On Wednesday, March 14, I watched students across my hometown of Newark, New Jersey, swarm the streets to participate in the National School Walkout, honoring the 17 victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and calling for gun reform.
That night, I and many of these same young people went home to neighborhoods with makeshift memorials on their street corners, each one commemorating a different friend or family member lost to gun violence. Many of their Instagram bios list the names of slain peers surrounded by red heart and angel emojis.
Akbar Cook, vice principal of Newark’s West Side High School, put it to me bluntly: “We’ve buried four kids in the past three years.”
Few kids know the sting of gun violence better than the ones where I grew up. My own father, an immigrant from Berbice, Guyana, was shot and killed while leaving his Newark convenience store. He was on his way to pay my school tuition.
Now, thanks to the hard work of dedicated community leaders and public servants, Newark’s crime rate is the lowest it’s been in 50 years, and fewer families endure what mine suffered. Newark is also on the rise, with billions of dollars’ worth of development underway and unemployment down.
Yet spray-painted T-shirts and bandanas with the names and pictures of lost loved ones are still part of our wardrobes. If there is anyone in this country who would jump at the chance to make sure that even one less kid endures what so many of us have lived through, it would be a kid from “the bricks.”
And so all these Newark kids walked out of their schools, in solidarity with many other students around the country who were fed up with the status quo on gun laws and were convinced that the potential for a safer future lay in the sound of feet on pavement.
Some of the members of my community—myself included—have questioned why it’s taken so long for droves of people to rally around a problem that’s plagued urban communities for decades. Steven Williams, the father of a 14-year-old boy who was shot on Christmas Day in 2014 and died a few weeks later, told me: “Our kids have been protesting this stuff for years. It took a tragedy in another area for this issue to make the major news.”
The truth is, far too few headlines in today’s news speak about communities like mine, where the tragic loss of children to gun violence is not a rarity but the norm. Just as rare are stories about the educators, community leaders, and everyday citizens who come together to help children overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges in those places.
The Parkland shooting survivors became activists before they had the chance to mourn or bury their peers. They transformed tragedy into a political movement, and their activism deserves the attention and support it has received. But so does the suffering and advocacy of kids from cities like Newark.
America cannot pick and choose which children are worthy of empathy. We can’t pick and choose whose pain is deserving of a national platform. Young people dying senselessly, anywhere, is a crime against humanity. I believe that the longtime, decades-old trauma and resistance of inner city youth deserves a louder voice in the conversation around gun control. Our very survival is a political act. Every breath we take is a form of resistance.
America cannot pick and choose which children are worthy of empathy. We can’t pick and choose whose pain is deserving of a national platform.
When students in my community walked out last week, they didn’t just walk out for Parkland. They walked out for all the people we’ve lost to violence whose names and faces you will never know. We remember those people. We walked out in the spirit of those who walked before them, who knew that those most affected by gun violence are the ones best positioned to help come up with a solution.
As a sophomore in college, I developed a social action and leadership development program called SHE Wins Inc. for girls who share my story of losing a loved one to violence. Today, SHE Wins girls all over Newark come together in a safe space where they feel empowered to help solve the issues that most affect their lives and communities. Violence is at the top of this list.
This weekend, Newarkers will again take to the streets—young and old, marching in the name of safer gun laws and safer communities. I’m not marching this weekend, but my form of protest will be continuing to uplift the young women I work with every day to agitate and advocate for the causes they believe in. I support everyone who chooses to march, both the veterans and the newly-minted activists, as well as the adults who are cheering on the younger generation. I only hope that the newcomers to this fight will think of communities like mine beyond march day, and that the conversation on gun reform will continue to become more intersectional.
Today I’ll be thinking especially of those students who might not feel like the violence they face in their communities has gotten the focus it deserves, but still—to borrow from Shirley Chisholm—brought a folding chair and created their own seat at the table.
A’Dorian Murray-Thomas is the founder and CEO of SHE Wins Inc., a social action and leadership development program for middle and high school girls in Newark who are affected by violence, and works as a transition specialist at the Newark Opportunity Youth Network. She was a 2016 Glamour College Woman of the Year.