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On Gun Violence Awareness Day 2020, I'm Grieving All Over Again

Our nation is grieving following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor. We are heartbroken, but Black Americans know this is nothing new. For generations, Black and brown communities have been dying at the hands of racism and white supremacy, and have also been the disproportionate victims of gun violence and violence, perpetuated often by the police. These recent murders, and the countless others that don’t make headlines, are horrific, as is Donald Trump’s reckless, racist, and incendiary rhetoric calling for additional gun violence. During a time of crisis we need our leaders to speak out forcefully against racism and hatred and work to bring the American people together with empathy, compassion, and calls for unity. That’s why I'm spending the next five months creating change and getting out the vote for gun sense champions who will protect our families and communities.

I don’t pretend to fathom the grief the families of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are feeling right now. But I can empathize with them, and I often do. When I was just 16 years old, I lost my friend, Hadiya Pendleton, to reckless gun violence. She was only 15 years old. Hadiya and a few other friends were trying to shelter from the rain in a playground near our Chicago high school when she was shot and killed on Jan. 29, 2013. The bullets weren’t meant for her, but as so many of us have bitterly learned, bullets do not discriminate. In an instant, our community lost an unstoppable force of positivity. Because even at 15, Hadiya had convinced us all that we were going places.

Gun violence is literally robbing us of a generation of young people of color, and it has to stop.

She was going places, too. Hadiya had just performed at President Obama’s second inaugural parade the week before she was killed. In fact, on the day she was killed, she was celebrating the end of our final exams. The randomness, the senselessness and the cruelty of her death pushed me to act. As Hadiya’s friends, we joined forces to create a movement to take on gun violence and structural violence in her honor. We called it Project Orange Tree, and challenged others to show up and wear orange with us on April 1, 2013.

Courtesy of Nza-Ari Khepra

The message behind the color was simple. Hunters wear orange in the woods to tell others not to shoot, and as Black and brown people in Chicago, we were making the same demand. America has a gun violence epidemic, and while it shatters lives and alters communities across the country, it hits communities of color harder. According to data from Everytown for Gun Safety, Black children and teens are 14 times more likely to die by gun homicide than our white peers, and Black Americans represent the majority of gun homicide victims. Though Hadiya’s death wasn’t related to police violence, according to Washington Post tracking, Black Americans are shot and killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans, despite making up less than 13% of the U.S. population. Gun violence is literally robbing us of a generation of young people of color, and it has to stop.

We all must take a stand against injustice, white supremacy, and racism.

Project Orange Tree started out local. We ran food drives because we found that the neighborhoods most affected by Chicago’s gun violence were also food deserts. It wasn’t surprising; structural violence is inextricably linked to gun violence, and inequities in housing, healthcare, nutrition and education all play a role in exacerbating urban gun violence. Nationwide, half of all gun homicides took place in just 127 cities, per Everytown, and within these cities, gun homicides are most prevalent in racially segregated neighborhoods with high rates of poverty. So we also focused Project Orange Tree’s work on educating our peers about the structural violence behind the gun violence epidemic. We deserve to live in a world free from violence — in our homes and on our streets. We all must take a stand against injustice, white supremacy, and racism.

We were pleasantly surprised when our events and initiatives reverberated throughout the nation and even internationally. We joined forces with Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund to create impact, and in June 2015, on what would have been Hadiya’s 18th birthday, people from all walks of life stood together to start the Wear Orange campaign and for the first-ever National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Only five years on, what began as a tribute to our friend Hadiya has ignited a national gun violence prevention movement made up of artists, influencers, mayors, faith leaders, survivors, students, teachers, moms and other advocates. In 2019, thousands of people participated in more than 800 Wear Orange events across the country. This year, on June 5, amid the coronavirus pandemic, we will Wear Orange on National Gun Violence Awareness Day from home and participate in dozens of virtual events to respect social distancing rules. But we will show up, because America’s gun violence epidemic didn’t end the moment the pandemic began, and neither did our grassroots fight to end it.

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Gun violence doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and young people must take action to address it in all its forms. We need to support violence interruption programs in cities, which are proven to reduce daily gun violence in Black and brown communities. And when it comes to police shootings, policies like requiring police to give warning before firing a gun, use de-escalation tactics, and other guidance from the #8cantwait campaign is a great place to start. Gun violence is a complicated issue and the solutions are complex — and in November 2020 we also need to vote for lawmakers, particularly at the local level, who are committed to stopping gun violence.

Our lives depend on it.

This work won’t undo Hadiya’s death, and my advocacy won’t bring her back. But I can fight so no one else has to see a loved one’s light extinguished by senseless gun violence. It’s what Hadiya would have wanted. If you’re ready to join me, visit wearorange.org.

Nza-Ari Khepra is the co-founder of Project Orange Tree and Wear Orange. She lives in Chicago.