Democracy Dies in Darkness

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The young voices we aren’t hearing in the gun-control debate

March 21, 2018 at 7:59 PM

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Pastor Michael McBride, who works to support young people impacted by gun violence, says while he loves the activism of the Parkland students who organized the March for Our Lives, he wishes adults paid more attention to inner-city gun violence. (Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, James Pace-Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Michael McBride is director of the advocacy campaign Live Free, which is part of the PICO National Network, a faith-based organizing group. He is pastor of The Way Christian Center in Berkeley, Calif.

The courage and the strength of the Parkland students are inspiring. Amid their personal pain, they have articulated a sense of rage, conviction and moral clarity over the lack of action on gun violence. Oprah Winfrey has likened these brave students to the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. Others have commented that such youth activism might change the political landscape and make progress possible at last.

While the heroism of these students is without question, we shouldn’t forget that the Parkland activists are part of a broader choir of youths — from Columbine to Ferguson to Baltimore — who have harmonized their voices to plead for an end to gun violence in all its forms.

Unfortunately, many of us have difficulty hearing each voice equally. The ears of our nation have still not been trained to hear the prophetic voices of poor youths of color.

The “mothers and fathers” of this ongoing legacy millennial-youth-led movement include Florida’s own Dream Defenders, who occupied the Florida governor’s office in 2013 to draw attention to the “stand your ground” law that led police to initially refrain from charging Trayvon Martin’s killer. The youths of the Million Hoodies Movement built chapters throughout the country mobilizing young people and advocating an end to youth violence. The protests by the youths of Ferguson, Mo., represented years of pent-up frustration with state- ­sanctioned gun violence inflicted by local police forces.

Related: [Opponents of gun reforms say nothing can be done. Science says they’re wrong.]

Yet, many national gun violence prevention groups fail to hear advocates and practitioners who are closest to the pain and have solutions that can save lives. And many mainstream political leaders, including progressives, can empathize with the rage of the students in Parkland, Fla., but can’t embrace the pain of youths of color whose communities are gripped by gun violence.

In the past decade, some have urged us to trust the process and to leave race and poverty out of the discussion. Broad gun policies, the argument goes, will most certainly reduce urban gun violence. In the aftermath of mass shootings, some leaders have counseled political pragmatism and even silence regarding gun violence in major cities, cautioning that we might lose “white allies” and miss the political moment. And so, at the end of each “political moment,” youths of color go unheard.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” This year, many of us are reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report, a study commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson to uncover the causes of the epidemic of riots in 1967. Read through the lens of history and justice, the report half a century later shows that indifference to black suffering from both the right and left wings of the political spectrum continue to mask violence in American cities.

Why must a riot continue to be the only way to get our country’s attention? Why must the response to our worst conditions be criminalization and large-scale abandonment of cities? In many ways, we tell urban America: These problems are yours to solve — not the country’s. Please do not bother us with them!

While we do believe in common-sense gun reform, the debate shouldn’t be dominated by the National Rifle Association or gun-control advocates who lack an anti-racism lens. Mass shootings constitute just 3 percent of gun homicides in this country, and, as horrific as they are, we must also insistently push conversations about urban gun violence, the enormous number of gun suicides (which outnumber gun homicides) and the toxic masculinity that fuels domestic violence.

We must also challenge the gun violence prevention coalitions that raise hundreds of millions of dollars but invest little money in black- and brown-led organizations doing anti-violence and peacemaking work daily. And we must also take every opportunity to help the public learn to hear what youths of color have to say about stopping the violence.

Ahead of the March for Our Lives in Washington this weekend, black- and brown-led organizations will host a national town hall Thursday to retrain the ears of our nation to hear the daily tragedies of gun violence. We’ll discuss effective solutions within our reach — such as group violence interventions, violence interrupters, hospital-based interventions and the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship.

But most important, our town hall will focus on all forms of gun violence by centering on youths of color, inviting students from Parkland and keeping in mind the people who have lost loved ones to suicide. We hope the nation will join us on this listening and learning journey.

Read more:

Letters to the Editor: Mass shootings are just a small part of America’s gun-violence problem

Michael Gerson: How to stop the Chicago massacre

Helaine Olen: The students walking out over guns are putting us all to shame

Erik Wemple: CNN makes history with stunning event on gun violence

Leah Libresco: I used to think gun control was the answer. My research told me otherwise.

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