March for Our Lives: The Game-Changer Must Honor the Long Game

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Last weekend’s “March for Our Lives” mass protest on the Washington, D.C. National Mall has been a game-changer in the gun violence discussion. It is said to be the largest gathering ever on the Washington Mall – though some would disagree given that estimates vary from 500,000 to 800,000 people attending, where estimates for the first Million Man March were 450,000 to 1.1 million. March for Our Lives would be the largest single-day mobilization, however, there was said to be close to 800 sibling protests across the nation and around the world.

An estimated 80,000 people marched in Boston and 200,000 in New York, for example. People marched in Mozambique and in Accra, Ghana; in Canada, Argentina, Australia, Paris, Germany, Spain, in Switzerland, and Parkland shooting survivors spoke in Tel Aviv, Israel. The immensity of the response is heartening, and the supposedly impenetrable armor of the NRA is crumbling as banks, retailers and other big-business players are feeling the heat and severing ties with the organization.

Not lost on Black and brown communities, however, is the magnitude of the disparity – the response when Black students, or Black people of any age, are victims of gun violence, is nowhere near what we are seeing here. The immensity of the empathy and support given to the Parkland students and their cause gives them unprecedented agency. But there have been countless other victims and many protestors and organizers long before them and currently – such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

It has long rankled residents of Black (or formerly Black) neighborhoods to hear that people there are “killing themselves” and failing to focus on this violence instead of on police brutality, for example. Residents disdain these types of comments as ignorant assumption, as they can cite countless “stop the violence” initiatives, marches and activities in their communities for decades. Many of those most impacted live in communities where their Black bodies can make them targets, not only of gangs and criminals, but also victims of gun violence at the hands of the police. But the inattention on the part of government and media has had deadly consequences and community members have been left to advocate and organize on their own. In addition, the lack of support for these initiatives by influential Black people has been demoralizing for young activists.

In a letter to the Parkland student organizers, Barack and Michelle Obama said, “We wanted to let you know how inspired we have been by the resilience, resolve and solidarity that you have all shown in the wake of unspeakable tragedy… Throughout our history, young people like you have led the way in making America better.”

Activist Sean King mentioned this in a talk at the New York Public Library earlier this week.

“It stunned me,” said King, “when I heard Oprah compare the kids from Parkland to the Civil Rights Movement and she said something to the effect of, ‘… at no point had she seen something that so clearly connected student leaders to the sit-in movement.’

“I thought, ‘Damn, you never said that about us!’ We never even got a compliment or an acknowledgement… And I saw a few movement leaders and people on the ground in Ferguson and in Baltimore – it hurt them. It crushed them! Because we (Black Lives Matter activists) were dying for you to just say, ‘I believe in them, I support them.’ ‘‘And there were times when I thought, ‘Okay, maybe Sandra and Oprah will say something, maybe she’ll speak out here.’ But…” Our Time Press spoke with some veteran anti-gun violence organizers and community leaders to get their impressions of the March for Our Lives.

Andre T. Mitchell is the founder and executive director of the hugely successful East New York organization MAN UP! He feels this new addition to the movement is wonderful, but must be cooperative.

“As it relates,” said Mitchell, “to those of us who have been actually on the ground and doing the work for many years in what I call, ‘the war on violence’ – what we offer is known as the Cure Violence model that comes out of Chicago. It’s a public health approach to public safety, and in New York City, we have taken that model and added wraparound services as well. “Taking nothing away from what has taken place in Florida, Black and brown communities in urban centers across the country have been impacted by this disease far too long, and we feel strongly that this is an opportunity for us to get our message out there. They [March for Our Lives organizers] have to work in conjunction with us. And we have to be able to share best practices, share resources, share funding, you know? We have now coined the phrase, ‘ the March for our Black and Brown Lives,’ and we are pushing that messaging around organizations, neighborhoods and communities where the issue is rampant.”

Esmeralda Simmons, founder and director of the Center for Law and Social Justice, was encouraged by the march and wants to see the momentum continue.

“First, let me say that it’s extremely, extraordinarily heartening to see young people in New York City, in the nation’s capital and elsewhere, standing up and expressing themselves vocally and using their constitutional freedom of speech to tell government that they deserve to be safe in their schools and their homes and in their communities, without fear of massive gun violence affecting themselves, their families and their loved ones.

Youth have always been the true leaders of any major societal change and the fact that so many people understand clearly the role that guns are playing in our community, and the fact that it only takes one or two deranged and extremely selfish people to murder masses – this is hopefully a turning point. When they chant things like, ‘Vote ‘em out!’ the message is very clear to elected officials that the people want action on gun control, and they won’t wait another year for it.

There also has to be a serious move to stop the trafficking of weaponry, which goes on unabated even as we pass gun control laws.”

Rev. Taharka Robinson, a founder of the Brooklyn Anti-Violence Coalition, speaks from a perspective gained from commitment to this issue for over a decade.

“We have been marching for our lives for some time now,” said Robinson. “Over the course of the last 10 years, or maybe more, there have been individuals who begin to move to work against the issue of gun violence in communities across the city. Individuals and organizations like Erica Ford and Life Camp, the Trucked-Out SUV Club, the James E. Davis Stop Violence Foundation, Man Up! And, of course, the Brooklyn Anti-Violence Coalition.”

Robinson welcomes the new advocates, as there remains so much to be done.

“That’s good, that the capacity has been raised to national attention. We look forward, as advocates and activists, to remove the scourge of gun violence in our communities through a legislative agenda. We can march, we can protest, we can rally – we must continue to keep the pressure on at the legislative buildings [across the nation]. This is not an issue that affects one group of people. This is a national crisis, this is a national epidemic, and we must do everything we can to stop it.”

Mark Winston Griffith, founder and director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, reflects on the underlying issues that characterize this long-standing crisis.

“The recent Parkland-inspired demonstrations prompt us to remember that violence is a deeply internalized feature of American culture,” said Griffith. “Shrouded in claims around the need for self-defense, the maintenance of settler culture, and the fetishization of the second amendment, America’s obsession with guns reflects our terrorist past and recklessly projects our national aggression upon one another and the rest of the world. The disarming of our streets and communities has to be accompanied by the demilitarization of the state and the advancement of a regenerative, non-oppressive social order. In Central Brooklyn, we stand in solidarity with all those who are working to build that future.”