FEATURE

Youth—United! Gun Violence Is a Permanent Issue

Meet gun violence activists and high school seniors Jenna Bowker of Kalamazoo, Michigan, Mary Cox of Marshall County, Kentucky, and Alex King of Chicago, Illinois.
Illustration by Corey Brickley

Since the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, student resistance to gun violence has garnered massive amounts of media attention, and the number of students participating in walkouts, marches and other types of activism has grown by leaps and bounds. Over the past few months, TT has been in conversation with young gun violence activists from around the country, some of whom are new to the issue and some of whom have been working for years to make their schools and communities safer. Recently, three of these activists spoke to TT—and to each other—about how their lives have changed and what the future holds. 

 

Have the conversations within your respective activist groups and communities changed since the March for Our Lives and the National School Walkout? If so, how?

Alex: Well, here in Chicago, the conversation has gone from “Who’s doing what,” “Who’s doing this,” “Who’s doing that,” to, “OK, the youth are the head of the movement.” Now, it’s just like, everybody is targeting or focusing on the youth and looking for their next step, well, our next steps, to see what we’re going to do next, what other moves we have up our sleeves. How do we continue to keep people into the movement? Things of such sort. 

Jenna: In Kalamazoo, [it’s] what [Alex] said; it is a lot more about the youth now than it was before, especially since the walkout. People are emphasizing, “Just because we walked out doesn’t mean it’s done. That’s not where political activism ends.” Right now we’re really emphasizing registering to vote and making sure that everyone is going to be registered to vote when they can, in the midterms in November, and in any other upcoming elections, whether it’s for the national level, state level or just local level.

Mary: After the March for Our Lives and some of the sister marches and things that went on, and walkouts, initially our focus was just the gun control, gun reform, and [that] still is our primary focus. We’ve shifted a little bit to talking about, directly in our community, what we think is best as far as school safety goes, because we’re having an election for sheriff. That’s what they all want to talk about. There’s so many things that they want to implement that we don’t.

Right now, we’re wanded down every day, and we’re searched upon arrival to school. They were looking at maybe metal detectors. They only detect the weight of metals in weaponry, things like that, to get students through quicker and not be as violating to students. Also, the heavy police presence is something that we’re really not in favor of. There’s so many police at our school now that it really does start to feel like a prison.

Activist Alex King speaks at the March for Our Lives Protest in Washington, D.C.
Activist Alex King (right) | Photo by Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

How are you keeping the momentum going?

Alex: Well, here in Chicago, we’re just still focusing on putting everything on voting, getting the right people in office, taking the wrong people out of office. Aside from that, we are getting contacts. We’re trying to get in touch with people who are going through the same things that we are going through, and the same living circumstances that we are in, because we know that once upon a time, our voices weren’t heard. Now that our voices are being heard, we still know that there is many voices that haven’t been heard. We’re trying to reach those people, those voices, to get their info, because every voice matters.

Jenna: Originally, we were a group that was based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Now, we’ve extended into other parts of Michigan with our same name. We’re all working together as a group and sending people to rally events across the state. We’ve been also reaching out to other people from across the nation, trying to spread, and figuring out what everyone else is doing, and how we can improve what we’re doing, and spreading our ideas as to what can be done. 

We’ve just been continuing to educate people locally, that’s for sure, like at our school and our town about gun violence and possible solutions to this issue. Then just making sure we’re pushing everyone to vote. We’re making sure that people aren’t forgetting this time, that they’re not going to let the issue of gun violence just die out, because right now, it’s a permanent issue. Without a solution, nothing’s going to change. 

 

How can activists lift up and coordinate efforts with other activists who might live in different regions of the country or in communities that face different types of issues?

Alex: I try to attack the people’s hearts before the minds. People can connect with you a lot more and a lot easier, get more vulnerable faster, if you hit home, if you connect, hit them in the heart to get them to understand the situations. Also, just let everyone know, like, their voice matters. Their thoughts matter. Because nowadays, in our generation and our age, the youth get told they’re too young to do this; they don’t understand about that. Just encouragement can get the activism started, just letting them know that: “We hear you. We're going to acknowledge that we hear you.” And other things like that. Getting them out to vote. If you find something in your community that you don’t agree with, it’s OK to stand up for that. If you don’t agree with it, make change. Because you have the power to make the change. 

