Students with a different view of gun violence as urban reality

Last year, Baltimore set a per capita record for homicides: 343 total, or about 56 for every 100,000 people

WASHINGTON: Sprinkled amid the throngs of young people protesting gun violence in Washington on Saturday were groups of students without signs denouncing President Donald Trump, or the National Rifle Association, or the shooting massacres that have plagued the nation.


Instead, they carried megaphones and wore T-shirts calling attention to something close and constant: urban gun violence.

In cities such as Baltimore, the anguish of shootings feels different — the bloodshed comes not in isolated bursts of mass slaughter, but instead in a ceaseless rhythm, something that happens to friends and family, classmates and neighbours, in front yards and on playgrounds.

“In the inner city, there’s a game: gunshots or firecrackers?” said Steve Sias, a high school student at Baltimore City College who came to the Washington march. “Whenever you hear the sound, you ask everyone in the house: Is it gunshots or firecrackers? Usually the parents say firecrackers so they don’t startle the kids. But more times than not it’s actually gunshots in the distance, or right outside your window.”

Last year, Baltimore set a per capita record for homicides: 343 total, or about 56 for every 100,000 people. The city’s population is just over 600,000. Its murder rate was by far the highest among the nation’s 30 largest cities.

Students from Baltimore, as well as young people who attended a rally in Chicago, were vocal Saturday about the need for steps to reduce gun violence, much in the same way as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman killed 17 people last month. But they had a different idea of the problem.

Destini Philpot, another student at Baltimore City College, was joined Saturday in Washington by Carrie Zaremba, a student at the Friends School of Baltimore, a predominantly white Quaker institution. The two said they had helped organise a citywide walkout this month that involved both public and private schools.

“It shouldn’t take a mass shooting in a predominantly white area like Parkland to start caring about gun violence,” Zaremba said.

Philpot said that many of those at the rally were thinking of gun violence in the only way they knew how: as mass shootings.

“When they talk about gun violence, they’re talking about schools,” she said.

Private donors paid for 60 buses that carried around 3,000 Baltimore students to the Washington event. Some Baltimore organisers skipped their city’s satellite march to attend the one in the capital, hoping to reach an audience largely unfamiliar with the kind of violence that visits them with gruesome regularity.

One of those organisers, Erricka Bridgeford, has helped work on a campaign called Baltimore Ceasefire, which holds quarterly “ceasefire” weekends that call for a stop to killings for a three-day period.

On Saturday, she recalled what had brought her to Washington: the lasting agony from losing her brother, stepson and friends to gun violence.

“I’ve seen dead bodies and blood,” she said. “These are things you never recover from. You learn how to live your life differently, because the air looks different once you experience that kind of trauma. I have to do something with the pain. I don’t want to be a prisoner to it.”

Bridgeford said shootings were a never-ending feature of life in her Baltimore neighbourhood.

“There’s no such thing as post-traumatic stress in a lot of communities in America, because there’s no ‘post,’” she said. “You don’t get a chance to experience the aftermath before there’s another trauma because of gun violence.”

One of the students walking with Bridgeford was Shanika Walker, who attends the Excel Academy at Francis M. Wood High School in Baltimore, which recently lost seven students to homicide in 15 months.

“Only the scared people have guns, and they kill people they’re scared of,” she said. “There’s a lot of fear.”

On Chicago’s Near West Side on Saturday, just a few miles from neighbourhoods where shootings are common, thousands filled Union Park to protest a problem just as local.

Many came to the rally bearing personal stories of tragedy and loss, years of frustration with unchanged gun laws and hope replenished by recent student-led activism.

“We have been fighting for a long, long time,” said Maria Pike, whose son, Ricky, 24, was shot to death in 2012. “And their voice is a fresh voice, is a true voice, is a transparent voice. And it comes from the heart.”

Speaker after speaker at the Chicago rally mentioned relatives or classmates who had been wounded or killed in shootings, frustrated that past calls to action had not led to change.

“Chicago has been plagued with gun violence way before the Parkland shooting,” said Juan Reyes, a high school student. “Suddenly, people are talking about students not feeling safe in schools. But in reality, students in our city’s South and West Sides have never felt safe.”

One high school student, Denzel Russell, told the crowd, “I have watched one of my friends get murdered while we were playing on the basketball court. That experience had me frozen and speechless.”

Russell added: “We can come together for a march. But are we willing to come together to take action?”

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