On the afternoon of Sunday, June 17 -- Father’s Day – a group of the teen school shooting survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida arrived in St. Louis. Our city was the second stop on their nationwide summer tour. Starting in Chicago, the tour aims to raise awareness of gun violence and the necessity of voting to change things.
Here in St. Louis, gun violence is all too familiar a topic, and one the Parkland teens – who lost 17 of their classmates to a school shooter last winter – were able to empathize with.
When the Parkland teens came to St. Louis, they met with Michael Brown Sr., father of 18-year-old Michael Brown whose 2014 killing by a police officer sparked a national movement. The primarily white Parkland teens used this opportunity to learn about how the gun violence is systemic and constant in many black and brown communities, rather than a mass spectacle like a school shooting.
After their meeting with Michael Brown Sr., the teen leaders took over the auditorium of Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory School to host a town hall, alongside St. Louis community activists Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels, Cori Bush, and Ethical Society of Police leader Sgt. Heather Taylor of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. With them were a half-dozen teenage leaders from Chicago, who are working to end gun violence in their own communities.
Parkland survivor David Hogg, 18, who rose to national prominence as an activist and part of the March for our Lives movement, sat wordlessly on the stage during introductions, holding a portrait of the late Michael Brown in front of him. Several times throughout the town hall, when he wasn’t exhorting the audience to vote, he referenced the slain teen.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Alfonso Calderon, 16, recognized the importance of storytelling in affecting change.
“A lot of people ask why we got so much press coverage when there’s all these communities experiencing violence, which I cannot even imagine, that don’t get this coverage. And it’s all in the media,” Calderon said.
“You know, 17 people died at my high school, and they were treated with respect. Their names were shown, their faces were shown, people – when they’re told somebody’s story, they care. When they heard Michael Brown’s story, they cared.”
But he also said that not all the stories that deserve to be told are getting their due.
“In Chicago, in the last 12 months, 147 people have been murdered,” Calderon said – “147. I bet right now not one person can name one of them – one person murdered in Chicago last year.”
Calderon asked the audience to learn the names of those who have been killed and share their stories – especially those stories that due to bias and the normalization of violence aren’t treated as special.
“Every single time you hear about a murder, even if it just says ’12-year-old boy shot,’ do your research,” Calderon said. “Find out who was murdered. Make sure everybody you know knows their name, knows their face, knows their story.”
Taylor of the Ethical Society of Police agreed.
“Some of the things that we collectively can do is to recognize all victims, all victims of violence,” Taylor said. “It’s important for us to identify them as victims.”
Local activist and Potbangerz nonprofit founder Cathy Daniels advocated for broader, systemic change.
“We have always put a Band-Aid on the symptoms of what’s wrong here in America, but we’re going to have to attack the illness,” Daniels said. “And I believe that the illness is poverty.”
She said that changing the system that puts people in poverty is the way to stop gun violence, by stopping people from “doing whatever they need to do” to get money.
Though some of the Parkland students freely admitted that they would not have been as aware of the violence affecting black and brown communities if they hadn’t had their eyes opened by the violence they themselves witnessed, they expressed their commitment to building bridges –from Parkland, to Chicago, and now to St. Louis – to use their privileges to change that.
Activist and nurse Cori Bush said that collaboration across different groups was what caught the world’s attention in Ferguson, and it is exactly what the Parkland students and their March for Our Lives movement need to be doing now.
“The work that we did in Ferguson, it wasn’t just the black people out there on the ground. That’s how we were able to make change,” Bush said.
“We didn’t know who we needed. We didn’t know we needed the Palestinians, we didn’t know we needed our Asian family, we didn’t know we needed our LGBT family. We didn’t know that. They showed up. And then we changed the world. That’s how it happens.”