Clad in orange T-shirts, wielding anti-gun-violence signs and yelling “We Matter” down sidewalks in Brooklyn, hundreds of seventh- and eighth-graders from Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School held their second annual school walkout in protest of gun violence in their community.
The Friday walkout, and subsequent rally in Restoration Plaza with student-led musical and dance performances, was jointly organized by students and teachers, Lindsay Herz, organizer and science and social studies teacher at the school, said.
“Students in this community have a lot of experience, unfortunately, with gun violence,” Herz said. “We surveyed seventh-graders this year and two-thirds of them said that they had heard gun shots near their home or their community, and a third of them said that they had been personally affected by gun violence.”
The neighborhood, which is policed by the NYPD’s 81st and 79th precincts, has already witnessed 16 shootings in 2018, according to both precincts’ CompStat data. For the entirety of 2017, the precincts responded to 17 shooting incidents, the data show.
The idea to host a walkout arose out of a desire to bring change, Herz said. She, along with the teaching team at Launch, have been teaching a curriculum focused on gun violence for the past three years, she added.
“When you start learning about gun violence, it really puts a lot of thoughts in your head,” 13-year-old Neyfa Philogene said. “I think, if we march, then people will listen to us and do something about gun violence, because as of now, nobody is really doing anything about it.”
Philogene worked hard during the walkout, brandishing a megaphone and rallying her peers in chants: “Stop shooting, start living” and “S.O.S. Save our streets.”
The chants embody the purpose of a local advocacy organization called Save Our Streets, or S.O.S., that works to prevent gun violence in target areas. David Gaskin, a program manager from S.O.S. Crown Heights, helped students, including Philogene, on the ground Friday, leading chants and rallying students and community members for the cause.
During the rally, Gaskin showed solidarity with the students of Launch, praising them for standing up against gun violence even before the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, happened in February, which sparked school walkouts across the nation.
“After the unfortunate incident happened in Florida, it seemed like the whole world was up in arms about something we deal with everyday out here,” Gaskin told the crowd at Restoration Plaza, expressing anger at the lack of attention given to persistent gun violence in his community.
The students, however, were more determined than angry.
Matthew Small, 13, matter-of-factly recounted “multiple instances” of gun violence he and his family have suffered, including witnessing a shootout recently. Scared at first, Small said he has gotten used to it.
“Just as these people get shot, Eric Garner and all that, it could be me. My mom could be crying over my grave,” Small said. “I’m marching so everybody has equal rights and nobody has to die and nobody has to cry over a grave.”
While the purpose of the walkout was to raise awareness about gun violence and engage the community, the event managed to kindle aspirations within some of the youth. When the students were asked about what they wanted to contribute to the walkout, 12-year-old Diamond Smith tapped into her love for public speaking and volunteered to emcee the entire rally.
Aspiring to be a lawyer when she grows up, Smith felt her personality would be best to energize the crowd around the issue of gun violence in a fun yet impactful way, she said.
“I was nervous but overall I felt comfortable doing the right thing for the right cause,” she said, adding that she loved the “thrill of it.
“I’m also a very opinionated person. If you’re speaking out for a good cause, you get to voice your opinion.”