For decades minority communities have pushed for regulation of the gun industry but white liberal allies have rarely shown up to fight with them. The Parkland students have made a concerted effort to close the ‘empathy gap’
This article titled “‘We share the stage’: white suburban liberals and minority activists fight together for gun reform” was written by Words by Lois Beckett, pictures by Evelyn Hockstein, for theguardian.com on Sunday 25th March 2018 18.22 UTC
There is no national day of protest marking the death of Edna Chavez’s brother. Like the teenagers killed in Parkland, Florida, last month, he was a high school student when he was shot.
“It was a day like any other day, sunset going down on South Central,” Chavez, 17, told a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people at the March for Our Lives in Washington on Saturday. “You hear pops, thinking they’re fireworks. They weren’t pops. You see the melanin on your brother’s skin turn gray.”
Chavez, now a high school student herself, asked the crowd to say her brother’s name. “Ricardo!” they called out. And then, as she paused, tears filling her eyes, they chanted it louder: “RI-CAR-DO! RI-CAR-DO!”
- California high school student Edna Chavez, whose brother was shot dead. Photograph: Paul Morigi/Getty Images
Saturday’s protests in Washington and across the world mark a profound shift in America’s gun control debate.
For decades, political analysts have said that Congress’s refusal to pass new gun laws was due to an “intensity gap” between the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun control supporters.
Polls have long shown that a majority of Americans support stricter gun laws, but that majority has not organized, lobbied, protested or voted in primary elections with the discipline of the gun rights advocates, whose numbers are much smaller.
- Jada Wright, 17, and her boyfriend Carl Payne, 18, from Washington. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein for the Guardian
But the “intensity gap”, like the concept of “economic anxiety”, is dangerously vague, a talking point that conceals more than it reveals.
There has never been an “intensity gap” between NRA members, and the young activists and heartbroken parents in Oakland or St Louis or Miami. For decades, with media attention or without it, black and brown communities have pushed for stricter regulation of the gun industry and for laws that would keep guns out of the hands of at-risk teenagers and adults.
But the Americans most influenced by everyday gun murder are a minority, packed into a relatively small number of congressional districts.
- Daisy Hernandez, 22, from Stafford, Virginia. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein for the Guardian
Working alone, they’ve never had the votes in Congress to pass the gun control laws they want. They’ve needed allies – the allies from liberal white suburbs, who, at least in theory, support stricter gun control laws.
The “intensity gap” has always been an “empathy gap”, because those suburban allies have rarely shown up to fight for the lives of black and brown children – not unless their own schools, their own children, were threatened.
By bringing out hundreds of thousands of people in Washington and across the world, the Parkland students have shown more evidence that they might be able to close the intensity gap, and convince millions of Americans to vote in the 2018 election on a gun control platform.
- Clockwise from left: Ayah Syeed, 16, from Herndon, Virginia; Jasmine Rachele, 16, and Sarah Crosier, 17, from Manchester, VT; protesters hold up signs; Madison Tittle, 17, foreground, from Colorado Springs. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein for the Guardian
“Vote them out!” the Washington crowd kept chanting. “Vote them out!”
But the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas also made a concerted effort to close the empathy gap – to acknowledge decades of erasure of activists of color, and to put them on stage, not as a token figure at the end of a long row of mass shooting victims, but as central voices in the movement.
Four different Chicago activists spoke at the March for Our Lives in Washington, along with young activists of color from DC, Brooklyn, and suburban Virginia.
“We share the stage today and always with those who have always stared down the barrel of a gun,” Jaclyn Corin, a Stoneman Douglas student and one of the event’s organizers, told the crowd.
Suburban kids affected by gun violence are usually treated as innocent victims. Young Americans of color who are shot are blamed for their behavior, and held responsible for becoming a target. But at the March for Our Lives, all of the young speakers were presented the same way: as students, as survivors, and as a powerful challenge to the political status quo.
As Edna Chavez spoke, some of her fellow youth activists from Los Angeles’ Community Coalition sat onstage with her, watching the crowd’s reaction with shock and pride.
- Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school and other speakers at the rally in Washington. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein for the Guardian
“She tapped into the hearts and minds of the whole crowd,” said Fernando Mosqueda, 16. When he looked on social media, “everyone was supporting her and showing her love and seeing themselves in her.”
That’s not the way people usually see South Central, Mosqueda said. When he’s at home, he has to be on guard, worried people will look at him and see not a high school student, or a youth activist, but a Latino gang member.
Suddenly, he was listening to a national rally chant the name of one of the black and brown kids killed on an normal day in Los Angeles.
“We’ve never had that much attention,” he said. “She finally got a national platform.”
Mosqueda and Hakim Johnson, 16, said they are both cautiously optimistic that the current movement will achieve some change.
Hearing Jennifer Hudson sing with a choir at the end of the rally was “like the bells, signaling bells of change that things will no longer be the same, that we don’t have to take this, from the 90s to now, we don’t have to sit through the same gun violence, we don’t have to worry about who snuck a gun into school, who’s going to shoot up the block,” Johnson said.
But having a national gun control movement that includes the voices and stories of young people of color is only the first step.
The policy solutions that a national movement is trying to achieve also have to reflect the goals of the survivors of everyday gun violence – and some of those solutions require a very different approach than the policy proposals of the Parkland advocates, who have focused on banning civilian ownership of military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as closing loopholes in the background check system.
- A sign prohibiting guns at the Washington march. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein for the Guardian
Chavez and the young activists from Chicago made similar points: they were interested in gun control, but they also wanted economic investment in their communities, focused on “changing the conditions that foster violence and trauma,” as Chavez put it. Putting more police officers in schools to fuel the school-to-prison pipeline would not protect children of color from violence.
“Instead of making black and brown students feel safe, they continue to profile and criminalize us,” Chavez said. “Instead [of police], we should have a department specializing in restorative justice.”
For activists of color, certain approaches to gun control laws are also seen as harmful.
“The first step is to remove the guns, but not to criminalize the people who have them,” Mosqueda said. “Mass incarceration is already too big. It’s already too abusive. We need to make sure we’re using careful tactics, to remove them effectively but without putting people in jail.”
- Clockwise from top left: Jennifer Hudson performs; Justin Benson, 17, from Marjory Stoneman Douglas; Ayana Trottier, 17, from Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota; protesters at the rally. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein for the Guardian
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