Photo by Ida Harris
While the spotlight shines on the white leaders of March For Our Lives, a shadow is cast on Black Lives Matter, sending the message on whose bodies matter most.
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On March 24 in Washington D.C., hundreds of thousands of students and their chaperones from around the country descended onto the National Mall. Their proximity and body heat generated communal warmth, in climate and in spirit. The youth were saucy—their message, bold and nervy, with T-shirts and signs that read: “MARCH FOR OUR LIVES”; “ENOUGH”; “IN AMERICA THE ONLY THING EASIER TO BUY THAN A GUN IS A REPUBLICAN SENATOR #GUNCONTROLNOW.”
And while the crowd was diverse, the ratio of white to non-white students, particularly Black students, was glaring. Like all things broadly American, Blackness was swimming amid a sea of whiteness. But Black children made sure they were seen and heard among the throng. They did so because they knew that if Black issues on gun violence are not aligned with the white issues, their concerns would continue to fall on deaf ears and distorted eyes.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Parkland, Florida is the latest act of gun violence to dominate the news. Two of the most visible faces of the “March For Our Lives” movement are shooting survivors Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, who have been highly effective at rallying a nation of young people to march and protest for stricter gun laws and school safety. Their fight against the NRA, and the GOP-led government, has been well received by many. They’ve received insurmountable support from the likes of George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey, who have helped finance the movement. The New England Patriots donated its private jet to fly Parkland students, parents and teachers to the Capitol. The team of young organizers have been praised for their activism, courage, and fierceness. In a letter, former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama said the students “helped awaken the conscience of the nation, and challenged decision-makers to make the safety of our children the country’s top priority.” And these students should be commended. But it should also be noted how this favor is in stark contrast to the Black Lives Matter organizers, whose movement was vilified for bucking against the system, calling bullshit on racism, disrupting white spaces and protesting deadly police brutality—which also takes the form of gun violence—against Black bodies. BLM has been labeled as Black identity extremist by the FBI counterterrorism division. The correlation with terror and its distinction from whiteness is disrespectful, reckless and quite telling of American privilege and classism.
Concerns on gun violence, which affects Black children ten times more than white children, has never garnered as much attention, nor has Black youth activism fared as well. Black children, who marched for their own lives on Washington, are very well aware of this. Youth activist Christopher Wright, 17 years old, and a member of the Jacksonville, Florida–based EVAC movement, emphatically stated that “gun violence in my community is terrible, that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing ‘cause a lot of stuff they don’t show in the media.” In a discussion, he spoke at length about the EVAC program—which is CAVE spelled backwards, named for Plato’s Allegory—and how it has transformed him and other Black teens. He spoke enthusiastically about the social justice work he does in his community from meeting with the mayor to discussing juvenile justice reform with the local superintendent. When it came to the lack of attention paid to ongoing gun violence in his city, however, his fervor waned. “Somebody in my neighborhood just got shot … where all the kids play and somebody just went shooting all over,” he told me. Wright shared his feelings about the fatal police shooting of Stephon Clarke, at the hands of Sacramento Police. “It’s terrible,” Wright said, adding that he didn’t really feel like a strong connection between gun violence and police brutality was raised at the march.
Anthony Small, a 30-year-old veteran activist and youth mentor for the organization, said that his presence is not necessarily for Parkland. He stressed that he has protested gun violence in Duval County for years. “We have really bad gun violence. A lot of my friends are dead. I stand in the gout [sic]with Parkland, but we’ve been dealing with this a long time and we’ve been asking for gun control for a very long time. I just don’t want people to forget that this goes on in our neighborhood every day. And everybody needs to know police brutality is gun violence,” Small said.
Small admits his passion for social justice work on the national front has diminished over the years because of the refusal to acknowledge how Black lives are affected. Instead, he concentrates on developing children’s agency. He imparts an activist spirit when working with Jacksonville and D.C. youth and exposes them to the world beyond their neighborhoods. “My flame had burned out; I was tired. They [EVAC students] reignited my flame for activism and that is why I’m here, to support them,” Smalls said.
Though the general consensus among the Black protesters I spoke with that day is that people are responding to the same song, yet different skin, Black attendees had a well-focused strategy: to reassert the ways gun violence has affected Black lives alongside Parkland students’ concern for gun control for school safety.
Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old Virginia girl, took the stage to inform onlookers that she was there to represent African-American girls like 17-year-old Courtlin Arrington, who was recently killed in a Birmingham, Alabama, school shooting on March 7, and Taiyania Thompson, 16, and Hadiya Pendleton, 15—they too lost their lives to gun violence.
Thanks to generous funding, advocate and activist Cirilo R. Manego III, J.D., led the charge of bringing in Black youth from across the nation who may not have made it otherwise. While Parkland’s newly indoctrinated activists were jetted in from south Florida, Manego organized and coordinated cross-country bus travel for Black youth and organizations based in major cities from California, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Ohio. The Black Youth Project, Dream Defenders, EVAC, as well as the youth themselves go unrecognized for their community activism and social justice work. However, exposure and representation was not the only important issue; providing a broader activist experience for the children was also a big deal. When I asked if the money would have been more fruitfully used in the community, Manego replied, “That’s a good question, right, but I think you need this and you need that. [The kids] need this to see what the world looks like around them. For [inner-city students] to see this actual activism in motion, that does something to the spirit. You can pour as many dollars into the community, but that won’t change spirit. If you can come out here and see all these young people activating in the process and who are feeling the same trauma to some degree that you’re feeling, but your feeling it on a whole other level because of the color of your skin, and you have the opportunity to speak truth to power. That [experience] speaks to the whole collective mentality that we’re in this together to fight together.”
Malik Rhasaan, community activist and founder of the now-defunct Occupy The Hood movement, has a somewhat different take. Though he salutes the Black youth initiative and applauds their message, he also believes that organizers are romancing the days of yore. “I think in 2018, we’re being nostalgic with this marching thing. We think we need this experience because MLK and them had that experience,” Rhasaan shared. He feels that though it is rewarding to give Black kids the experience, resources can be better utilized at the community level. “Social media is effective as hell in organizing. Voices can be heard in such a big way and be just as effective as putting everybody on buses, and bringing thousands of dollars to a community that doesn’t give a damn about [Black issues] any way,” Rhasaan said. “These kids live a different reality. They can be far more influential in their own space as they are in the digital space.”
Juan Serrano, a teacher at Collegiate Academies in New Orleans, reinforced the ongoing theme on Black marchers’ presence: “The salient message today was that in between everyone of these mass shootings, there are communities of color that are uniquely impacted by [gun violence]. So it’s important that we are a part of the national dialogue. We proudly stand by Stoneman Douglas while declaring that Black lives matter.
Working together in an effort to see and be seen, hear and be heard, was exactly the objective of Black youth and organizers; albeit at the usual slight of white privilege and no matter the outcome. Like the ancestral shoulders they stand on, these children took agency and opportunity to infiltrate white spaces with an urgent Black message on gun violence. And though Parkland student David Hogg has stressed that his Black classmates and fellow organizers have not received a spotlight, the media remains clueless in its response. That hardly prevents Black student activists from being vocal. Their ability to weave themselves into the March For Our Lives conversation shows their refusal to be silenced. At the bare minimum, Black youth will depart D.C., knowing that their lives matter, if only to themselves and the people who surround them. They proved that the youth activism witnessed on the National Mall, goes down in each of their respective cities—even when no one is watching. Ashley Neal, a Collegiate Academies educator agreed: “We are marching here in honor of everybody who has lost their lives to gun violence. We already speak their names at home. When we go back home we’re just gonna feel a little more empowered to do it again; to make sure we are agents for change for anyone who may not know the truth,” Neal said.
Black youth have to go the extra distance to confront the gun violence and social injustice that afflicts them, yet it is painstakingly obvious that they do so at a fraction of the cost, and by any means necessary. They should not have to work adjacent to whiteness or co-opt a shitty narrative that affects them at a rate 10 times that of white kids. If the actual goal is to eradicate the overwhelming number of child death due to firearms, then it is already an epic fail; especially since it cannot be achieved without addressing the gun violence that ravages black communities. It behooves us to not only listen, but be moved to action on Black youths’ behalf. Their voices matter, and most importantly, so do their Black bodies.
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