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Photo: Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo

In Chicago, students and supporters demand change, including—and beyond—gun control

CHICAGOThe buildup began to be noticeable in the Loop.

The broad platforms at the Clark and Lake L station slowly filled with people carrying hopes and signs. An arriving train with window after window, car after car full of serried protesters offered room for only a lucky few and heralded the scale of what was to come, platforms growing more crowded with every station heading west toward Union Park.

As trains arrived at the park, passengers and protestors were granted an aerial glimpse of the March for Our Lives Chicago Rally—a mass of people in front of a stage stocked with American flags and garlanded with blue MFOL banners, flanked by video screens and grandstands with Illinois state flags whipping in the wind.

No less than four helicopters and a drone turned bladed gyres in the gray sky above, their steady thrum backdrop for chants of “vote them out!” Before the stage amassed a myriad of people—old lefties, elementary-aged children, tots in prams, middle school, high school, and college students, teachers—representative of the diversity of the city and the omnipotent reach of gun violence in America.

A group from the Neurokitchen Arts Collective carried heart-rending signs in the shape of smartphones bearing texted conversations from actual school shooting victims:

 

I love you so much

im so scared i can’t make any calls

 i love you

 my phone service won’t go through

Is police there

what’s happening?

hannah text me

i don’t know it’s silent

i don’t [sic] if the police are here

Is it on lock down

i think so

i hear yelling

“We wanted to make an impact,” said Olivia Sedlack, one of the marchers with Neurokitchen. “And what better way than to use the victims’ words?”

On stage, a slate of speakers and performers spoke to a desire to stop gun violence that does not begin and end with school shootings in affluent suburbs, but that requires a complete alteration of a system currently set up to disenfranchise minorities and foster violence.

“I’m here because what happened in Parkland was a tragedy. But living on the South Side of Chicago, we experience this every single day of our lives.”

“These deaths are not by chance or accident,” Chyann McQueen of Global Majority Youth Rising told the crowd. “These deaths are systematically designed.”

In a city wracked by—and notorious for—its gun violence and segregation, speaker after speaker drove home the importance of societal change, not just gun control, in stopping the violence.

“I’m here because what happened in Parkland was a tragedy,” said Amina Henderson, of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education and the Chicago-Baltimore-DC youth movement Good Kids Mad City. “But living on the South Side of Chicago, and working with my peers from everywhere in the city, we experience this every single day of our lives.”

Battling through her emotions, Henderson voiced her frustration and grief at those who are most affected by gun violence, black and brown communities, being constantly marginalized and ignored. She recounted the murder of her friend, and laid down, in call and response, the demands of the organizers and crowd.

“Gun control is not the only thing that we need!” Henderson said to applause. “We need to prevent these tragedies from happening. Say it with me: We demand reinvestment in our schools. In our communities. We demand more counselors. More trauma units. We. Demand. More.”

Chicago’s March for Our Lives named and challenged the underlying problems which devour society from the inside out, bypassing NRA misdirections and racial animosity by facing them head-on.

“Last year, we lost 650 lives due to gun violence. Three thousands, four hundred and seventy-five people were shot,” said Juan Reyes of the Chicago Student Union.

This is Chicago. We march for our lives every single day.”

At the March for Our Lives rally in Chicago, protesters addressed the systemic causes of gun violence, not just gun control. Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo

The rally’s focus on the social justice issues which beget gun violence can in part be attributed to the students who organized Chicago’s March for Our Lives.

Eight days before the rally in Union Park, three members of March for Our Lives Chicago’s press committee met with A Beautiful Perspective in the lobby of the Chicago Cultural Center.

“The problems that are happening in Baltimore and Chicago, they are problems that can be fixed,” said Sabrina Bitre, 17, a student at Hoffman Estates High School in suburban Chicago. “In every place in the United States that has the highest rates of homicides and gun violence, they all have things in common. They all are in poverty. Lack of job opportunities. Lack of resources. The education system is horrible. So, already we live in a racist system.”

The students point to the millions that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has earmarked for a new police academy—and never mind the millions promised to wealthy entities like Amazon—as money that would be better invested in communities of color and other marginalized neighborhoods in the city. They also believe that the issue of gun violence cannot be addressed without addressing the societal and racial issues inextricable from the carnage.

Lauren Flowers, a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, sees the divide that damages the city’s most troubled neighborhoods every day. The suburb of Oak Park is separated from Austin, on the city’s West Side, by one street.

“There’s such a disconnect between a lot of people that live in my community when it comes to what happens ‘over there,’” Flowers said. “They act like it’s just another country. You can’t support gun reform if you’re not going to support it in every single one of its methods. It doesn’t work that way; that means you’re only caring about one type of person, and that is literally the definition of racism.”

All three of the press committee members had been touched by gun violence personally, just by living in or near Chicago.

“I have lived in Chicago for all of my life,” said Cora Haworth, an eighth grader at the Academy for Global Citizenship. “I used to live on the South Side, and I go to school on the South Side, and a lot of my friends, they’ve been affected by gun violence.” Haworth hears gunshots in the neighborhoods around her home, and her parents don’t let her or her younger siblings out at night for fear of stray bullets.

All of the students could tell you about someone in their lives who has felt the blow of gun violence; it is woven into life in Chicago and its immediate suburbs and helps to explain how they can throw themselves into activism.

Bitre describes March for Our Lives as her third job. All of them are constantly inundated with group texts, conference calls and all-hands meetings. March for Our Lives Chicago’s organizational structure—built around four different committees: press, marketing and social media, logistics and outreach—coalesced around the original Facebook page for the sibling march. By late February, the structure was in place to begin setting up the march. By leveraging social media and technology—along with support from organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety, the Chicago Teachers Union and the SEIU—the students of March for our Lives Chicago were able to fill Union Park with their message, fellow protesters and hope.

The Neurokitchen Arts Collective carried signs with the real text messages of victims of school shootings. B. David Zarley

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas students appeared above the crowd, thanking the satellite march for their support via large video screens. Sufficiently roused, attendees began to filter through the various barricades and entrances around Union Park towards the march route, Kanye West bumping above the helos.

A doctor and nurse practitioner from Rush Hospital on the city’s West Side, conspicuous in their white coats, made their way across the dirt infield of a ball diamond.

“Gun control is public health,” Dr. Wrenetha Julion said, echoing the message on Dr. Steve Rothschild’s sign. “It’s a root cause of death and disability in this country,” Rothschild said. “You can’t ignore it. We have to fight that. It’s not just about having good trauma centers; it’s about primary prevention.”

Marchers’ slow diffusion to the street allowed for some confusion, but mostly a moment to admire signs, featuring RuPaul—asking the NRA to sashay away—and a heat-packing Miss Frizzle garnered laughs and requests for pictures. Drumming and chants began to build as the march route materialized, a loop that ended back at the park under the stanchions supporting the L—that most conspicuous, powerful and democratic symbol of the city.

Surprised at the size of the crowd, Adriana Espinosa, a student at Harper College, felt hopeful as she made her way down Randolph, but her optimism was tempered with the so-far unfortunate reality of life in America.

“We’ve been doing this for a month already, and there’s no change. So it’s pretty upsetting.”

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