Making the connections to stop gun violence

March 23, 2018

On Saturday, March 24, hundreds of thousands of people will gather in Washington, D.C. and cities across the country for the March for Our Lives. The demonstration, inspired by the courageous response of students in Parkland, Florida, after the February 14 school massacre, will be a historic protest against gun violence and the stranglehold that a hard right-wing minority of gun fundamentalists have over our political system.

Socialists have historically been skeptical of policies that fall under the category of "gun control" because they have been geared toward criminalizing and profiling Black and Brown people--along with those suffering from mental illness--while ignoring domestic violence, militarism, poverty and other issues that lie at the root of most violent crime.

But one of the most encouraging aspects of this new protest movement is that students are pushing the gun discussion beyond its previous narrow focus and connecting it to broader issues of inequality and injustice. That process is being led in many places by Black students, who are both standing in solidarity with Parkland and demanding that racism be understood as central to the issue of gun violence.

For the March 14 day of school protests, Alex Vega-Byrnes and Todd St Hill joined the walkout at Kenwood Academy, a largely Black high school in Chicago. Here, they report on the different ideas percolating among some of the thousands of emerging new leaders in the fight against gun violence.

ONE MONTH after the tragic school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students walked out of class at thousands of schools across the country to memorialize the students and teachers who lost their lives in Florida and to protest gun violence.

The activism of the Parkland students since the massacre has inspired students to engage in activism of their own, as well as bringing new attention to ongoing student organizing.

At Kenwood Academy in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, the March 14 walkout was planned in collaboration with a group of schools in Chicago and Baltimore to highlight the conditions faced by Black youth in both cities and around the country.

Four hundred students streamed out of Kenwood's front entrance at 10 a.m. to congregate for a brief speak-out. "We are here to protest gun violence," said an organizer speaking from atop a sculpture, "not just in Parkland, Florida, but here in Chicago, in Baltimore, in Philadelphia, where Black children are being killed every day."

Students at Kenwood Academy in Chicago walk out to protest gun violence
Students at Kenwood Academy in Chicago walk out to protest gun violence (Todd St. Hill | SW)

"Raise your hand if you know someone who was killed by a gun," said the speaker, and a hundred hands shot into the air. Kenwood sophomore Jarrell Russell said in an interview: "I have people that have been killed. My friend that I used to go to school with, my cousin...With my friends, it was for different reasons [than the Parkland shooting], but I think it's too easy for someone to get in touch with a gun."

THE RALLY was dotted with creative signs broadcasting messages like: "Education shouldn't cost me my life," "Am I Next?" and "I'm walking out for the Black kids."

That last sign was carried by senior Amaris Buford, who brought a sharp political message when she spoke to the crowd. The first thing she shouted out was "What happened in Englewood?"--a reference to four South Side schools slated to be closed by Chicago Public Schools and "Mayor 1 Percent" Rahm Emanuel.

Buford drew crucial connections between Chicago's horrific levels of gun violence endemic and the long-term disinvestment by city elites in Black schools and communities.

"It isn't fair that there are only four high schools in Chicago that are thriving which Black people and people of color can go to," Buford told an interviewer. "Education is a basic right, and we Black people have been deprived of it for too long."

Buford concluded her remarks by saying the students had a lot to fight for to preserve their communities. "Gentrification is right across the street," she declared, referring to City Hyde Park, a mixed-use tower building opened in 2016 that contains luxury apartments and a Whole Foods.

She finished off by leading the crowd in a chant: "Say it big, say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud." Students were so enthusiastic about this chant that many began to dance.

Buford wasn't the only Kenwood protester to point the finger at politicians in both parties. One student singled out Emanuel's school closures and mismanagement of city funds. Another pointed to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's recent veto of a proposed state law that would have increased the responsibilities of gun dealers in Illinois.

While some speakers pointed to the betrayals of politicians, others advocated voter registration--and for those students too young to vote to try to influence the votes of their adult family members.

This walkout, like many across the country, was structured to last for 17 minutes, one for each victim of the Parkland massacre. At the conclusion of this time, about two-thirds of students returned to the school building and went to class. A smaller but still sizable contingent of 150 students remained outside and began to march away from school, chanting and displaying their signs.

