It Started With A Shooting At Their School. But They Know It's About More Than That.
Not every type of gun violence gets as much attention as school shootings. The Parkland teens want to change that.
"I thought I was going to die. As I lay there, I begged God to please make it fast," Aalayah Eastmond, a 17-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, said, her voice quivering. Testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee last Wednesday, she described February 14, 2018, from her own, terrifying vantage point: She was in her fourth-period Holocaust history class, where the students were presenting projects on campus hate groups. When the gunman burst in, her group partner Nicholas Dworet was in front of her. She said she could never have imagined he would save her life, but he did. "As Nicholas fell, I matched his every movement and hid beneath his lifeless body as bullets riddled my classmates." She recalled how the stress of the shooting took such a toll on her mother that she experienced a miscarriage.
This was, believe it or not, the first Congressional hearing about gun violence since 2011 — a period that has been marked by record numbers of gun deaths and one high-profile shooting after another. The purpose was to discuss H.R. 8, a bipartisan bill that would require background checks on every gun sale, including at gun shows and online, which Democrats have made a key issue after gaining the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Only 11 states and D.C. currently require background checks on all firearm sales, which means guns can easily get into the hands of felons and domestic abusers. The House Judiciary Committee voted to advance the legislation Wednesday night.
The March for Our Lives movement undoubtedly played a role in the House putting such a high priority on H.R. 8 off the bat. Over the past year, a core group of MSD students has turned their community's grief into change, igniting the biggest youth movement since the Vietnam War, registering their peers to vote, and persuading politicians to make change on local, state, and federal levels.
The media often paints the March for Our Lives story in easy, convenient broad strokes. Parkland is portrayed as an affluent, predominantly white suburb rocked by a rare tragedy. People talk about a set of policy solutions, which, while a great start, don't always get to the roots of violence among low-income communities of color.
It's the Parkland kids themselves who often push the country to look deeper.
Eastmond, after surviving a mass shooting, stepped up to remind us that while "high-profile" mass shootings are a small fraction of all shootings, gun violence affects minority communities every day. "My family knew this pain long before Parkland. Fifteen years ago, in Brooklyn, NY, my uncle Patrick Edwards was shot in the back and killed. He was just 18 and had his whole life ahead of him," said Eastmond, who is on the executive council of Team Enough, an anti-gun violence group that serves to amplify marginalized voices.
Minority communities disproportionately suffer from gun violence. In 2016, the FBI found that Black people accounted for 52% of murder victims, three-quarters of them killed with guns. Black women are the group most likely to be killed in a homicide, which means they're also more likely to be killed by an intimate partner, according to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eastmond says she wishes the adults in the hearing had spent more time on this.
"The hearing was okay, but I'm a little disappointed at the lack of conversation about gun violence in the minority community," she tells Refinery29 in an interview. "Black and Brown youth are the number-one group of people affected. That should be at the top of our list to address, and we barely talked about it."
Black and Brown youth are the number-one group of people affected. That should be at the top of our list to address, and we barely talked about it.
Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, praised March for Our Lives for drawing attention to all gun violence. "These young leaders have really challenged the media and adults to get out of the habit of thinking about gun violence as something that is primarily a mass shooting problem, when we know it isn't," Ambler tells Refinery29.
Ambler says that a universal background checks law would undoubtedly be effective in curbing gun violence in low-income communities of color, since it would keep guns from ending up in the wrong hands through criminal networks. He adds programs that address the underlying causes of this violence — poverty, lack of education, inadequate mental health resources — are also crucial in reducing homicides.
These programs include social services for at-risk youth, such as counseling, job training, and after-school activities. According to a 2017 Giffords Law Center report, programs like these have helped Massachusetts reduce gun homicide rates by 35% from 2010 to 2015, while nationally they increased by 14% in that same period. The challenges now are extending them beyond a handful of states and sustained funding. Cities have made their own efforts to curb gun violence, using strategies from gun-tracing, to linking public health and criminal justice data, to providing cognitive-behavioral therapy for at-risk people.
