Column

Parkland activists’ success outpaces long-term efforts to curb gun violence in communities of color

To their credit, Parkland's teenaged organizers have worked to leverage their celebrity on behalf of others, but there's more work to be done.

Students Kelsey Friend (L) and David Hogg recount their stories about the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. CREDIT: Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Students Kelsey Friend (L) and David Hogg recount their stories about the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. CREDIT: Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

For going on five years now, Kayla Hicks has toiled in the trenches of community-led efforts to stop gun violence in black communities — primarily in her hometown of Hampton Roads, Virginia. She’s met with grieving relatives, organized protests, appealed to reporters and politicians for awareness campaigns, and raised money for local prevention programs — all largely without great fanfare.

Now, in the wake of the student-led activism stemming from the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Hicks has noticed something new and shocking: People are paying positive attention to white students’ pleas for gun control measures in ways that inescapably cut a contrast to the largely negative public reactions that black students received while protesting the gun violence that killed their friends and classmates.

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“What’s happening now has been happening in black, brown and beige communities for years,” said Hicks, director of African-American and Community Outreach for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “I think more Americans are noticing that disparity. They’re waking up to the fact that black faces are and have been treated differently from the young, white faces, who are now getting attention because their friends are being killed in senseless gun murders.”

Indeed, the February 14th shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — which claimed the lives of 17 students at the predominately white, affluent and suburban school — has set loose such an outpouring of public support and celebrity-driven attention that a massive March For Our Lives rally is set to take place Saturday on the streets of Washington, D.C. Organized under a unifying call for lawmakers to do more to stop school shootings, march organizers predict an estimated 500,000 participants will gather on Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital. In addition, more than 700 “sibling marches” have been planned around the world.

Nothing of this scope or scale has ever been mounted in the service of focusing national attention on gun violence in black communities, despite the disproportionate impact such violence has had over a longer timeline. According to figures compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation and drawn from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s statistics, black Americans are twice as likely to be killed by a firearm than white Americans. In 2016, the most recent year studied by the foundation, nearly 22 black Americans per 100,000 died from firearms, compared to nearly 12 white Americans.

For many black community activists, organizers, and public figures, the way the students of Stoneman Douglas have been embraced testify to the awesome power of white privilege to generate the sort of sympathy, media attention and financial support that often eludes their efforts.

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In a recent Vox essay, writer P. R. Lockhart noted a clear demarcation between the public’s reaction to “Black Lives Matter and the larger Movement for Black Lives,” and the more favorable embrace of the Parkland students and the upcoming march they’ve inspired. “When highlighting the disparity in public reaction, activists and organizers have noted that their words should not be taken as an attack on the students, but rather as a challenge to how the trauma of certain groups is perceived,” Lockhart wrote.

To be sure, the Parkland student activists have drawn their fair share of criticism, though it has largely come from right-tilting media and politicians who have taken umbrage at the students’ condemnations of conservative activists and their efforts to stymie practical gun-control legislation. The students have also been targeted by conspiracy theorists seeking to discredit them as “crisis actors.”  In Maine, Leslie Gibson, a GOP candidate for the state legislature, publicly disparaged two of the Parkland students, referring to Emma Gonzalez as “a skinhead lesbian” and insulting her classmate David Hogg as a “moron” and a “baldfaced liar.”

Gibson was forced to drop out of the race amid a public outcry over these remarks, which really only underscores the divergence between the way the Parkland teens have been embraced, compared to the black students who have rallied for similar relief from gun violence.

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Indeed, while the opposition to the Parkland students’ efforts has been well documented, it simply pales in comparison to the way policymakers have responded to protests led by Black Lives Matter activists against gun violence at the hands of police. Law enforcement officials routinely condemn these activists as anti-police, which in turn have prompted legislators across the nation to enact dozens of “Blue Lives Matter” bills, which ridiculously argue that the police were the victims of discrimination at the hands of the protesters.

What’s more, the Parkland students have been embraced by progressive leaders and celebrities. Pop stars Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, who plan to participate in the march, made their support known on Twitter. These high-profile supporters have both broadened the Parkland students’ support, as well as opened the door to lucrative donations. A-listers Oprah Winfrey and George and Amal Clooney have each donated $500,000 in support of the event. Professional basketball player Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat and his wife, actress Gabrielle Union, pledged $200,000 to send a contingent of Chicago students to the march. Celebirty power couple John Legend and Chrissy Teigen have chipped in $25,000 for the demonstrators.

