In the week since a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, there has been a national reckoning ― from student-led marches to wall-to-wall media coverage to White House events ― about gun violence and how to stop it.
For some black activists who have long been mobilizing around gun violence, the current wave of public attention and outrage over the issue is welcome. But it also invites the question of why there’s been comparatively little attention and outrage focused on the even more common reality of routine gun homicides in the country, which disproportionately affect communities of color, and specifically black Americans.
Prominent black organizers and public figures have also noted the largely positive public response to the student activists from Parkland ― most of whom are not black and who attended school in a largely white, relatively affluent Florida suburb ― compared to the frequent vilification of young black activists protesting gun violence, particularly police shootings.
“It’s complicated, but I would encourage us to lean into the complicated,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors said on a panel with HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen on Wednesday. “Why don’t black people get to be victims? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves ... It’s a question not just for elected officials but it’s a question for us ... Who gets to be a victim?”
“I’m so grateful these children are getting the support they need,” she added. “And where is our support?”
In the wake of the Florida shooting, students from Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have led a bold wave of mobilizations ― organizing school walkouts, speaking at rallies and planning the nationwide March for Our Lives protest next month. The teens have been justifiably celebrated on social media, featured in the news (including at HuffPost), and some were even invited to the White House.
HuffPost reached out to March for Our Lives, but did not immediately receive a response.
Importantly, those bringing up this disparity are not criticizing the Parkland students’ activism ― quite the opposite. The only people seeking to discredit the teens so far seem to be right-wing conspiracy theorists claiming the teens are “crisis actors.”
Still, the different public responses are telling: There’s justified, universal outrage at a shooting in a largely white, affluent area, but not so much at the frequent shooting deaths of black Americans; the public is praising Parkland’s student activists, but not so much Black Lives Matter organizers.
“I’m excited these young people are getting attention, which they deserve, and they’re driving amazing social change,” Dante Barry, co-founder of anti-racist, anti-violence organization Million Hoodies, told HuffPost on Thursday. “But I’m also disheartened and a little shocked to see folks like Oprah give $500,000 to [March for Our Lives], while she’s seen black folks in the streets for years.”
“Other communities that have been devastated by gun violence are still fighting for crumbs.”
“The way people are responding to predominantly white communities is notable: Whose movement is more valuable to support?” he added. “Other communities that have been devastated by gun violence are still fighting for crumbs.”
Young black activists who have been mobilizing around gun violence, including police shootings, for several years are generally perceived negatively by white Americans, are often arrested for protesting, and have been labeled as “extremists” by the FBI.
When black activists have taken to the streets to protest police shootings, members of law enforcement have met them in full riot gear, and at times attacked them with tear gas. By contrast, the largely non-black student activists from Parkland have been invited to a CNN town hall event with lawmakers.
“What happens is white people get to be everything ― they get to be victims, they get to be heroes,” Cullors said on the Wednesday panel. “Black people unfortunately continue to be criminalized for our moments of courage, mourning or grieving. When we go out to the streets to protest for our lives that matter, we’re given heavy police repression. This is a race question.”
Mass shootings like the one in Florida often spur an important national conversation on gun control, particularly when shooters target schools, like at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, or when there are high death counts, like in Las Vegas last year.
Yet while mass shootings have been on the rise in recent years, they represent just a portion of overall gun deaths in the U.S. annually.
In total, there were around 12,500 to 15,500 gun deaths per year in the U.S. from 2014 to 2017, not including suicides, according to the Gun Violence Archive. According to data collected by Everytown for Gun Safety, an average of just over 100 people died each year in mass shootings from 2009 to 2016 ― with mass shootings defined as incidents in which four or more people were shot and killed, not including the shooter.
The steady drumbeat of gun homicides that take place across the country every day disproportionately affect communities of color ― especially black people, who make up around 14 percent of the U.S. population but account for more than half the country’s gun homicide victims. There were also close to 2,000 police shootings annually in the past few years ― and black people are far more likely than their white peers to be killed in encounters with police.
“I’m very impressed and inspired by what I’m seeing these students do. Fighting for gun control ― I take my hat off to them,” Cobe Williams, deputy director at Chicago-based gun violence prevention organization Cure Violence told HuffPost on Wednesday.
“I like what they’re doing, and we’re doing this on an everyday basis,” he said. “I applaud them, but we see this violence on an everyday basis. It could be one person or 24 people ― one person shot and killed is too many.”