The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The nation is focused on students and gun violence. But kids in urban schools want to know, where’s everybody been?

High school students march last month n Pittsburgh to protest gun violence and honor the victims of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla. (Stephanie Strasburg/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/AP)

One of them lost a brother — his twin — to gunfire.

Another lost a boyfriend.

And a third can count four friends — four — who were killed by gunshots last year.

Of course, these kids I talked to are planning to join teens throughout the country as they walk out of class on Wednesday to protest America’s rampant gun violence.

But they’re also wondering where everyone’s been on this kids and guns problem all these years.

“This is happening over and over again,” said Zion Kelly, 17, whose brother, Zaire Kelly, died at the hands of a robber last fall. “Dozens of students have been shot and killed — more than in Florida — and we’re not getting the same attention.”

Zaire was 16 and coming home from a college prep course in September when a gunman shot him 300 feet from his front door. It was the first time anyone in their family experienced gun violence, said Zion, who shared a room with his brother and profoundly feels his absence.

“Gun violence and shooter drills may be new to kids in suburban schools, but for a lot of kids, this has been life as they know it,” said Robyn Lingo, executive director at Mikva Challenge DC, a civic engagement group that is helping kids in urban schools mobilize against gun violence and organize for the walkout.

For Zion and his friends at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school in Southeast D.C., the urgency for action has been there all along. Four months after Zaire was killed, another student at his school — Paris Brown, 19 — was shot dead.

So when the nation is riveted by the deaths last month of the 17 people gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., those kids understand that pain.

And they are working hard at leaving behind the bitterness they have every right to feel.

“I feel like it’s also important in D.C. for people to know about the gun violence here,” said Ramsey Williams, 19, a senior at Thurgood Marshall. He’s the young man who lost four friends in one year.

“In D.C., they’re always bringing up housing and real estate [in the news.] But they never bring up gun violence,” Ramsey said. “And now that people are talking about what happened in Florida, we’re thinking: ‘We feel like that all the time.’ ”

Black children are killed by guns 10 times more often than white children in America, according to a report, based on data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, that looked at gun-related homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings from 2002 to 2014.

Somehow, the national conversation about gun violence and children glosses over those neighborhoods — mostly urban — where innocent kids have been killed by gunfire for years. It takes an extraordinary example like Parkland to spark the reckoning in America that these deaths — all of them — are not okay.

And it’s profoundly painful for kids to hear a different tone of conversation when the gun violence is directed at kids who are mostly white and largely middle-class.

“They would like to see that kind of response here in D.C.,” said Lingo, who has been talking to students in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. “It just feels like the deaths that happen in urban areas to brown and black kids don’t get the same response.”

And when she talked to those kids, they are also keenly aware that when kids who look like them are killed, the attention lingers on how they got into that situation, what they did wrong.

“But the students in Parkland are seen as innocent victims,” Lingo said. And they would like the conversation to acknowledge that most often, they, too, are innocent victims.

Zaire was just walking home when he was killed.

And that happened half a mile from where 17-year-old Jamahri Sydnor, a Woodrow Wilson High graduate, was killed by a stray bullet in August as she drove along Saratoga Avenue NE. It happened days before she was to enroll at a university in Florida. And Zaire’s killing happened four days after another 16-year-old, MyAngelo Starnes, was fatally shot in Southeast Washington.

Yet there were no protests, rallies or national news conferences about those deaths.

“It is much harder for black children, especially in the city, to receive open ears when discussing our feelings on gun violence,” said Lauryn Renford, 16, who was Zaire’s girlfriend when he was killed.

Zaire’s death — and especially the silence after it — was her catalyst for action, she said. She started a petition to create a mural memorializing kids killed in gun violence in the District. So far, she’s gotten nearly 3,800 signatures.

She and her classmates are all planning on walking out Wednesday, coming to the big event on the Mall on March 24 and finding positive ways to remind America of the pain they’ve grown up with. It’s nothing new to them and to thousands of other kids throughout America.

It’s not yet the middle of the third month of 2018 — and nearly 650 children have been injured or killed by gunfire this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Mass shooting, school shooting, playground gunfire or stray bullet. All of it is too much. And it’s time for the adults to listen to the kids — all of them — no matter where they live.

Twitter: @petulad

Read more Petula Dvorak:

Millions of kids haven’t lived through a school shooting but fear that they will

Teachers are outraged at the idea of carrying weapons. And they should be.

A memorial to the children gunned down in our schools? Yes, right on Congress’s doorstep.