Last Tuesday night, students from Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School/March for Our Lives, The Faith Community of Saint Sabina's B.R.A.V.E. Youth Leaders initiative, and Evanston Township High School (ETHS) came together at ETHS to showcase how they organize and advocate with passion, conviction, and fearlessness to end gun violence in America, and to inspire and demand that the rest of us do the same.
The Democratic Party of Evanston organized the event together with ETHS student leaders Mollie Hartenstein, Phoebe Liccardo, and Liana Wallace who spearheaded last March’s walkout at ETHS following the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas.
Evanston resident Julie Burkett-Greenfield was one of about 300 Evanston residents who attended the event. She brought her eighth-grade son David.
“We have so much negative interaction with gun violence, especially in Evanston, and I feel like it was important for him to come and see that there are positive things coming out of the movement,” she said.
“I’m here because I feel like I can kind of relate to them,” said David. “Because I’ve experienced gun violence outside of our house multiple times.”
The event was timely.
Just last week, the Jason van Dyke murder trial headed to the jury and two Rogers Park residents were shot and killed by the same gunman within 36 hours. The week before, three young men were shot in broad daylight on Howard Street in what the Evanston Police Department said was a gang-related incident. Last month, a Northwestern University graduate student was killed in crossfire in Rogers Park. Eight months ago, ETHS graduate Yakez Semark was killed in Evanston, and, of course, the gun violence on Chicago's south and west sides continues.
The students’ message was clear and consistent: gun violence in this country is an epidemic that spans cities, neighborhoods, race, age, and socioeconomics; we must collaborate to end it; and we must vote for candidates who will fight for stronger gun laws and systemic change.
“We want each and every one of you to see the unique and effective ways in which you can take a stand against gun violence in the hopes that you can take your own actions, start your own conversations, and do your civic duty to inspire and educate others about the topic,” said Mollie Hartenstein, who served as an emcee.
Local Democratic leaders attended in force to support the students. They included Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, State Senator Daniel Biss, State Rep. Robyn Gabel, State Rep. Laura Fine, candidate for the 17th District Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, former Evanston Mayor Liz Tisdahl, and Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty.
Saint Sabina’s Father Michael Pfleger, who has doggedly led the charge to end gun violence on Chicago’s south and west sides and call for increased investment in the area, gave the opening prayer.
“Lord our country is hurting, heal us,” he said. “Bring us to a point of demanding justice and transforming systems that get in the way of justice in America.”
About student activists he said, “We thank you God that they are impatient. They’re not willing to wait for justice, but they want it now. We thank you God that they are unfiltered and say exactly what they think, because this is not the time--when our children are becoming roadkill in America--we don’t have time to be politically correct. We must have justice now. We must deal with gun violence now in America.”
Congresswoman Schakowsky also praised the students.
“Whatever you want me to do, I’m going to be there for you because you are the ones who are changing the world,” she said. “I think that the NRA has met its match in these young people. We have to take their lead and I do believe that they will triumph.”
The event featured powerful and moving spoken word performances by ETHS students Liana Wallace and Nia Williams, and compelling testimony by Stoneman Douglas students Tyah Amoy Roberts and Sofie Whitney and St. Sabina’s Trevon Bosley about how personally experiencing gun violence propelled them into action.
Members of ETHS' Speech and Debate team offered policy exploration presentations on issues such as universal background checks, increased access to mental health care, and a ban on assault weapons to end gun violence.
“When I was eight, I was with my aunt and uncle who were both very close to me. They were both gunned down and killed and taken away from me,” ETHS student Luis Toro told the audience as he took the podium to advocate for an assault-weapons ban.
“When I saw them lying on the floor, it felt like time altogether stopped. This topic is personal to me. We should treat this topic with respect. Not treat the people who die as a number or statistic, but remember them as a person, a family member, someone that lived and has a story. We must engage in the inequality that persists in our society that allows the demonization and devaluation of life.”
Phoebe Liccardo, who served as an emcee, remembered the terror she felt watching the news about Sandy Hook when she was in sixth grade, and the ensuing mass shootings that left her hopeless as each one faded into history without anything changing.