Jenna: One thing that I think is really important is teaching people about the different types of gun violence. Because one of the main types of gun violence we always see is mass shootings, but that doesn’t even account for half the people that die from gun violence. Suicide is a huge issue, and then street violence. I think that it’s very important to teach other people the types of gun violence, so to teach someone from Parkland the issues that they face in Chicago, which are totally different situations, but still both situations that need to be fixed. 

Just to keep that conversation going, not just about what you can do locally, but what you can do for other cities, too, so you’re not only focused about what you can do for your city, but what you can do for anyone across the nation. 

Mary: The great thing about [activism] is it’s so easy to form communities of other activists. … For example, we’re trying to get in contact with other survivors of school shootings that haven’t quite had the traction of those in Parkland, people who have still had shootings at their school where a huge number of people have been injured, or they’ve only had a few people pass away. At my school, only two people were deceased, but we had 21 injuries. The key word there is casualties. You tell people that only two people died, and it seems minor, but when there are a total of 23 casualties, that’s a huge number. I think the real thing that’s important with this is as somebody of privilege—and as so many of people in this event have privilege—is to redirect our attention and provide voices to those who may not be in a position like we are to be heard. For example, there's inner city situations where gun violence is a huge problem. … [I]t’s an issue across all races and sexes and sexualities and genders. There’s no one person that should have more of a voice than another. 

If I die due to gun violence, politicize my death. Don't let me be buried. Don't let me rest until something happens.

What role, if any, have educators played in helping you all develop the tools that you need to become activists?

Alex: I actually got into this on my own, because of past events that happened to me. I know many people who have been killed due to gun violence. I know many people who have been injured [or] impacted by gun violence. I, myself, have been shot at multiple times. …

I wish they’d be a little bit more supportive. I wish they don’t hold our age against us, still, seeing that what we are doing now. Because there’s many adults and many educators that still feel that the movement is a good thing, but the people behind it aren’t. By that, I mean the youth—but the youth have been moving the movement since it started. The numbers are in our favor, so I just feel like educators should be more supportive of what we stand for, because not only are we impacted by the violence in our communities; they are, as well, because the schools that we attend, they work at.

Jenna: I have some pretty amazing teachers. The ones that really helped me figure out how I can be effective... I had two government teachers. They taught me the basic order schemes of the government. Now, I’m able to truly understand how the government works, and how I can use my voice, even when I’m not voting, to impact laws, and the way the government runs. …

Student Protesters | Kalamazoo, Michigan | TT Article
Activist Jenna Bowker (center) | Photo by Jake Fales ​

When we did the walkout on Friday, we were threatened that we wouldn’t be allowed back in the school, which was scary for a lot of people. And it deterred people from walking out. Then, there were also teachers that walked out and showed it’s OK to protest, to speak up for what you believe in, even if there are threats from people of power. It was very amazing to see that, because the teachers walking out really showed some students, “It’s OK. I can speak up for this.”

Mary: With our walkout on Friday, the school had what was called a “walk-in,” where we left the school for two minutes, and circled the school, and had two minutes of silence for the victims, and then walked back in, as kind of a way to deter us from the actual nationwide walkout. I’m the oldest member in this local chapter of gun violence prevention. Some of the members were concerned about punishments from the school, so we opted to all check out of school in the morning, and we went to the public library and spent some time networking. We got in contact with some news reporters, with some state representatives, and wrote some letters, and made some phone calls, and kind of had a day of action in place of doing a whole walkout, because there were some kids who are still kids that are 14, 15 years old that are scared of those repercussions. I want to make sure that we’re catering to their needs, so they can be involved in the movement. 

Though we definitely do have some teachers that support what’s going on, again, like Alex said, there's a whole stigma around youth. … My mindset is that I know I’m on the right side of history. It’s just trying to get everybody else to come around to that.

 

What kind of challenges or pushback have you experienced in this work so far? How have you handled it?

Alex: Me, I have gotten death threats. I’ve gotten people coming up to me saying what I’m doing is wrong. I’ve been called a crisis actor. For those that don’t know, a crisis actor—basically, I've been labeled like as a joke. Like, I’ve been labeled to have just got put here, and I’m acting; I’m getting paid for the speeches I do. I just get paid to talk about the violence. 

I don’t have any money. I’m not rich. I got someone sent me a letter saying, “We’re going to find you and end you.” How I handle it is: I’m not just fighting for me, and I understand that. I’m fighting for the ones—including family members of mine—the ones whose lives were lost, the ones whose voices can no longer be heard.

