CHICAGO — The nation’s contentious debate about guns came here this weekend, to a small, nondescript South Side park in a city where violence is rampant and the homicide count is escalating. Survivors of a suburban school mass shooting in Florida joined with survivors of an ongoing urban shooting epidemic in an effort to unite the nation’s youth ahead of the upcoming midterm elections.
But instead of the walkouts and political speeches and boisterous rallies like one Friday night at a nearby church — which included music stars such as Chance the Rapper and Jennifer Hudson — on Saturday the students got down to work. In an understated effort in the struggling Auburn Gresham neighborhood, about 20 teenagers with the March for Our Lives movement began a 20-state summer bus tour with a drive to register young voters and encourage them to go to the polls.
The students and recent graduates of Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of a mass shooting in February that left 17 people dead and created a renewed effort to battle gun violence, said they don’t want a repeal of the Second Amendment or to banish guns. Instead, they want to galvanize the youth vote to make their peers understand how they can play an important role in getting more sensible gun reform laws on the books.
“The only horse we have in this race is living until tomorrow,” said Cameron Kasky, 17.
Volunteers maintained a registration kiosk as a DJ played music and local residents could pick up free fried chicken and ice cream. Partnering with teenagers from Chicago anti-violence groups, packs of young people canvassed surrounding blocks and rang doorbells. The Parkland and Chicago students, some of whom met during a Florida visit in March, walked leisurely as they talked and laughed with a familiarity that obscured the troubling circumstances that brought them together.
“We have this bond,” said Lauren Hogg, 15, of Parkland, as she walked with Kaiseona Lockhart, 16, of Chicago. “We don’t need to say anything. We all understand the pain.” Lockhart, who said gun violence “happens daily” in her neighborhood, said she can relate. “We all experience trauma. Out here, you become immune to it,” she said.
The Chicago teenagers, many of them who take part in local anti-violence groups, said they have grown tired of the outside world categorizing the gun violence on their streets as simply a gang problem, which they say allows lawmakers to avoid confronting a more nuanced reality.
Students spoke at a Saturday night town hall in suburban Naperville, telling a crowd that they are more than mere statistics and that the problem is about far more than just guns. They hope that the new association with the Parkland students will help expose other factors linked to the violence, such as unemployment and failing public schools.
“Taking out the guns would make a difference, but we have to tackle all the problems if we want to see true change,” said Trevon Bosley, 20, whose brother Terrell, a musician, was killed in a shooting at a church where he was rehearsing.
Many of the Florida students emphasized that the massacre at their high school came in a single day from a single member of their community — a former student who has been charged in the slayings — while the violence their Chicago peers experience is almost omnipresent. “It opened my eyes more and more,” said Emma González 18, of Parkland, one of the most recognizable faces of the March for Our Lives movement, noting that gun violence is everywhere.
David Hogg, 18, another leader in the movement from Parkland, spent his time primarily talking one-on-one with Chicago students. Having just graduated high school, he said he plans to spend a full year working for March for Our Lives, which will mean returning to Chicago several times during the coming year to work with local groups.
“What can we do better,” he told Erica Nanton, 32, who lives in the neighborhood, as they both stood under the shade of a tree in the stifling 90-degree heat. She encouraged him to spend time in local hangouts, where he could hear directly about what each neighborhood needs to create stability.
Hogg said until his activism he never realized how violence in neglected black and Hispanic neighborhoods are judged differently than violence in majority white communities like Parkland. He said it is vital for lawmakers to listen to and work with people in urban areas to understand how violence affects them — something he plans to do across the country. The payoff, he said, will come later when some in his generation run for political office.
“Competition in the market of elections is how we can change America for the better,” he said. “The previous generation has not failed us, it’s the lack of voting that failed us. It’s time to change that.”
Besides a light security detail and media handlers, both the afternoon event and evening town hall were run by the teenagers themselves, a decision that Kasky said was the only way to keep their movement authentic. “If we keep the core of our group young, it’s pure,” he said.
At a Unitarian church in Naperville, about 30 miles west of Chicago, more than a dozen students lined across a stage in chairs while two students served as moderators, taking questions from both the audience and from viewers via a live-streaming session they set up on a laptop.
The two-hour conversation circulated among the three groups on the stage: Those from Parkland, those from Chicago, and four teenagers from the Naperville area. Each speaker delved into their personal experience with gun violence, whether they knew someone directly who was killed or if they were feeling anxious because their high school was suddenly going through more lockdown drills. They spoke of the importance of encouraging friends and family to vote, and of learning more about candidates, especially on the local level. The audience of about 400 people frequently responded with finger clicks and standing ovations.
There were bridges that even those onstage were surprised had been made this weekend. Emily Gornik, 18, who grew up in nearby suburban Bolingbrook, admitted that every morning she watched the local news and didn’t think twice about the latest killings in Chicago. That has changed for her since Parkland.
“Now that I’m older, I always ask how . . . are we allowing our children to be murdered every single day?” she said. “We cannot pretend this is not happening, because it is.”
They spoke of both the future — how history would judge their generation — and of events as recently as the previous night. After Friday’s rally, Alex King, 17, said he went home to Austin, on the city’s West Side, and learned that a friend of his was killed in a shooting earlier that night.
Guarino is a freelance journalist based in Chicago.