Second Semester of my freshman year of college, I took Introduction to Newswriting and Reporting, the first real class toward my Journalism emphasis. One Thursday, and ironically it was the day the professor invited reporters from a local television news station to speak to our class on broadcast journalism, a troubled student in the class got into an argument with the professor. I don’t remember the nature of the argument, but the argument occurred just before the reporters arrived, and students who sat near this student later said the student was stewing with anger the whole class. As the class ended and everyone was packing up to leave, another student heard the troubled student mutter under his/her breath something like, “this is how things like Virginia Tech happen.” Shocked to hear this veiled threat, the other student said, “What did you say?” to which the troubled student responded “yeah, that’s how I feel!” The student reported this comment to the professor who called police and campus security. Formal charges were not filed against this troubled student because police determined the student wasn’t planning to act on this threat, but the student was banned from campus and I never saw this person again. Nonetheless, we were all shook up by the incident when our class met again the following Monday, and the professor devoted that Monday class to just talking about the incident and allowing us to process everything. That day, the professor who usually leaves the classroom door open shut the door as a precaution and campus security stood outside the door in the event this troubled student did show up. But one innocent student was running late to class that day, and unaware of how shook up we all were, he frantically and loudly burst through the door. I will never forget how my heart went into my throat for a split second thinking, “Oh my God, this is it! Do I have my affairs in order?” Apparently I was not alone in this moment of terror because a second later, when the rest of the class saw who it was, there was a kind of relieved laughter. I am telling this story because while I am blessed that I have not been the victim of gun violence or lost a close friend or loved one to gun violence, at least not yet, I realized with this incident how perilous life is. I was well aware of incidents like Virginia Tech and Columbine, but those people were far away. With this incident, I became more keenly aware of the fact that there is the potential for gun violence to happen anywhere, to anyone including me.
About nine years later, I would come home from work to hear about the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Like most Americans, I was prepared for the usual news pattern. First thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families, then an investigation into the background of the shooter and how he accessed guns, then some calls for stricter gun control laws that would ultimately be drowned out by accusations of infringement on people’s second amendment rights, or that these people were politicizing tragedy and it is too soon to talk about gun control, and then the news would move on and the tragedy would be forgotten by most Americans until the next shooting occurred. But this time was different. There were the usual politicians sending their thoughts and prayers, and there was the usual investigation into the shooter’s background, but when gun rights activists started to say it was too soon to talk about gun control, this time students “called BS” with one student who would become a leader of the #MarchForOurLives movement saying that him and his classmates were whispering about the need for stricter gun control laws while huddled in a closet as the shooter was still on a rampage. My mom and I were impressed by the poise and passion from these student leaders, and then horrified when gun rights fanatics started saying vile things about these students. Ever since the shocking day of Donald Trump’s election, Mom and I have wanted to become more involved and stand up for kindness in a society that seems to have gone crazy, but we weren’t sure how to go about this. We thought about going to the women’s march the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, but it was very cold outside, I was exhausted as I still worked full-time back then, and we were a little apprehensive that the march might be a little too militant for us as women talked of wearing “pussy hats.” But when we heard that students were planning marches nationwide to campaign for sensible gun legislation, Mom announced she would like to go. At first I felt apprehensive about the idea of going to this type of event as well. Partly, I was a little scared that gun rights fanatics might stage a counter protest and things could get violent as they did in Charlottesville. But mostly I felt a little awkward, similar to the way I felt once in high school when invited to a ceremony dedicating a garden created in memory of a blind child who lost her life to a brain tumor similar to the one I survived as a baby. I felt a connection with this child even though I did not know her, and was heartbroken for her family. But because I didn’t know her personally, I felt awkward, fearing I would say the wrong thing if I came face-to-face with her grieving family. In the end, I was glad I attended as just the presence and empathy from so many people meant a lot to the family, and thus I learned that I didn’t need to fear saying the wrong thing, and didn’t even need to say anything at all because just being present and showing that you care, whether or not you are personally impacted by a tragedy means a lot. And just as with gun violence, cancer can strike anyone. I have never lost anyone close to me to cancer, but that could change someday. It could even strike me again. There is still so much science does not know about what causes this terrible disease and why some are able to beat the disease and others are not. Growing up, my parents often talked about the golden rule of doing unto others as you would want done to you, and I think if I were personally impacted by a tragedy, just the presence of people letting me know they care would mean a lot to me as well. Although the #marchForOurLives event and the ceremony dedicating the memorial garden were different in nature, I realized that my initial feelings toward attending both events were similar, and at both events, just being present and showing you cared was all that mattered.
