Voices of black and brown youth: ‘We march for our lives every day’

March attendees showed support for a broad message about everyday gun violence.

The 800-plus #MarchForOurLives events around the country and the world are still resonating. The speeches from survivors of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas School in Parkland, Florida, moved us all, and some of those those teens are now household names.

For me, though, nothing resonated more than the voices of African-American and Latino youth for whom gun violence is nothing new.

Just like the national march in Washington and marches across the country, the march in Chicago featured the voices of youth. Significantly, the Chicago march featured many voices of kids living on the South and West Sides of the city, many of whom repeated the line, “We march for our lives every single day.”

Nearly all said they were personally affected by gun violence, whether they lost a friend, family member, neighbor, or classmate. Some had witnessed death firsthand. Some had learned about it later from a relative, teacher, or police officer. They wanted the 85,000 people attending the march, who were mostly white, to get a sense of what facing violence daily can be like.

Nationwide, the student organizers of these events realized quickly that to be authentic, they needed to be inclusive, and the Chicago march was no different. As Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton wrote:

While planning the Chicago march, the privileged students came to realize that a “March for Our Lives” could not only be about keeping children safe at school.

In a city where nearly 500 people have been shot this year, it had to also be about protecting kids who face violence every minute of the day.

Speaker after speaker rattled off statistics about school shootings, gun deaths, and injuries. Over 400 students and adults have become victims of school shootings since 2012, the year of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. The U.S. has averaged one school shooting every 63 hours in 2018.

In Chicago, as Glanton wrote, there have been nearly 500 shooting victims in 2018 alone (so far). Of those shootings, there have been 87 fatalities, 33 of them 25 and younger, mostly concentrated on the South and West Sides. When it comes to gang violence, some gangs are now using assault-style rifles such as the AR-15.

When gun violence is this widespread, it’s not surprising that these speakers know these facts about such violence firsthand.

Besides talking about the need for stronger gun safety laws, speakers and performers also stressed what’s missing in their communities, like jobs, social services, and school counselors and social workers. They talked about how factories and employers abandoned their neighborhoods long ago. They reminded attendees how, after Chicago closed some 50 elementary and high schools, children and teens were forced to walk farther to get to school, often crossing into neighborhoods in rival gang territories. “We don’t need a $95 million police academy,” one speaker said, referring to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s approved-but-unfunded proposal to build a state-of-the-art police training facility on the South Side. “We need money for schools.” As a matter of fact, there have been student protests against the academy. Students have gone to City Hall to erect tombstones with names of people killed in police shootings, such as Laquan McDonald, plus names of schools, mental health clinics, and other services the city has closed down.

The Chicago event featured multiple performances of music, dance, and rap poetry, some of which were performed in the “Louder Than a Bomb” poetry slam competition held annually in Chicago with 120 area high schools. The video below (shot by an attendee below the stage, but still audible) is of four young women from Hinsdale Central High School, in a mostly white western suburb of Chicago.

“Hinsdale Central?” I thought. “Are we going to see four blonde girls?”

That’s not what happened. In this powerful performance of their original piece called “Trigger Warning,” these young women (L to R: Ellie Peña, Ayana Otokiti, Amani Mryan, and Kai Foster) talked about more than just school shootings. Foster said her family moved from the South Side to the suburbs “because her mother wasn’t sure about the school system.” Peña said she was a Mexican gay born in the barrio but “had forgotten Spanish in order to remain safe.” Mryan said she was “visibly Muslim but learned to act white.” Otokiti said media pay “attention to shootings involving people of color only when they’re involved in a gang.” Here are some of the poem’s lines.

The media constantly questions the demeanor of the shooter:

Was he isolated?

Did he have any friends?

Did he have a troubled family?

Who the hell cares? …

But I heard he was:

An orphan!

A troubled teen!

A broken boy with no friends!

Those are all really weird ways to say domestic terrorist!

Wrote Glanton, who also is African-American, in her Tribune column:

It was the first time some privileged adults had ever heard young blacks and Hispanics tell their personal stories of losing friends, siblings and parents to Chicago’s gun violence. It was the first time some had heard the raw emotions spill out in poetry and music.

And the words of these underprivileged youths were powerful.

The privileged adults nodded in agreement and applauded when the underprivileged teens demanded more social services, mental health services, and resources be designated to fight the violence on Chicago’s South and West Sides.

But what will happen now?

We can’t say yet whether the young people’s decision to share their privileged platform will change the way privileged adults react to young African-Americans who are dying so frequently.

But we do know this.

The young people have begun to listen to each other. That’s at least a start in closing the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged.

There’s lots of evidence of that listening. Chicago teens also were represented in the Washington March for Our Lives rally, especially after a group from Chicago met with Parkland survivors earlier in March, including student activist Emma González. In a series of tweets, González wrote:

Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard in their entire lives the way that we have in these few weeks alone. Since we all share in feeling this pain and know all too well how it feels to have to grow up at the snap of a finger, we were able to cover a lot of ground in communicating our experiences. People of color in inner-cities and everywhere have been dealing with this for a despicably long time, and the media cycles just don’t cover the violence the way they did here. The platform us Parkland Students have established is to be shared with every person, black or white, gay or straight, religious or not, who has experienced gun violence, and hand in hand, side by side, We Will Make This Change Together.

“Chicago has been plagued with gun violence way before the Parkland shooting,” said Chicago march speaker Juan Reyes, a student at Chicago’s Whitney Young High School (Michelle Obama’s alma mater). “Suddenly, people are talking about students not feeling safe in schools. But in reality, students in our city’s South and West Sides have never felt safe.”

Originally posted on Daily Kos on April 1, 2018.

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