or two before the news hit the community like a ton of bricks. Activists aiming to change the world one coat of paint at a time, Sarah and Cosby reached out to the family and asked if they could paint a tribute to him; the family was very receptive of the idea, only there wasn’t time to get it done before his vigil and memorial concert.
When we returned from Oklahoma City on Monday, a week following Channing’s death, the four of us brainstormed how we could get a memorial up in such a short amount of time. Things move slooooooowly in our part of the state, and Sarah and Cosby were only in town another four days before they had to be in Memphis—but this was too important a message to not bring more attention to, particularly in light of October being National Bullying Prevention Month. On Tuesday morning, I fired off a couple quick texts to friends in Manchester seeing if we could get permission to use a wall, including a note to my friend Meri Lapham at Foothills Crafts in Manchester; within hours, she had spoken with her Foothills board and they green-lit the project. That night, we ventured down to the building under a veil of darkness to deliver ladders so Sarah and Cosby could project the image they had conceptualized, and they started sketching the outline of Channing surrounded by hands lifting him up.
On Wednesday morning, they began painting, and on Friday at 3am, they completed the Channing mural, which we’ll be calling “You Are Not Alone.”
It’s not only meant as a tribute to Channing Smith, but to all those who have come before him; those who have died by suicide from other incidents and bullying and those military service men and women whose PTSD has caused them to end their lives. Just last week, we became acquainted with another new friend who used to live in the area and who also lost his partner to suicide a few years back. This mural is for him, too.
Suicide isn’t the answer; there’s always help out there
If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, there is always help out there. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is just a phone call away 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255. If you hear of a friend, family member or mere acquaintance so much as mention ending his/her life, don’t be silent—reach out. If you know of an LGBTQ+ youth who is struggling with belonging or considering harming himself or others, please connect him with The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386, a free 24/7 resource to help teens in crisis and give them a safe, judgment-free space in which to talk.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
We’re all deeply saddened by the circumstances through which this mural came to be and heartbroken for the Smith family, but we hope keeping Channing’s memory alive provides them some source of comfort and solace knowing their son, brother and friend will not be forgotten. And we pray that before another teen considers bullying others, they’ll remember Channing and think twice before doing so.