What is this world we’ve created for our youth? 7,000 dead to gun violence since 2012?! What is that? The weight that we are leaving for our youth is unbearable to bear witness to, but if we don’t… what kind of world will we have created?
Have you ever really been present with the violence of youth?
I’m not talking about debating violence in video games and television, I’m not talking about whether or not there should be parental advisory stickers on music or lamenting the fall of Western Society. I mean, have you ever heard what youth have to say about the violence they’ve witnessed and the violence they fear? And did you know that outside of Parkland, Florida and mass school shootings, youth have been trying to tell us that they are tired of the violence? If so, you know that to bear witness to such a thing changes you, and if not, what could be stopping you is fear of that change.
Recently, I had the opportunity to bear witness to that pain in a peace training I was facilitating. I was prepared to breach the topic when I posed the question to 15 youth between 12-22 years of age, “How has gun violence affected your life?” What I was not prepared for was hearing the violence and death that youth had witnessed. What I was not prepared for was hearing the fear that the youth live with, the threats they have had to endure because of their identities. “If I was a mass shooter, I’d shoot you first.” One youth was told. Guess why they didn’t tell a teacher? Because they have absolutely no faith in us as adults. Sit with that.
I’m only 37 years young, but when I was a kid, I didn’t sit around worrying about whether someone was going to come shoot up my school. Even though I was a Black boy growing up in a system that I knew targeted me, I wasn’t thinking about police shooting me for playing with water guns. When I got older, I moved to Oakland, California, where I worked as a pastor. I heard from teenagers who wanted to stop their friends from being killed and from killing. So I joined a movement called Silence The Violence, where we held vigils for those who had died. Our Good Friday consisted of visiting street corners where murders had occurred, and recognizing the broken, tortured and state-sanctioned assassination of the living Christ. Seeing the discrepancy between the way the haves lived, with their disdain for the poor, and the way the have nots died, on street corners with teddy bears and heart-shaped balloons, was part of what pushed me to join the Occupy Oakland Movement. I’ll never forget the face of that sweet, quiet boy in my after school class, when I told him about the 1% and how much they own, and I asked him how he felt, and he answered, “It makes me want to kill somebody.”
What do you say to that? “No don’t feel?” That won’t save him.
When I moved to Kansas, I carried with me these stories from The O. So when my community started to protest for Black Lives Matter, I remembered the mother whose son, a senior in high school, had been shot by the police, his last words, “I didn’t do anything,” and I protested feeling the responsibility that sharing a burden requires. How do you not explode then, when you hear the critique, “Why don’t Black people protest Black on Black crime?” Do you know how many years Black people have been protesting Black on Black crime? Do you know why it’s not common knowledge? When we call out one another, no one listens, but when we call out the powers that be, people get offended.
And now all of these movements to stop the cycle of violence and poverty are intersecting in this rise of a youth movement. In fact, this movement had always been rising. I’ve been marching with young people, from Philly to Oakland, who have been trying to stop the violence in their community. Now the world is listening. Maybe it’s because of the light skin of the victims. But, to me, this is not a deterrent. Youth get to fight for their lives whatever their skin color.
There are just a few things that I think are important to recognize:
1) Stay Woke to those who have lived in violence longer than you: There are people who have lived with the fear of death by gun violence their entire lives. I have taught 4-year-olds who have watched their family members die. I have listened to the news without breath and heartbeat, waiting for their names to be dropped. We can’t forget those voices in this fight.
2) Denying the humanity of perpetrators is a path to losing your own humanity: The solution to ending murder is not murdering, or even incarcerating, murderers. In fact, many of the “mass murderers” are actually suicidal, just like many of the youth who murder have lost hope that anything in the world will ever get better. In the fight to end gun violence, we can’t forget that our fight isn’t against people but against unjust systems. People who commit murders sometimes have family members who vehemently disagree with them, who did their best to raise them right, and who need to be listened to and learned from. Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters is just one example, there are many more.
3) Resist Pressures for Division: From the day we are born, there are multiple messages that attempt to divide us from people who look or live differently than us. Those messages increase when fighting for justice. The FBI, the CIA, the local police, have all been complicit in infiltrating movements throughout American history. What does this look like? In the Civil Rights era it looked like lies, threats and the loss of jobs being directed at participants. In the Black Power Movement it looked like infiltrators being sent to spy and disrupt organization. In the Occupy Movement it looked like people planted in peaceful protests to start throwing rocks at police or breaking windows. In the Black Lives Matter Movement it looks like labeling leaders as terrorists. But the simplest way to disrupt is to spread rumors. Substantiating the simplest statement like, “I heard ________ doesn’t care about anybody that doesn’t look like them,” can be the seed of death. Even if it’s true, it can’t be what makes us stop working for justice.
We can, and will, often disagree, but if we stop working together, it’s all done. The other path, is to take every step we can towards solidarity. Just as people all over the world march with Parkland, even if they are kids from the hood, who are Black, who feel that their voices have been ignored, because they believe that if they march, the message can be amplified, and the result can benefit all people. So we can all march in solidarity with one another, to strengthen all messages, and benefit all people. You don’t have to be trans to march on Trans Day of Remembrance. You don’t have to be Palestinian or Jewish to march against apart-hate. You don’t have to be a woman to march to end violence against women. Targeted groups are marching for all people, so all people should march for them.
It is absolutely possible to make these shifts towards change. It’s already happening. The way we sustain it though, is by staying woke to those who carry a wisdom, and unfortunately, tragedy is the wisdom that we need to learn from today. We can’t finish the fight, the point is to keep taking steps forward. That is what (R)evolution is, a shift towards our highest self, a beloved community. As one of my mentors, the woman who taught me the difference between a riot and a rebellion, Grace Lee Boggs would say, “in the middle of catastrophe, in the middle of disaster, people-- particularly people who have already suffered-- see an opportunity to evolve to another stage.”
May it be so. Ashe.
Tai Amri Spann-Ryan is a graduate of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado. You can read more of his works via his blog.