Jenna: I did a video with AJ Plus, and I think now it has almost one million views. It was posted on social media, and it had my name in it and where I’m from, so people could find me on social media. Once that video was posted, I received a lot of support, but I also did receive a lot of hate and attacks from people online. 

When people comment about you, like when they find your page, and they send you messages, and they make comments on your posts, it’s kind of hard to ignore. That was one of the really big issues that I found was that I was reading everything. That was not a very good idea, because a lot of people just attacked me personally, not even what I believed in. …

You just have to keep your head up. You have millions of people in this country who are supporting you. That’s one thing that I had to learn, that for every negative comment that I got, there were two or three supportive ones. 

Mary: There’s been a lot of pushback. We had a sister march for March for Our Lives. After that, there were some people on our team as young as 14 getting hate mail from middle-aged men, you know, just saying how ignorant all of us were and how they were after us and just crazy things like that. …

My justification was, “I’ve experienced gun violence. I survived a school shooting.” To them, that means absolutely nothing. It's so disheartening to hear that from people. You have to push back harder in a community like this. You just have to be so much stronger than the words that they say to you. …I think it’s a little reassuring to know that you're fighting for that cause. That maybe tomorrow, or the next day, or five years from now, your friends and family won’t be dying from gun violence. That’s really, I think, what keeps me going, is knowing that … even those who don’t support me, that they’ll never have to lose a child or a friend to gun violence again. That’s really what I want for them and what I want for everyone.

See all of TT's resources for helping navigate conversations about gun violence, school safety and school shootingsincluding individual interviews with Alex, Jenna and Mary.

How are you taking care of yourself?

Alex: I try to sleep, but that doesn’t work, because I’m always getting woken up and getting pulled in every other direction. For me, I would say, music. Music always helps me. It always calms me down whenever I feel overwhelmed. I’ve actually been in like an improv class, because I will be majoring in theater in the fall.

Jenna: I’m just going to be honest. For the first month after the Parkland shooting (that’s when I really started to get active), I did not do anything that would help me and was not really considered self-care. I was going, going, going. … I was just so busy, because my schedule’s already busy, and I was so … I was like, “OK, I need to do everything that I can that I normally do, but then I need to do three to four hours of anything gun violence related a night.”

After the Washington, D.C., march, I went with some of the members of my group. I realized: I can’t keep doing this. I can keep fighting this issue, but what I’m doing right now is not healthy. I’m not sleeping enough; I’m not taking care of myself. … I just kind of realized, I have all these people that I’m working with that I can delegate. We can delegate to each other, and we don’t all have to be doing everything at once. I’ve been able to slow down. I still work on a lot of different things that have to do with this, but I’m able to work with other people so that we’re all productive, but we’re all getting enough sleep and still having time for ourselves.

People holding hands at a vigil outside at Marshall County High School
Vigil at Marshall County High School for those injured and killed in the Parkland, FL school shooting | Photo by AP Images

Mary: For the first few weeks, it was just really like, we were so emotionally overwhelmed by everything. Then, when Parkland, the shooting in Florida happened, that’s when we kind of were like, “Yeah. It's been a few weeks now, and it's time for us to join this discussion.” That’s when we started planning our sister march for March for Our Lives.

That’s when I started to get very angry. At first, I was so sad and upset. Then, I was just so frustrated, because to me, it’s just logical. It makes sense. Smart gun laws make sense. Almost everybody in my school goes to therapy now, because of the things we’ve seen and the things we’ve experienced. My therapist the other day was just telling me, when you see all these comments from people that are just so ignorant, you can only respond so many times before it’s just exhausting for you. You have to take your mental health into account and just say, “You’re never going to listen to me, but I know my facts, and I know what’s correct, and I’ve experienced things you haven’t experienced,” and you just have to let it go there. 

 

Do you have any questions for each other?

Jenna: I have a question. How have you guys reached out to people around you? How have you guys been organizing? … 

Alex: Well, I have a couple of groups, because like I said, I get pulled in so many different directions. It’s a group at my school that I work with called Peace Warriors. It’s an organization where we interject love and kindness into our school. We interrupt nonsense in our school. We go outside of our school into our communities and just stop in situations before they escalate into something bigger.