“But Stoneman Douglas was different,” Liccardo said as she introduced Parkland students Tyah Amoy Roberts and Sofie Whitney. “Parkland was different because of the students who occupied that space, refused to stay quiet, and refused to allow this mass shooting to be one more national conversation with no results," she said. "Stoneman Douglas students gave me hope.”
Taking the podium together, Roberts and Whitney talked about their experience and emphasized that all gun violence must be treated with equal seriousness so that disenfranchised communities where gun violence is a daily occurrence receive the kind of attention and support that their affluent community received.
“You know, Parkland was voted the safest city in Florida for nine years in a row," said Whitney. "So we definitely didn’t think it was going to us, but it literally happens everywhere in this country. We left school that day with an overwhelming sense of terror and sadness and fear, but we knew that we couldn’t let that our school be another statistic.”
Roberts said that springing into action was the students’ way of managing their grief, by trying to prevent others from going through the kind of grieving they were going through.
But, she said, “We learned quickly that so many people do, and the enormous support that we were getting, a lot of people just don’t get because it’s seen as an everyday thing that just happens in … insert city name … they think that’s something that’s supposed to happen there, and so they don’t send resources to that community. And so what was really important to us was sharing our resources and sharing experiences and stories, because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to solve such a broad issue.”
Saint Sabina’s B.R.A.V.E. member Trevon Bosley agreed. His fight for peace, he said, began in 2006 after his brother Terrell was shot and killed in church while getting ready for band practice.
“I’m here to speak for Chicago youth and youth across the nation who are tired. We are tired of being surrounded and affected by gun violence at every turn. We are tired of fleeing for our lives on a daily basis. We are tired of fearing for our lives, whether it be in school, or for many of us, walking through our own neighborhoods," he said.
“The voices of the youth where I come from tend to get ignored because the narrative is that these shootings are gang related or these people were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
After reciting a litany of names of young Chicagoans who have been shot and killed sitting in a car, playing in a park, getting ready for school, or waiting for a bus, Bosley asked, "Were they in the wrong place at the wrong time? Doing anything gang related? Or just living in the deadly city we call Chicago?"
He continued, "People ask, why should we as young people care about politics or legislation? We care about these things because the laws passed and the people elected dictate whether we live or die. And where I’m from, we know all too well how quickly our lives can be cut short.”
Bosley told the audience that though many people believe that Chicago's south and west side residents sit helplessly in the face of gun violence, that's not the case, but that they can't end it alone.
“There is so much being done by youth on the grassroots level to counteract Chicago’s violence. But we need your help," he said.
"How can anyone sit and watch while thousands of students are being shot and killed? How can you sit and watch while black and brown youth are being gunned down and incarcerated at unbelievable rates? The time is now to stand and to act. You have to make sure that every day you’re being part of the change you wish to see in America.”
"I’m 17 years old and will not be 18 by November 6, therefore I cannot vote," she said. "I refuse to accept that my contributions to government can only begin after my 18th birthday. So while voting is not the only way you can use your voice, voting is important and voting is effective."
Liccardo implored attendees, "Take every emotion you have felt here today and let it not only motivate you to vote, but use it to motivate others to vote. Future generations need you to vote. I need you to vote. Because I can’t. Please don’t let us down.”
DPOE’s Al Hofeld Jr. who helped to organize the event, echoed Liccardo’s call to vote.
The DPOE, he said, organized the event because it sees real promise for meaningful change in the emerging, rainbow coalition of young people, and wanted to support and foster it.
"We also wanted voters to be reminded that progressive Democratic candidates and elected officials are on the right side of this issue," he said.
"The next step is for people to vote for candidates this fall who will advocate for an end to gun violence and to vote against candidates who have or will not. We will reign in the NRA and have an end to gun violence when enough of us become single-issue voters on this issue.”
I caught up with eighth grader David Burkett-Greenfield after the event to find out what he thought.
“It meant a lot to see survivors of such a horrible thing come to our school to talk to us. It really made me feel good," he said. "The whole time I’ve believed in what they were doing. This just made me feel more passionate about it.”