So on Thursday March 22, Mom bought poster-size paper to make signs, and we set out for the march early Saturday morning. The sign I carried said, “Parkland students, we stand behind you! We can end gun violence now!” Mom’s sign said “Protect people not guns!” We arrived outside the courthouse about 9:00 that morning, and although the air was a little brisk (I think the temperature was in the 40s), the atmosphere was warm and friendly. Right away when we arrived, people thanked us for coming, and several people complemented our signs. People were also handing out free signs to people who didn’t have one. Mom described some of the other signs to me. One said “fire Ryan, not guns.” This was in reference to speaker of the house Paul Ryan who represents a district near Milwaukee and who has taken money from the NRA. An avid hunter brought a sign stating that he was a hunter but supported sensible gun legislation. But I think my favorite was a sign with a picture of a gun but instead of bullets coming out of the barrel of the gun, it showed flowers. While there is nothing wrong with displaying signs with political messages, I liked the idea of a sign that simply depicted a general need for peace. The event began with speeches from local students, where it occurred to me that most of the speakers had never personally felt the impact of gun violence, but still cared deeply about the issue and wanted to make the world a better place by speaking out. And then with students leading the way, we walked slowly from the Milwaukee County courthouse to a nearby park. Mom warned me in the car on the way to the rally that we may be heckled, but to my relief, we didn’t see a single counter protestor, and I think this shows that the vast majority of people are kind and reasonable. The kind of people that say vile things about the Parkland students are a very loud, but very small minority, and ultimately good will prevail.
Most of the time, we just walked quietly carrying our signs, but every now and then, someone up front would start a chant like, “hey-hey! Ho-ho! The NRA has got to go!” or “What do we want? Safe schools! When do we want it? Now!” These chants would gradually spread through the crowd until soon, everyone was chanting for awhile. I have seen footage of protestors chanting on television, and while I always admired the passion of these protestors and their commitment to their causes, I used to be skeptical about how productive this chanting really was in actually changing anything. That day as I chanted with the crowd, it occurred to me that while it is true that marching and chanting alone cannot change anything, the sense of unity and excitement that chanting stirs up is really about energizing and inspiring people, so that when the march is over, the marchers can return to the fight for their causes with renewed passion and determination. In the five months since this march, I have not been politically active regarding the specific issue of gun violence because I am not sure what I could do that students all over the country aren’t doing way better than I ever could. But I did leave the march with a new sense of hope for our society, as this fellowship with such a large group of kind people who just want sensible political leadership was encouraging.
I waited five months to write about this protest partly because on March 24, I felt the need to write about my seizure. But I also waited because I couldn’t decide how I wanted to approach this topic. But in these months, I have decided that while I feel for the victims of gun violence and recognize that it could happen anywhere to anyone, I feel called to devote my energy toward filling political offices with people of good character, because if we could have good leaders who were honest and compassionate, and focused on doing what is right, not just what big donors want them to do, we could take positive steps forward on many issues, including gun control. While Democrats are the party in favor of gun control right now, and Republicans seem to be the people getting money from the NRA, I would vote for a Republican with good character which would naturally lead to him/her advocating for policies that showed compassion for all people, and this would naturally lead to sensible gun legislation.
This past Tuesday, Wisconsin held our midterm primary election. The most significant race was the Democratic primary for our next governor. My goal to vote for leaders based on good character has been more difficult than I anticipated because when I went to Politifact to fact-check the candidates, there was no shining star who was completely honest about everything. In fact, it seemed as though most statements were rated false or mostly false. Seasoned adults have always said politicians are all liars, but I guess I am still a little young and naïve because I was surprised and discouraged to discover that these adults were right. I read detailed articles about some of these false statements but eventually became overwhelmed and just resorted to asking which issue I felt was most pressing. I decided education funding was most essential for our state’s future, so I voted for Tony Evers who is currently the State Superintendant of Schools as he would have the most experience in the education realm. I need to think some more about how I will approach voting in the future, and will definitely keep you updated when I have ideas. But I still believe that electing leaders of good character is our best hope of moving our society in a better direction. To that end, Mom and I have joined the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for voting rights. We have been invited to an official orientation meeting for new members next Sunday afternoon, where we will learn how we can get involved. I am really looking forward to this meeting because the March for Our Lives showed me that many people are looking for leaders of good character, but many of them may not have voted in 2016 due to disillusionment with the choice of candidates. I suppose in this current system, it is unrealistic to hope for candidates who never lie, but the outcry against the egregious conduct of Donald Trump and his supporters, and the diversity of candidates running all across the country gives me hope. All over the country, we are hearing about amazing people, a record number of whom are women or minorities, are answering the call to run and try to move the country in a better direction. If Mom and I can play a small part in ensuring that voting rights are protected to make it a little easier for millions of people who want better leadership to vote, we might really make a positive difference. I will keep you up-to-date on how I decide to become involved in this effort as well.