The March for Our Lives movement, which has made intersectionality one of its calling cards, has helped draw attention to the violence that is often forgotten.
In 2018, March for Our Lives embarked on the over-80-stop Road to Change tour, a youth voter registration effort ahead of the midterm elections. Refinery29 joined them for a few days, first meeting them at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC, the site of a series of lunch-counter sit-ins during the 1960s which led to the desegregation of Woolworth's department store.
During a panel with older civil rights leaders, they discussed carrying on their legacy by fighting violence. "In my community, the police brutality is a prevalent issue that no one [addresses]," says Bria Smith, a student and youth leader from Milwaukee — one of the non-MSD students on the tour — who was initially critical of March for Our Lives because she felt it only focused on school shootings. Then, they asked her to join for a few days and she ended up sticking around all summer. "Our Trayvon Martin was Dontre Hamilton, who was shot and killed in Red Arrow Park and never got justice."
Kyrah Simon, who does go to MSD, says she doesn't fit the "stereotype" of a typical student at the school and that's been a challenge when it comes to being taken seriously on the road. "So many people when speaking out about Parkland and the demographic, they feel that everyone who goes to Douglas is white, affluent, rich, has like a $210,000 yearly income," she tells us. "The media sort of ran with that story and generalized all Parkland students. And that doesn’t speak for everyone who goes to that school, because I go to that school and I don’t fit that storyline."
Some of the students say it's frustrating that youth of color have been fighting for gun reform and criminal justice reform for a long time without much media attention, and it took a bunch of white, upper-middle class kids from a wealthy suburb for the nation to listen. The leaders of the movement are painfully cognizant of this.
Jaclyn Corin, who is attending Harvard University this fall, freely admits that until the shooting, she was one of those white kids raised in a privileged bubble of school, SAT prep, and extracurriculars. And she says she's acutely aware of the fact that those who are in power want it to be that way, by design.
"Parkland is a very confined place in a different way as Milwaukee in the sense that it’s a bubble," she says during the panel. "You’re not exposed to the true problems that our country actually faces, and it’s purposeful. You know, it’s 70% white...and I grew up going to school, going home, doing my homework, and my life was quote-unquote perfect. And then I was exposed to the outside and our bubble kind of popped on February 14."
She adds: "As a white girl, they don’t want people like me to know what Bria goes through."
Parkland is a very confined place... You’re not exposed to the true problems that our country actually faces, and it’s purposeful.
Ultimately, intersectionality has been a core strength of the movement and perhaps the reason that these teenagers have achieved so much in just one year. On the road, they met with survivors of every type of shooting, highlighting the fact that gun violence penetrates every corner of our society.
Their massive voter registration drives helped ensure that Generation Z and millennials came out to vote in larger numbers than ever this past November. In the midterms, they helped elect gun reform candidates like Georgia's Lucy McBath, whose son Jordan was killed for playing loud rap music, and who was spurred by Parkland to run for Congress. They've also contributed to a spike in legislative changes at the state level: Since Parkland, 67 laws passed in 27 states to address gun safety. Among these, nine states passed "red-flag laws," which allow temporary confiscation of guns from people who are deemed a risk to themselves or others, and more are on the way. Experts say Parkland might not have happened if Florida had a red-flag law. (The state passed one in the wake the shooting.)
Now, passionately behind H.R. 8 — with scores of March for Our Lives activists in white T-shirts filling last Wednesday's hearing — the students hope widespread consensus on background checks means change will come. "There’s truly not a lot of divisiveness here," Emma González tells us after a protest in front of the National Rifle Association (NRA) headquarters in Northern Virginia. "Like, 3% of people are opposed to background checks. That means background checks should pass."
While the young activists have helped start a national conversation about gun violence over the past year, for them, a big lesson from the movement is also personal. "I really, really, really, am going to raise my child not in a bubble," Corin tells us. "Because I was raised like that and I want my kids to know what’s going on around the country, I want them to know what’s going on in the streets of Chicago, I want them to know what’s going on in L.A. I do not want them to only know what’s going on in their community."