Milan Sullivan is horrified that 17 people died in a mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school. And she does not disagree with the teenage survivors who have stood up since the massacre, demanding action on gun violence.
But she’s not leaving class next week for the National School Walkout, and she won’t board a bus for Washington for the March for Our Lives on March 24. Sullivan, a junior at Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker, is all for activism, but she is like a lot of her classmates: hesitating a little over this particular movement.
For some students, it’s because they feel too removed from things that go on in suburban high schools in far-away places, or they feel numb to gun violence. Others wonder: Where was the attention during the protests over issues pressing our community, whether it be Black Lives Matter or the murder of a friend or relative?
“Politicians are going out of their way to help these kids,” Tatiana Amaya said of the Parkland activist students. “And there’s just a disconnect — when something happens in the white community, the black community is expected to support them, but people don’t stand up for the black community. The focus isn’t ‘What can we do to make black and brown kids feel safe in school?’ ”
Amaya, Sullivan, and the other members of Raised Woke, a Mastery-Shoemaker club focused on social justice and youth engagement, wonder where the outrage is when people in predominantly black neighborhoods get shot.
“When something happens in the black community, we don’t get a lot of support,” Sullivan, 17, said.
It is interesting to note the difference in support for the kids in FL versus the kids in Black Lives Matter. I say that with full admiration for the kids in FL, to survive such a trauma and fight for everyone to be safer. But that’s also what was happening in Ferguson and beyond
— roxane gay (@rgay) February 21, 2018
I promise y'all. I'm happy for these young people. I just know how so many young people have put their lives on the line over the past five years. We're rarely compared to Freedom Riders and recipients of such public support. I shouldn't be bothered, but I am.
— Charlene Carruthers (@CharleneCac) February 21, 2018
Or, as Kaiyah Taylor put it: “We have a lot of dying in our community, and no one is paying attention.”
(Her brother’s friend was recently gunned down on her block, Taylor said, and there was no media coverage, no story about what the victim was like, no uprising to demand answers.)
No one disputes that the mass slaughter in a matter of minutes by a teen toting an assault weapon rekindles what has been a bitterly fought and politically divisive national debate in the last two decades. But for this group of Mastery-Shoemaker students, a collection of dynamic, bright high school juniors, the issue is complicated, and a lot of it is about race.
What would have happened if the mass shooting happened in Philadelphia, not suburban Parkland? the students asked during a recent wide-ranging conversation. Would the outrage have been as sharp? As national? They couldn’t imagine any celebrities coming to survivors’ aid with cash and acclaim.
“We do care,” said Ahmad Abdullah, 17, “but we have to take care of ourselves.”
Why do black shooters tend to be portrayed as thugs and white shooters quickly labeled as mentally ill? the teens wanted to know.
And frankly, there’s also an element of desensitization, said Nathaniel Brown.
“We’re numb when it comes to gun violence,” said Brown. “We see it every day. Honestly, you can only cry but so much.”
Around the Mastery-Shoemaker conference room where the students gathered, everyone nodded. Then the talk turned to President Trump’s call to arm teachers as a way to ward off school shooters. Kyra Lewis is OK with arming “certain people — like security guards, or the deans.”
But most students shared Perla Espinal’s view.
“School is a safe place — we don’t want guns in school,” said Espinal, 16.
“That’s promoting gun violence,” said Amaya. “It shouldn’t be that you have to have guns to feel safe.”
Children barely feel safe traveling to school, what makes one think that we will feel safer with those who teach us carrying weapons? Let alone let’s recognize the very LOW % of teachers who are African American and the very HIGH % of black/brown students being taught by them!
— Raised Woke! ✊✊��✊�� (@Raised_Woke) March 3, 2018
The students are planning some action. Raised Woke is organizing Mastery-Shoemaker participation in the National School Walkout on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shootings.
“It’s not like we don’t care,” said Amaya. “We need to urge our politicians to be accountable.”
“This is not a time for us to be petty,” Lewis said. “It’s ‘I see you, now can you see us?’ ”
Darin Toliver, a social worker and member of the Mayor’s Commission on African American Males, understands the teens’ complicated feelings.
“It’s like the opioid crisis vs. the crack dilemma,” Toliver said. “Today, we’re talking about safe injection sites, but when blacks were being infected by the crack epidemic, no one seemed to care.”
But this is a “pivotal moment in our history,” said Toliver. “The individuals who were slaughtered on Valentine’s Day, it was more than just white kids in a suburban high school being killed. It transcends color lines. It’s a climactic period where enough is enough.”
The Philadelphia Student Union, a citywide youth organizing group, is also using the movement to amplify its voice. Some of its members will participate in the national walkout Wednesday, converging on the Philadelphia School District’s North Broad Street headquarters and then marching to City Hall.
Rather than focusing on a ban of assault weapons or other, less-germane-to-them issues, the group has come up with its own, Philadelphia-centered list of demands. Among them is divestment from school police officers, more mental and emotional health services, more guidance counselors and social workers, and “gun control that does not result in targeted policing of black and brown bodies.”