Also, I work with a non-profit organization called Communities United. All we do is try to get our communities better, stopping the school-to-prison pipeline, stopping violence across Chicago. That organization, they help me get connected to Baltimore and … cities that’s going through the same situations as we are, that need the same resources as we do. When you get the people that connect on the same level as you, it’s easier for them to help you, because they understand more about what you're going through. Because they’re going through the same things. 

Mary: We have one group in particular that fights gun violence in our community. I think the key to drawing more people into the discussion is not to call it gun control, because so many people are like, “Oh, so now you don’t want us to have any guns at all? Well, no, ma’am, there.” They just don’t want to listen.

You can open up the floor and say, “Anybody who’s interested in having a discussion about smart gun laws, or a discussion about school safety, or community safety.” You word it that way, and then people are like, "Ah, now we’re saving the kids,” you know. Then they’re more apt to show up.

Alex: I got a question. How’s life just been? All the publicity that you guys been going through, how does it feel to just have people that you don’t know just come up to you and just start speaking to you because they’ve seen you somewhere else? 

Mary: I can remember the day that it happened, CBS, NBC, ABC, the Today Show, just completely lined down the streets of our high school, and were coming up to students who had literally just gotten out of the school, were just being evacuated, and interviewing them. At that point, it was pretty hard to keep the media off the campus in all the chaos. … They don’t really care about your trauma. They don’t really care about your experience. They care about a news story. …

It was a lot for the community. One of the things they told us was, you feel like you want your privacy right now because all these news sources were here, but as soon as they’re gone, you're going to feel more lonely than ever. That was really true, because it was like, as soon as they left, it was like the whole nation forgot about us, like our school shooting hadn’t even happened, two days after it happened. The rest of the world kept spinning. 

Jenna: In Kalamazoo… we actually had what was considered a mass shooting in 2016 because six people died. … Two of those people that died were members of my family. For my family, that day, everything changed. For the rest of the world, no one really heard about the shooting. Maybe they heard, “Oh, Kalamazoo, I’ve heard that town before,” but they don’t know why. …

People have seen me on the news or seen the video, so people I know will come up to me and say that, but other than attacks on social media, I really haven’t had to deal with too much publicity. It is kind of weird to know that there are people that have seen me on the news and know who I am, and I can't even imagine being any of these Parkland kids that now have millions of followers, and everyone knows who they are, and two months ago, they were just sitting in a high school classroom, being a normal student. 

Mary: Alex, how is that different for you? As a person of color, is there a larger fear factor for you … ?

Alex: Yes. That really is the case. Being someone of color in Chicago, is when you see crime, you don’t know whether to interfere or to keep walking, because just doing both could cost you your life no matter what. It’s really all a “wrong place, wrong time” type of situation. 

I’m different, you could say. I’m not the one to just sit back and watch something happen, especially if I feel some type of way about it. That’s one thing my parents love but fear for me, as well, because if I see something is wrong, I’m going to stand up for it. I’m going to announce it, because if I feel it isn’t right, I know for a fact somebody else feels the same way I feel. 

It is kind of fearful, living here, but at the end of the day, it’s like, we’re fighting for a bigger cause. I’m here for a bigger purpose. If I have to lose my life for that change to happen, I've already accepted that. I'm already got that in my head, installed, that I'm OK with that. 

It's fear, but then again, it’s time for a change. How do we get that change? We got to sometimes put our lives on the line for it to happen. 

Mary: I feel like most activists come to a point, eventually, where they recognize that they could die for the cause. I think most of us have accepted that, but I so admire your bravery, because you are so much more targeted than me or Jenna would be in this situation. It takes so much more for you to say that and be content with that. It’s really admirable. I thank you for what you're doing with that, because it really speaks to your character. 

Alex: Thank you, and I thank you two, as well.

Jenna: I totally agree with what [Mary] said. I can't imagine. It’s hard for me, and I’m white. I can’t even imagine how difficult it can be, especially because I don't live in Chicago. ...

One of the signs I saw at the March for Our Lives in DC was, “If I am killed due to gun violence, don't bury me, but put my body on the steps on the White House, and don't move me until something changes.” That’s horrible, but that’s something that I would want, too. If I die due to gun violence, politicize my death. Don’t let me be buried. Don’t let me rest until something happens so that no one else has to go through that.

van der Valk is the deputy director of Teaching Tolerance.