Nearly one million people are expected in Washington, D.C., on Saturday to participate in the “March for Our Lives” rally to demand an end to gun violence — part of a nationwide protest organized by Parkland, Fla., students in the wake of last month’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
But just a few miles away, in southeast Washington, students at Thurgood Marshall Academy have been living with the reality of gun violence all of their young lives.
“Students face a lot of challenges getting to and from school,” Zion Kelly, a 17-year-old senior at the school, told Yahoo News. “Especially if you’re using public transportation, like the bus, or the train or even just walking. Because, just like, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Last September, Kelly’s twin brother, Zaire, was shot and killed in a robbery attempt while walking home from school.
“I guess I don’t try to go out much because I see what could happen,” said Armando Martinez, a senior at Capital City Public Charter School. “I lost six friends in the past five years.”
“I would say seven or eight kids I knew from 8th grade are dead,” estimated Myles Nelson, a sophomore at the Edmund Burke School.
According to the Washington Post, there were 116 homicides in the district in 2017, down from 135 the year before. But the year was marked by a “disturbing number of teenagers killed,” the Post noted, including seven youths who were only 16 or 17.
“The reality of gun violence in D.C. is that we lose too many of our young people to gun violence every year,” said Robyn Lingo, executive director of Mikva Challenge, a D.C.-based youth empowerment organization. “That’s sort of the simplest way I can state it. One would be too many, and we lose way too many.”
For Okera Adams-Walker, another sophomore at Edmund Burke, a gun escalates what in another era might’ve been dismissed as schoolyard scuffles.
“If I’m in a fight with you, we’re fighting with our hand, OK,” he said. “But then when I pull out a gun, I’m basically saying I’m about to kill you. And it’s like, pull the trigger, you’re dead. So, it just, it shouldn’t be like that.”
In these D.C. communities, young people say they haven’t been silent about gun violence — it’s just taken the spark of Parkland to get some people to notice.
“I’m sure it was heard, but I don’t think it was really acknowledged,” said Rukiyah Mack, an 18-year-old senior at Thurgood Marshall. “Like, I’m sure people hear us protesting, they see the hashtags on social media, they see the signs, the shirts, the pins, the badges, but until today it didn’t really get the acknowledgement that it deserved.”
“Young people in urban areas know the pain of gun violence,” said Lingo. “I think the big difference is, we haven’t paid attention in the same way.”
On Thursday, students at Thurgood Marshall met with four survivors of the Parkland massacre ahead of Saturday’s march. And about 130 of them are planning to join the protests across the river.
“The new leaders of the world will be us,” Nelson said. “Right now it’s just a spark, but someday we’ll be the real deal.”
“Marching’s good,” Adams-Walker added. “But we need change.”
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