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#iSTANDfor: No More Gun violence

 

By Sarah Clements

For the past three years, I often have resorted to writing as a means of processing seemingly nonstop acts of gun violence in the United States. My mother survived the shooting at Sandy Hook on December 14th, 2012. That day, and for many weeks after, I could not write. It was debilitating and impossible to fathom what had occurred at my former elementary school. I was used to being able to write poems and essays like no one’s business, with seemingly no struggle. Now, it seemed the fog of shock and disbelief clouded my ability to put on paper what had happened. How is it that twenty first-graders and six educators -- many of whom I knew, and all of whom my mother knew -- were just murdered in their classrooms?

Most in my town were in crisis mode and were functioning on autopilot. We needed to be reminded to eat, we couldn’t sleep. We cried all the time and tried different forms of therapy. I had trouble listening to music with lyrics, so I only listening to classical. And I couldn’t write except for in the form of letters. I wrote letters to my former teachers at Sandy Hook, to those who were murdered, to my parents and other loved ones, to my friends, etc. For some reason, this was a coping mechanism my brain allowed me to take on, and after a week I had a 25-page long document of letters, memories, and horrors jotted down from those horrific days.

Eventually, slowly I began writing letters to powerful people: lawmakers, elected officials, leaders in town, and even the National Rifle Association. I had never done activism work before, and I didn’t realize in those early moments that that was exactly what activism could look like. At the end of January on a brutally cold winter day in Washington, D.C., 100 people from Newtown, my dad, and I walked across the Capitol in a march for gun reform. I was selected to sit on the stage at the rally following the march, which was only a month after the shooting in my town. This is good, I thought. I was for sure a supporter of gun reform laws and was slightly interested in politics at the time, still a junior in high school. I needed to go to the march, at least to give me something to grasp onto. Something… good.

One speaker at the rally asked for everyone in the crowd to hold up a white sign if they had one. Hundreds of crisp white signs with one thing written on them -- the names of gun violence victims -- whisked up. From the stage, I could only see these floating names on signs so white, they blended with the snow on the ground. That image changed me. And since that moment, I have invested time and energy in becoming an activist and organizer for gun violence prevention. I made a promise to making our communities safer, to honor those we lost with action to stop gun violence through legislative and cultural change.

A couple of years later, I was still sustaining my work as a student advocate. It was the summer of 2015, and I was interning and living in D.C. Then, on July 23rd, a man with a history of domestic violence and aggression towards women stood up in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana and killed two young women, Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson, and injured others. The movie that was showing was Amy Schumer’s new Trainwreck.

Once again, I was drained, horrified, exhausted, and upset to know that yet another community was facing what we had. How could this happen again and again? Why didn’t Newtown change everything? And as I had done many times before, I opened my laptop to write. The blank google document stared at me for only a few minutes before I started “Dear Amy Schumer…” Subconsciously, my mind was telling me to write this one in letter form, like I had done so much after 12/14. First, I pitched it to a couple of outlets to see if they would publish it as an op-ed in response to Lafayette. After a week of radio silence from all ends, I decided to just put it on Medium.com, as I had done a few times before. This document became “An Open Letter To Amy Schumer.” I posted the link on Facebook and Twitter, shared it with friends, then went to sleep.

The next morning, at a Moms Demand Action conference I happened to be attending, around 9am, my friend Christine texted me “Um,” followed by a screenshot of Amy’s response to my tweet and Medium piece. She tweeted to “not worry,” that she was “on it.” I didn’t expect her to read it or to respond. And to see that she was already planning on taking action? Beyond amazing. But, as I mentioned in another Medium piece, “... what made me most grateful in her tweet to me was when she corrected my spelling of Mayci Breaux’s name… I have experienced so many instances of journalists spelling my name, my mother’s name, [other friends’ names,] or even Newtown wrong. It hurts. I hate it every time. I couldn’t believe that I made the same mistake myself.” Her correction proved that not only did she read my letter, but that she cared enough about Mayci and Jillian to reach out and say something.

Ms. Schumer stuck to her promise. She put on sketches on Inside Amy Schumer and Saturday Night Live highlighting America’s problematic gun culture; she spoke at events and press conferences in support for reform legislation; and at her live shows, she now often does a five minute set of material about gun violence. This month, she released her first book. There is a chapter about Mayci and Jillian in it.

Between the power of the gun lobby and the frighteningly visceral opposition of gun extremists, standing up for gun reform is hardly an exercise of self-interest; Ms. Schumer does not do this work for self-promotion. And in my opinion, neither do most other culture icons who speak out about it. For far too long, guns have been a third-rail issue not only for politicians, but for everyone. It take compassion and guts to go out into this space, and especially in the context of gun violence as a feminist issue.

This letter, her response, and the piece going viral, were not planned and carried out strategically. It was all about random timing, critical messaging, and political tactics driven by empathy. Most of my work revolves around organizing with young advocates around the country to build student and Millennial power. Anyone who tells you a movement can be led by one miraculous leader, celebrity, etc. is simply wrong. Movements are about coalitions, empathy, and capacity-building across lines, walls, and disagreements. I will continue to do all I can to stand for inclusivity, growth, and visibility for the movement I believe in to make our country free from gun violence.