James Shaw Jr.: The hero, survivor and advocate

Posted at 5:37 AM, Apr 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-22 19:54:22-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — "It's kind of like a bad Christmas."

Remembering April 22, 2018 may seem like any other day for most people, but for James Shaw Jr., it is a day that resurfaces painful memories. The 30-year-old native Nashvillian can best describe his past year as a "roller coaster of ups and downs" filled with recognition, emotions and stories of survival.

The whirlwind of a ride began exactly one year ago when he would stop a gunman who opened fire on customers at a Waffle House in Antioch. He was with his best friend at the time when the accused shooter, Travis Reinking, shot and killed four people: DeEbony Groves, Taurean Sanderlin, Joe Perez and Akilah DaSilva.

"The glass burst and it actually looked like silver glitter in the air," he recalled to NewsChannel 5. "After seeing him walk in I actually just walked behind the swivel door and he shot towards my way and I heard a voice say, 'Do it, do it now' and I acted on my voice and wrestled for the gun, got control of the gun, threw it over the bar and pushed him out along with myself to what would become safety for me."

By protecting himself, city and law enforcement officials said he saved multiple lives.

His recollection of what happened would be repeated dozens of times within the next year. It started by telling his story to city officials the day after the shooting, and from then on, was deemed the hero, a term he now accepts but does not take lightly.

"A hero is just a title, we're working towards more here in Nashville," Shaw said.

Aside from his actions inside the restaurant, it was his decision to create a GoFundMe to raise money for the families of the victims that further catapulted him into national exposure. He gave a check of $241,000 to the families a month after the shooting. Through the help of his alma mater Tennessee State University, the James Shaw Jr. Foundation was created to help organizations and community advocates stop violence and address mental health issues.

Since the shooting, he received countless honors statewide and nationally, and made numerous appearances including the Ellen show, NBA All Star Celebrity Game and the MTV Movie Awards. He also been featured in magazines including TIME magazine and Nashville Scene's "2018 Nashvillian of the Year".

He also made more than 100 school visits and was recently awarded the Special Courage Award by the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this month.

"For me it was to show the resiliency and perseverance I had and just to get the legacy out of the four people that passed."

Needless to say, it seems he is recognized everywhere he goes.

"Sometimes I don't want to be recognized and go somewhere but compared to what it could have been, me in a box, I'll take that all day," he said.

"People don't know what goes on behind the camera"

Underneath the smiles and limelight of being recognized as the hero, Shaw said he is still a survivor coping with the traumatic event.

He admits the instant notoriety was somewhat tough.

"At the end of December right before my birthday I was tired, I did a lot. From December though March, now I know I was depressed, I've never been depressed in my life up until then," he said.

Shaw was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and continues to see a therapist, something that was new to him. He has certain coping mechanisms to handle his anxiety and frustration whether that is thinking of positive thoughts or backtracking to figure out the reason behind his feelings.

He is also learning how to better juggle life as a father. He encourages others to seek treatment for any mental health issue.

"Seek out help, know your support systems, know what really makes you as a person happy, not what your friends do, but what makes your soul happy," he said.

Shaw said what makes him really happy is his five-year-old daughter who reminds him there is a bigger purpose in this world.

"My 36-inch tall daughter, she truly makes me happy because I almost didn't see her anymore," Shaw said.

"I have purpose here"

"My eyes have been opened up to some of the injustices going on in the 37208 area code and Nashville period."

While he deals with mental wounds, Shaw hopes to use his notoriety for bigger things including raising awareness to issues that face Nashville. He said there are high rates of black men being arrested in north Nashville and the lack of affordable living.

"The cost of living is far too high especially for a native Nashvillian like myself and that the wages are not matching the actual cost of living," he said.

Like many who survived a mass shooting, there is an effort to see change in gun reform laws. Shaw still keeps in touch with some students and survivors of the Parkland High School shooting after meeting them last year.

While he says it would be hard to outlaw assault style rifles, more could be done to regulate them.

"If you want an AR-15 or a semi automatic, then you have to get an expert marksmanship rifle, and then go through another mental health test and go through another background test."

One day he hopes to see more diversity and better representation in local leadership. He interviewed to become a member of the Community Oversight Board, a group to investigate police misconduct allegations.

While he did not get the position, he said he still has political aspirations in the future.

"I still do want to run for mayor one day."