Black youth lend a powerful voice to the National School Walkout Day protests

"As a Black boy, I hope that one day I have the same rights as a gun."

DENVER, CO - MARCH 14: (L-R) Aaron Durst, 17; Brandon Crawford, 15; Hannah Hageseth, 14; and Ren Baxter, 15, all students at East High School in Denver, protest against gun violence on the Colorado State Capitol grounds on March 14, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (CREDIT: Ross Taylor/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - MARCH 14: (L-R) Aaron Durst, 17; Brandon Crawford, 15; Hannah Hageseth, 14; and Ren Baxter, 15, all students at East High School in Denver, protest against gun violence on the Colorado State Capitol grounds on March 14, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (CREDIT: Ross Taylor/Getty Images)

Students across the country spoke out against gun violence on Wednesday, with thousands pouring out of classrooms and participating in walkouts, calling for increased restrictions. For many Black students, the demonstrations took on an even more personal nature.

National School Walkout Day comes one month after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead. For much of the day Wednesday, students at nearly 3,000 schools across the country left their classrooms and stood outside for 17 minutes — one for each Parkland victim.

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The shooting has stirred student activism and reignited the national gun debate. But students of color have expressed dismay over the responses Parkland student activists — many of whom are white and come from relatively affluent families — have received, comparing them with the responses other students, including young Black Lives Matter activists, have encountered while doing the same.

Black children face the highest rates of firearm mortality, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In the weeks since the Parkland shooting, racial justice activists have pointed to these statistics to justify concerns some have about conservative calls to arm teachers; they argue that to do so would disproportionately endanger students of color.

That disparity was on display Wednesday, as Black students marched out of classrooms, carrying signs and chanting slogans speaking to the different landscape they face in and out of school. “As a Black boy, I hope that one day I have the same rights as a gun,” read one student’s sign.

In Maryland, students from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women marched in front of City Hall, shouting “Let me hear it loud and clear! Guns are not welcome here!” Elsewhere in the city, members of the Excel Academy told the Baltimore Sun their personal relationships with gun violence made the national walkouts more poignant.

“It makes me feel like everybody wants a change, not just [those] here in Baltimore,” said 18-year-old Dajona Bass.

Students at CCA Academy in Chicago’s North Lawndale community demanded an end to school closings and called for an increase in community investment as they honored friends and family killed by guns. Nearly every member of the school’s 180-member student body participated, according to Kalyn Belsha of the Chicago Reporter. Nearby, Kenwood Academy students students led a chant:  “Say it big, say it loud: I’m Black and I’m proud!”

At one elementary school in Alexandria, Virginia, the walkout was 18 minutes long. Naomi, an 11-year-old 5th grader and walkout organizer, told the Guardian’s Lois Beckett that the extra minute memorialized Courtlin Arrington, a Black student shot at a school in Birmingham, Alabama.

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“[When Black women] are killed their names aren’t remember[ed], so I thought it was important to add,” Naomi said.

Some students marched without much company. In Goldsboro, North Carolina, 16-year-old Justin Blackman tweeted that he was the only member of his high school to walk out, a move that later earned him praise from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which gave the teenager a shout-out on Twitter.

Not all efforts centered exclusively on walkouts. In Atlanta, Georgia, Black students at Booker T. Washington High school took a knee, referencing the protest launched by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who rose to national prominence in 2016 after refusing to stand for the National Anthem, a symbolic gesture aimed at decrying racial injustice and police brutality. The school itself was on lockdown, requiring occupants to remain inside, but around 600 students reportedly participated in the demonstration.

A number of demonstrators condemned the sudden attention on gun violence after years of similar problems in areas with large communities of color.

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“Why does it take 17 to see 343?” one sign in Baltimore read, referencing the contrast between the attention paid to the Parkland victims and those killed in Baltimore in 2017.

The demonstrations also highlighted a topic the Parkland teenagers themselves have acknowledged on several occasions: gun violence has been a reality for a long time for Black and Latinx communities, but has received minimal attention on a national stage.

The students themselves are eager to remedy that problem. Earlier in March, Parkland activists met with teenagers from Chicago to discuss the shared trauma of gun violence and its outsized impact on many people of color.

“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,” activist Emma González tweeted. “People of color in inner-cities and everywhere have been dealing with this for a despicably long time.”

Young people of color are arguably in a position to help their counterparts as they navigate the world of activism and protest. Phillip Agnew, leader of the Florida-based youth-led racial justice group Dream Defenders, told CityLab earlier this month that activists of color and gun control advocates have a “natural alliance” that should be explored.

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“Dream Defenders trains young people to organize,” Agnew said. “We want to show them how to do it bigger and more effectively.”

That seems to have factored into Wednesday’s protests. Sharing a Washington Post article on the history of student activism and protest in South Africa — which ultimately helped end mandated apartheid — CNN’s S. Mitra Kalita added her own ode to young Black activists.

“Indeed, the walkout at my kid’s school was led by Black Students Union,” she wrote.