Launching a National Gun-Control Coalition, the Parkland Teens Meet Chicago’s Young Activists | The New Yorker
“The Road to Change,” as the tour is called, Parkland students will educate young voters about the March for Our Lives platform and visit politicians who oppose their agenda. The students will also, according to their Web site, “meet fellow survivors and use our voices to amplify theirs.” The Parkland students were leaders, but uncomfortable ones. The kind of attack they experienced, although far too common, is still a rare and extraordinary thing—two-thirds of the firearm deaths in the United States are suicides, and most others are homicides, with only a fraction of those being mass shootings. The students understood that they are examples of America’s gun problem but also outliers. As such, their intention to let other activists speak to their own circumstances was both honest and good. On the other hand, a movement needs leaders. In advertising for the first march of the summer, the former Parkland student Emma González was listed as a headliner, alongside Chance the Rapper, Jennifer Hudson, Gabby Giffords, and will.i.am.
When McDade emerged, he was dressed formally, in a summery pink button-down shirt, black trousers, and velvet loafers. At the March for Our Lives rally this spring, he and another North Lawndale student, Alex King, had walked onstage wearing matching blue sweatshirts and with their fists raised. They wore tape over their mouths, which they then removed to talk about the six hundred and fifty people who died from gun violence in Chicago last year, the seven hundred and seventy-one who died in 2016, and their own experiences of fear and death. It may not have been obvious from their speeches, but McDade and King come from a different tradition of activism than that of the Parkland students, who cleverly troll the National Rifle Association on social media, rattle off statistics, and seek out discussion with politicians. McDade, King, Wright, and their classmates are more likely to quote the speeches of M
artin Luther King, Jr., than a SpongeBob meme or a study from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Their policy priorities reflect their immediate circumstances—they speak less of gun control than the need for more youth-employment opportunities, mental-health resources, and funding for the public schools they attend. Their experience of gun violence is not of a single traumatic emergency but of a chronic problem that is only one instance of the social inequality around them. McDade told me that, during a school town-hall meeting on violence, when the audience was asked who knew at least thirty people who had been shot, eighty-five per cent of the people in the room had raised their hands. Although they have more reasons to be angry than most people their age, they radiate peace and compassion. As this movement begins to form a national coalition, they are its philosophers, its bodhisattvas.❞
“Democrats can’t listen to the Parkland students supporting the prevention of gun violence but not listen to these children,” a student from the North Side named Juan Reyes told me. “Why does the country only listen when white bodies drop?” one sign read.
A South Side student named Trevon Bosley gave a long list of examples of people who had been killed at home getting ready for school, on a bus coming home from school, in a park after school, playing basketball, celebrating the Fourth of July outside, and, in the case of his own brother, standing on church grounds. “The next time someone else asks you what makes you a possible victim of gun violence in Chicago, you tell them ‘living,’ ” he concluded. Maria Hernandez, an organizer with Chicago Black Lives Matter, criticized local politicians. “These people say they represent us—they don’t talk to us!” she said. Further actions were announced, including a shutdown of the Dan Ryan Expressway, on July 7th, and a hunger strike called Starve for Change.
In interviews leading up to the Peace Rally, Parkland students had insisted on speaking to the media only in tandem with a kid from Chicago. They claimed that the press was biased toward the privileged children of Parkland, paying too much attention to them and to school shootings, instead of focussing on the coalition they were trying to build, in which every gun death was equal in its tragedy and emergency, no matter the cause or context. They were right about the press focus; a local CBS report I watched emphasized the presence of the Parkland students instead of the home-town base, neglecting to mention Saint Sabina, North Lawndale, the local organizers of March for Our Lives, and their respective messages.
“Part of the reason we didn’t speak last night was because we can’t,” Hogg said. “We don’t know what it’s like to go to school and have to worry about being shot at. We have to worry about bullets coming from inside of our school, not outside of it. But across America we have to deal with both issues and reconcile that there’s inner-city gun violence, there’s Native American gun violence in the form of suicides, and there’s suburban gun violence in the form of mass shootings. We have to work together to solve these issues as an American community.” This was a good point, and one that I thought might have been more effective if it had been made in front of national reporters and a large crowd of people from different walks of life. I asked if white people in the suburbs could be trusted to listen to the experiences of black people in the cities, to see them as part of a shared national problem.
“I know they will,” Hogg said. “I have faith that they will.”
“Exactly,” King said. “No matter the color of skin, no matter where you’re from, pain is pain, so I feel like they will listen.”