Dream Defenders activist: We can't afford to lose another person to a bullet, a badge or a dollar sign
Today, an estimated one-in-three students across the country took to the streets to call for an end to gun violence in the March for Our Lives.
Sixty students traveled with me and other organizers from Dream Defenders - a black-led activist group that formed after the death of Trayvon Martin and works to end mass incarceration - on a bus from Florida and stepped foot, for the first time, on our nation's capital Friday.
The folks who marched in Washington, D.C., come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. And today, we rose up across race, class and geography with a common message - protecting people is more important than protecting corporate profits.
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A new common sense is emerging - one that pushes back against the previously held idea that violence is normal and inevitable. This new common sense says that on a basic level, we should not lose another person to a bullet, a badge or a dollar sign.
Since the tragic shooting in Parkland, many have rightly noticed and decried the nation's general bias against black and brown protesters. It's true that the reception Parkland students have received is much more welcoming than the one we experienced when we fought against Florida's stand your ground law - legislation that is strongly supported by the National Rifle Association. It's true that many called us "thugs," while the Parkland students have been hailed as heroes.
But it's also true that our movements are far more united and interconnected than it may initially appear.
On the bus ride from Florida to Washington, D.C., I sat next to a black high school senior from Broward County - where Stoneman Douglas High School is located - named Tatianna. She told me she remembers guns entering her life when she was 12 years old. Her first memory associated with that weapon was when her brother fired one in her home. "I really started to wonder 'Why?' and 'How? Why would he do such a thing? And how did he even get a hold of a gun,'" she said. "From then on I was against gun violence and started to look up the regulations."
Today's march was estimated to have been one of the largest national student uprisings in the United States since the Vietnam War. But it didn't start with the Parkland school shooting on February 14. Young black organizers were protesting the unjust killing of people of color at the hands of police six years ago. Today we saw the influence our activism has had marching down Constitution Avenue.
The students who organized and participated in today's march grew up in a political climate set in motion by organizations like Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives - an umbrella group for several organizations that work for the rights of people of color. My generation of protesters developed our movements on the foundation put in place by the Black Power and anti-war activism that came before us. Five years ago, these students watched a group of young black and brown people take on the NRA and the state legislature by occupying Florida's capitol for 31 days and demanding a special session on Florida's stand your ground law.
We shouldn't conflate the bias in the Parkland students' reception with the students' own politics. These kids are smart. They don't have to be told that they have privilege, and they have been among the most vocal in calling attention to the plight of communities of color.
A week and a half ago, Tatianna joined hundreds of her black classmates in Broward County who walked out of their classrooms and marched more than eight hours to hand deliver a series of demands in the wake of the Florida legislature's passage of a bill to arm teachers and add police to their campuses. "Stoneman Douglas is less than 20 minutes away from my house and the way my heart dropped when I found out was a feeling I will never forget," she said. "Two of my friends attended there and I wasn't sure they were still alive." Similar walkouts were held throughout the state of Florida and across the country. Many of these walkouts were led by young students of color.
The future looks bright, but there's more work to do.
Every day, this country loses 96 people to guns. And in 2017 police shot and killed 987 people. On Thursday, local police shut down admission to a Sacramento Kings game after protesters lined the arena, shouting "black lives matter," following the shooting death of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old father of two who was holding a cell phone in his own backyard when police shot at him 20 times.
Yes, the young protesters who walked today are from different backgrounds. But they are all united by a common adversary - corporate lobbyists like the NRA whose political stances have led to the sacrifice of countless children's lives. And in the process, the NRA has lined its pockets with cash. GEO Group, which is a for-profit prison company, also preys on people who are abused by the justice system.
Today people marched for many reasons. Some marched for Sandy Hook. Some marched for Parkland. And some, like us, marched for those who have died at the hands of police - for kids like Trayvon, Michael Brown, Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Tamir Rice. We also marched for students who lost their lives in the Parkland shooting - Luke Hoyer, Nicholas Dworet and Gina Montalto. And for all those we've lost to a society that refuses to value its most precious entity - its children. We're all fighting for our lives. We're here to say enough.
But maybe Tatiana put it best, "We're fed up and instead of letting officials try, we're taking the matter into our own hands. We want to be the generation that starts the change."
Rachel Gilmer is co-director of Dream Defenders.
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