Growing up in New York City, 19-year-old Andrea Gonzales says she has always been “hyper-aware” of the way gun violence terrorizes Black and brown bodies. But after attending the New York March for Our Lives protest in 2018 and participating in her high school walkout, she wasn’t sure what role her voice, as a young woman of color, played in the fight against the uniquely American plague of gun violence.
Andrea eventually became director of operations of Youth Over Guns, an organization that is committed to treating gun violence as a social justice issue, building coalitions with marginalized communities. It was a space where she finally felt at home.
“Gun-violence prevention spaces are overrun by people who don’t face gun violence in their communities,” Andrea told Refinery29. “We’re making sure that young people who do experience trauma, pain, and fear are at the frontlines — and their stories are not digested through another person’s lens or words.”
Today is the second anniversary of the March for Our Lives, the largest youth-led demonstration in history born after an outpouring of grief over the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, in February 2018. And it’s a tenuous time to be a young activist, let alone a young activist of color. Intense anxieties about coronavirus abound, and gun sales have actually spiked during the crisis. The primaries have been plagued by voter suppression, as a result of which many say Sen. Bernie Sanders, most young people’s candidate of choice, did not perform as well as expected.
The March for Our Lives movement, with its highly visible leaders like David Hogg and Emma González, has helped bring the struggle against gun violence to the forefront of public awareness. It has also resulted in the passing of over 50 gun safety laws in the U.S. But for many youth activists of color, it was also a sobering reminder of how unequally resources are distributed in movements. While the March for Our Lives leaders worked hard to build an intersectional movement, the fact that their origins are in a predominantly white, affluent community was a major unspoken factor in all the media attention. And while Black and brown youth have been at the forefront of the anti-gun violence movement for years, they have received disproportionate backlash from law enforcement lobbies and politicians.
Still, the new generation of activists, many of them Black and brown youth, is fighting on, while often facing gun violence on a daily basis. These young people have pioneered a resourceful blend of social media and grassroots tactics, mobilizing entire communities around voter turnout, legislative actions, and creative forms of protest. They have expanded the conversation about gun violence beyond mass shootings and school shootings, and have forced the public to reckon with the fact that people of color and lower-income communities disproportionately suffer from gun violence. Now, in many cases, they are taking the torch from the March for Our Lives founders and helping the movement evolve in new directions every day.
Gun-violence prevention spaces are overrun by people who don’t face gun violence in their communities. We’re making sure that young people who do experience trauma, pain, and fear are at the frontlines — and their stories are not digested through another person’s lens or words.
andrea Gonzales, 19
Daud Mumin, an 18-year-old activist from West Jordan, Utah, says that gun violence has always been part of his life — he lost a close friend to gun violence at 14 — but it wasn’t until the March for Our Lives Utah chapter was founded that he knew what to do about it. Now part of the March for Our Lives national leadership, Daud says he has witnessed the organization’s focus shift from school shootings to “progressive, radical, and revolutionary” approaches to gun violence in its many forms.
“Before, gun violence was treated as a bottom-of-the-list voting issue, not something that people were actually organizing around,” Daud said. “But I’ve started seeing groups like MFOL amping up demands. MFOL is taking strong stances.”
Black and brown students have often had to fight for their own resources and funding when it comes to activism, including in the anti-gun violence movement. Two years ago, then-16-year-old Diego Garcia raised $20,000 so that his reverend and 50 of his friends could get on a bus from the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Chicago to Washington, D.C., to join over 200,000 protesters in the March for Our Lives. Each of them knew somebody — a friend, classmate, or relative — who had been impacted by gun violence. “I saw that if other kids were speaking up after they were impacted by gun violence, I could speak up for my community, too,” Diego said.
On the street corners of Chicago, where Friday nights are the deadliest, Diego helps organize block parties to help keep youth from engaging in violence. He also coordinates voter registration campaigns in Chicago churches, since religion can be an important way to reach Latinx voters. Most recently, he organized a “Party to the Polls” campaign that drew dozens of young voters with live music and taco trucks.
Now, activists are gearing up for what they believe will be the greatest political fight of their lives: the 2020 presidential election. As first-time voters who came up in a world marked by tragedy and resistance, they hope 2020 will be a turning point.
We've already seen massive returns on the efforts young activists have made in the gun-reform movement. In the 2018 midterm elections, gun-reform advocates like Rep. Lucy McBath ran and won, resulting in a Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives that eventually passed a universal background checks bill, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and more. For the first time in 20 years, the NRA’s ratings are net-unfavorable. In October, Giffords and the March for Our Lives hosted a forum with the 2020 Democratic candidates, showing how much society had changed: For the first time, presidential candidates were competing to appear the strongest on gun reform.
With their newfound communal power, these activists hope to, finally, wrestle the power away from corrupt politicians who are controlled by the NRA: the same ones who currently control the presidency and have a stranglehold on the U.S. Senate, blocking bills that are crucial to saving lives, such as the House's background checks bill.
“We’re at a time period where every little movement that we make will impact other generations for lifetimes to come," Andrea said. "The future is at our hands, literally. We’re at the tipping point for a lot of movements. We can either do the right thing and reimagine a lot of systems, or we can continue to let these systems hurt us until the impacts are irreversible.”