By Celeste Kanpurwala:
As a survivor of gun violence and the Washtenaw County Events Lead for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, I’m tired of “bringing awareness to gun violence.” Don’t we already know as a country what guns do, what their sole purpose is – to kill? Aren’t the national headlines enough to make people demand change? Oh, that’s right, most of our stories don’t make national headlines. Suicides, unintentional shootings, urban homicides, domestic violence killings, and more. They are happening in homes across America on a daily basis – 96 lives senselessly stolen from us on average each day.
I’ll admit, I’m a little angry. Scratch that, I’m VERY angry. And I’m not alone. On Saturday, June 2, thousands of Americans across the country in over 450 events donned their orange for National Gun Violence Awareness Day, or Wear Orange.
Why orange? One of our speakers, Sheriff Jerry Clayton, addressed this question. We wear orange every year on Hadiya Pendleton’s birthday. Hadiya was a beautiful, bright 15 year old girl, who was shot and killed over 5 years after just having marched in President Obama’s second inaugural parade. Hadiya would have been 21 years old this year. Thanks to her friends and family who started Project Orange Tree in her honor (which later became Wear Orange), she has not been forgotten. Thanks to many other Americans across the country who are speaking out, more and more loved ones are not being forgotten.
In Ann Arbor, we hosted over 150 people in Liberty Plaza paying tribute to victims and survivors of gun violence. Five out of eight speakers were survivors themselves, and as the Event Planner, this was not a coincidence. I wanted the crowd to understand the toll that gun violence takes on our community. The three student speakers had the biggest impact on me, two of them survivors themselves.
Zaynab Elkolaly, a Muslim student at Washtenaw Technical College, came out to speak her truth despite currently fasting for Ramadan and, as she said, being dehydrated. She began her speech by saying, “I’d like to call myself, well, Donald Trump’s worst nightmare.” Her fearlessness gives me chills every time I witness her speak, and I am proud that she will be representing herself at the United Nations this summer. Zaynab ended her speech by saying, “We are the past, the present, and the future.” I personally cannot wait until next year, when she not only will become eligible to vote, but she also has plans to run for Ann Arbor City Council!
Marquan Kane, a graduating senior at Pioneer High School, who was just awarded the 2018 Young Citizen of the Year, feels that his story is beginning to “fall on deaf ears.” He mentioned that he usually wears an orange prison jumpsuit when speaking about gun violence. When I asked Marquan what he wants people to take away from the event, he said that he wants to reiterate that we have a systemic problem in this county. We have a “culture of guns” that needs to be addressed.
Clara Nuñez-Regueiro, a junior at Pioneer High School, sent me her speech so that I could read it afterward and allow all of her eloquent words sink in. I sit here with tears in my eyes because of the truth in her words and her wisdom beyond her years. She addressed everything that we fight for at Moms Demand Action head on – the fact that people of color and low income families are disproportionately affected by gun violence, that we live in a gun culture where “guns are worth more to our government than human lives,” and that to make a difference we must all get out there and use our first amendment rights and our right to VOTE. As Clara says, “We can’t live in a bubble and only choose to see gun violence that affects upper-middle class white children.”
State Rep. Yousef Rabhi and Congresswoman Debbie Dingell spoke to the crowd in Liberty Plaza, drawing many cheers and thanks afterward. Both legislators have proven themselves to make gun sense a top priority. As I mentioned in my speech right before Congresswoman Dingell took the stage (which happened to be a coffee table), she knows “all too well what it feels like to be threatened by a gun,” as she remembers hiding in closets from her own father.
Psychiatrist Sonya Lewis from Physicians for the Prevention of Gun Violence (one of the event’s co-sponsors, along with the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice) started her speech by reading off a list of 10 names. These names are children who have been killed by guns in the first five months of this year. As Dr. Lewis says, this should enrage all of us. We as a country can do better. On average, 7 children each day in this country are murdered, unintentionally killed, or die by firearm suicide. This is simply unacceptable.
Wear Orange concluded with a beautiful performance from La’Ron Williams and Sacred Song. I can still hear La’Ron singing the words, “We teach each other to love to kill.” He left us all with a special message, “We have to live and be the example of the change we want to see.”
I try to do this every day. This is why I work so hard to spread my story to as many people as I can. It’s hard getting up in front of a crowd telling people about the most gut-wrenching moments of my life – when I found out that my dad had killed himself with his shotgun over four years ago the day after my birthday, April 9, 2014. As I said in my speech though, I speak for the over 20,000 Americans who die by firearm suicide each year. I speak for all of my fellow survivors of gun violence so that our stories are heard, so that our loved ones are honored, and to make change in this great nation of ours.
To directly quote the end of my speech: “As a survivor of gun violence whose father took his own life before ever meeting his beautiful grandchildren, this is personal for me. As a mom of two amazing boys who wants to be able to send her children off to school and have them come home every day, this is personal for me. As an American who wants to be able to live her daily life without the threat of gun violence, this is personal for me.
It is personal for all of us. So get out there and make change happen. Be bold, be brave – because if you don’t do something, who will?”
Tired or not, we will keep going. We still have a lot of work to do.