After rounding a corner 50 feet from the entrance to school grounds, students flooded into the street and began to march confidently down a wide boulevard.

This spontaneous sense of confidence was further bolstered by the universally positive reception students received from community members, including drivers inconvenienced by the march. Motorists waiting for the march to pass honked their horns in support, made fists and spoke directly to marching students with words of encouragement.

After four blocks of marching, the students were met by a heavy police presence that corralled them back onto the sidewalk.

STUDENTS ASKED for their solutions to the issue of gun violence gave a range of responses. To Summer Baptist, it's a problem with deep roots.

"I feel that gun violence doesn't just happen," Baptist said. "It's caused by something else. When people can't even afford to feed their family, they resort to things like stealing and everything, and it only escalates because people don't care."

"The 1 Percent are the people who run this country, and when they've always lived that rich life, they don't know what it's like to struggle," she continued. "With a lot of people who do have these gun issues, it's because they were never given a strong background to begin with."

Baptist is right. The population disproportionately affected by gun violence is the same one plagued by myriad other issues.

Who receives adequate medical care in America and whose access to quality health care is limited? Who gets to have an abortion in America? Who gets shot and killed in America? The connection between urban gun violence and poverty is obvious to the people who have to live under such conditions.

The conversation about guns since the Parkland shooting has focused, naturally, on rather extraordinary situations such as mass shootings and school shootings, leading to very particular kinds of policy proposals.

Asked about the response from Trump and the Republican Party to the massacre, students generally agreed that arming teachers and increasing armed security in schools would not make them feel safe.

But even if arming teachers were a good idea, it would do nothing to protect Kenwood students from the violence that happens outside of school hours.

This is the core of their concern. Although the broad discussion since Parkland has centered on school shootings, the vast majority of shootings take place elsewhere. No progress on gun violence on the South Side will be made without solutions focused on improving the quality of life in South Side neighborhoods.

AS THE march extended beyond what seemed to be its planned endpoint, squad cars drove by announcing from their loudspeakers that students not in school would face detention and the potential for other official repercussions. Some students turned back upon hearing this, but many remained defiant, marching further and further from their classrooms.

As the march began to dwindle, two African American students gave us their opinions on the police.

One spoke of the historic connection between the institution of police and slave patrols, saying that what the police really do is protect property. To this, his friend insisted that not all cops are bad, citing as evidence the fact that some officers observing the demonstration had spoken in support of the students.

This difference of opinion should come as no surprise. Rhetoric about "a few bad apples" and "not all cops" circulates widely in Black communities across the country.

Since #BlackLivesMatter has exposed the institutional corruption and racism of police departments, police have been in heavy damage control mode. In some cases, heads of departments and beat cops have been replaced with more officers of color, sometimes in direct response to the grassroots organizing efforts of BLM activists and organizers.

The idea is that having more cops who look like the people they are patrolling will solve the problem of racist policing. But when a bushel of apples is rotten, a few good apples won't miraculously un-rot the rest of the bunch. Instead, that good apple will turn rotten as well, which is why the whole bushel must be thrown out and replaced with something else.

Furthermore, putting more "good" Black cops in Black neighborhoods can't solve the economic and social inequality that fuels gun violence. All proposals that involve increased policing are racist solutions to the U.S. affliction of structural racism.

And when some of the most lucrative jobs advertised in cities like Chicago are for the police department (or the military), it encourages poor and working-class people to view institutional violence as a viable solution to other kinds of violence, as opposed to structural solutions that challenge unemployment, despair and racism.

The Kenwood walkout was just one of thousands around the country, and one of dozens in Chicago alone. For some, this was their first foray into political action, while others were already very active.

Some students looked to elections as the way forward, but many were beginning to see the need to act on their own behalf. Certainly in Chicago, a city where the Democrats have ruled unopposed for years, Black teenagers understand that voting for the "right" candidate hasn't improved their lot in life.

It may not be clear what impact these protests will have, but the connections being made--between students of color in different cities, between students in the South Side of Chicago and wealthier areas like Parkland, and between the question of gun violence and structural issues like racism and inequality--are a sign that this movement is off to a healthy start.

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