For her part, Hicks says she doesn’t begrudge the Parkland students any of the attention that they’ve received, or their emerging status as gun-violence-prevention celebrities. In fact, she notes they share a lot in common with the black youths she encounters in the Hampton Roads, Virginia communities where she’s active with the Virginia Action Network — one of many grassroots organizations working in African-American communities to prevent gun violence.

“These [Florida] kids are just as emotional and traumatized by gun violence as the kids I see everyday,” she said. “But unlike black kids who get shot in Chicago and other places, they’re not looked upon as troublemakers and hoodlums and thugs. All kids want the same things; they want to go to school, be safe and not have to worry about gun violence.”

Still, Hicks and other activists scratch their heads in wonderment at the clear double standard. “It took the Parkland students less than a month to raise millions of dollars and it has taken our black communities five years to get $100,000,” she said. “It’s not a case of us against them. It’s all us. We all need help.”

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Lincoln Anthony Blades, a writer for the Teen Vogue website, made a similar observation in a recent post. “Young black people have been fighting to save lives through gun reform laws for years without the support and energy given to the Stoneman Douglas students,” Blades wrote. “In fact, black youth, who’ve been passionately advocating for gun control measures, have been demonized, obfuscated, and overlooked.”

Agreement with this point of view comes from no less than one of the Parkland survivors, David Hogg, who has emerged as a leading voice among the white student activists. Shortly after making a highly publicized trip to Chicago where he met with black community leaders, Hogg said reportedly during a live-stream Twitter interview with his Stoneman Douglass High classmates that they must use their “white privilege” to share the spotlight with others who aren’t being heard on gun violence.

There is a lot of racial disparity in the way that this is covered. If [the Parkland shooting] happened in a place of lower socioeconomic status, or a….black community, no matter how well those people spoke, I don’t think the media would cover it the same.

And I think it’s important that we point that out as Americans and realize that. Because, we have to use our white privilege now to make sure that all of the voices that….all of the people that have died as a result of this and haven’t been covered the same can be heard. It’s sad, but true.

Brent Peterkin, state director of Project Longevity, a violence intervention and prevention program in Connecticut, expressed delight in a phone interview that Hogg and other Parkland students were outspoken and inclusive in their denunciations of gun violence because “their voices are shining a light on problems in urban America as well.”

However, he quickly added, he was “optimistic, but also very cautious” about the impact they might have in pushing policymakers to seriously consider the types of solutions for which urban community activists advocate in response to gun violence. “The discourse around gun violence has been and continues to be binary…either do away with certain types of guns or protect the Second Amendment, depending on who is discussing the issue,” Peterkin said. “But from my community-based perspective, it’s not a two-sided coin, rather is more like a pair of dice or a Rubik’s cube, with many sides and contours.”

Specifically, he said he hoped the march organizers, student activists, and others who are participating in this weekend’s protests will give some thought to issues such as mental health, job opportunities and education policy “because those are the roots of the violence, not just guns.”

Ronnie Mosley, a community organizer with the Millennials Movement, a student-and-youth oriented think tank in Chicago, plans to attend the march, bringing with him about 30 fellow activists, including students who have witnessed gun violence at their troubled high school. “It’s a bit frightening to me because I’ve been here before,” Mosley told me during a phone interview as he prepared for the weekend trip to Washington. “I’ve been involved in efforts to stop gun violence since my high school friend Blair Holt was shot on May 10, 2007 as he rode on a city bus after leaving his high school.”

Mosley said the death of his friend inspired him to work with Chicago school officials, Illinois legislators, and others to draw attention to the issue of gun violence in his community. He said he’s delighted with the attention the Parkland students are bringing to bear on the matter, and hopes the nation will hear them in ways that they haven’t heard others.

“The Parkland students are very much aware of their privilege,” Mosley said, adding that member of his organization met with the white students during their Chicago visit. “They’ve been educated and informed by their teachers, who have prepared them for this moment in the spotlight. Other schools can learn from them to teach students how best to use their efforts for positive change.”