Black teens express frustration, cautious hope about Parkland movement

Several black teens who have experienced the trauma of daily gun violence say the nation needs to pay attention to their communities. 'This might be the start of real change happening now,' says Baltimore high schooler Imani Holt. 'Not just for Florida, for us, too. For everybody.'

Patrick Semansky/AP
Imani Holt walks to a bus after school at Excel Academy in Baltimore on March 18. Imani has lost seven classmates to daily gun violence. 'Our shootings happen day by day. Because it happens on the regular up here, the world says it's really not that important,' Imani says.

Imani Holt was just 10 when she saw a neighbor get fatally shot by a triggerman riding a bicycle. The African-American girl from Baltimore was so traumatized by the drug-fueled bloodshed she refused to leave her family's apartment for weeks.

In the eight years since, Imani has seen the chaotic aftermath of two more deadly shootings and has lost seven high school classmates to the daily drip of gun violence.

Like many black teenagers, she is scrutinizing the national gun control debate intensely, frustrated because her community feels ignored but also cautiously hopeful that the massacre in Florida may bring about change closer to home.

"I feel really bad that they lost those kids in Florida. But, like, we go through shootings all the time. It's just that our shootings happen day by day. Because it happens on the regular up here, the world says it's really not that important," said Imani, a junior at Excel Academy, an alternative high school across the street from a cluster of West Baltimore's boarded-up row houses.

Christina Martin, a 17-year-old who lost two schoolmates to gun violence this year at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, noted that the victims in the affluent Parkland community were mostly white and Latino. None were African-American.

"We should have got the same attention in return," said Christina, who is black.

The gun violence toll is unrelenting in parts of Baltimore – a city that reached a grim milestone last year when the per-capita homicide rate rose to 56 killings per 100,000 people. That's the highest rate among the country's 30 biggest cities.

Even as Excel Academy students prepared for last Saturday's March for Our Lives protest, gun violence struck again: A 17-year-old classmate was shot on a street corner, three bullets in the back by an unidentified gunman.

The deaths of seven classmates to gun violence over the span of 15 months have left deep emotional scars. The students at Excel agree that their high school – with a metal detector at the entrance – provides a sense of security. But the toll on their bodies and minds is significant. Nerves are on edge. It can be hard to concentrate.

"It's really scary. You just want to go to sleep, wake up, and see the same people you saw yesterday. But it's like: One day you see somebody, the next day they're gone," Imani said.

At the New Hope Baptist Church in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood – an area with high crime rates – Pastor Jamaal Weathersby has presided over funeral services for a toddler killed in a shooting and three brothers all shot in the same incident. He worries about the impact that repeated gun violence has on young people.

"There are so many young people who are suffering silently, trying to internalize how their brothers, sisters, uncles, even parents are being gunned down in our streets and I think it's something, no matter how long, eventually I believe it's going to come out in some shape, form, or fashion, whether it's depression, [or] keeping up in school," he said.

Parkland's student protesters often note that their peers in inner-city districts are dealing with the impact of gun violence daily. Earlier this month, they met with Chicago teens. Before the Washington march on Saturday, a number of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School went to Thurgood Marshall High School to hear from students there.

"We openly recognize that we are privileged individuals and would not have received as much attention if it weren't for the affluence of our city. Because of that, however, we share the stage today and forever with those who have always stared down the barrel of a gun," Parkland student Jaclyn Corin said during a speech at the Washington March for Our Lives.

Many worry that despite the renewed attention on gun violence and gun laws, little will change. Angel Anderson went to the New Orleans March for Our Lives rally Saturday to support her 13-year-old daughter. Her own son was robbed at gunpoint outside her house in the middle of the day by a gunman who wanted his hover board.

"I just feel like we're on our own," she said.

Others are hopeful that the voices of impassioned young people can push policymakers to do something.

"This gun violence has got to stop somewhere," said Imani, who was among 25 Excel Academy students and staff who joined hundreds of thousands of people at the Washington rally. "This might be the start of real change happening now. Not just for Florida, for us too. For everybody."

This article was reported by The Associated Press.

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