Parkland activists take their fight to the Bronx

Marchers head to Forest Houses in Morrisania to register voters. Photo: Joe Hirsch

Gun control activists unite to press policy makers

A nationwide, youth-led campaign to muzzle gun violence made a stop in Port Morris on Friday, bringing a message to Bronx residents: Vote for change. 

The March for Our Lives tour was launched in mid-June by student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting massacre, in which 17 students and educators were killed and 17 more injured last February. A dozen student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland and other schools around the country made a pit stop for a press conference at the Beatstro club and restaurant in Port Morris. They then moved on to the headquarters of local anti-violence stalwart Save Our Streets (SOS) Bronx, at E. 161st Street and Eagle Avenue to confer with local young people about shared experiences standing up to gun violence. 

Harlem resident Ramon Contreras, 19, has participated on the national tour since its June beginnings in Chicago. He has tried to raise awareness in communities nationwide about initiatives to halt school shootings while registering potential voters to vote out incumbents supported by the National Rifle Association.

“Growing up in the inner city, there’s not many programs for young people,” said Contreras, who grew up in Longwood and lost a friend to a shooting. “In our neighborhoods there are less books and trauma counselors, but more police officers,” perpetuating a cycle of antagonism. To change that, he said, “we have to register enough young people to vote to save lives at the national level.”

Dashawn Etheridge, 17, a volunteer youth counselor at SOS Bronx, was excited by the turnout of so many like-minded peers from around the country. 

“This is why (SOS Bronx’s) youth council was created,” said Etheridge, pointing out that  the local group and the March for Our Lives tours share a mission. “We go from place to place trying to get people to see our point of view,” through town hall meetings and other public gatherings. “People get guns so easily.”

Some 100 students and activists from the two groups capped off the afternoon with a march through the streets of Morrisania to the grounds of NYCHA’s Forest Houses, where they set up a voter registration table. 

An elected official who represents a large swath of the South Bronx said lessons the touring group learned in other cities will benefit the area. 

“They’ve clearly seen some best practices we can use,” said Assemblyman Michael Blake, who worked as a grass roots organizer for the first Obama presidential campaign. 

In March, the Democrat-controlled Assembly Blake serves on passed legislation aimed at reducing gun violence before the Republican-controlled State Senate mowed it down, instead favoring measures to station police officers in schools. The package proposed extending the waiting period for delivery of a gun to anyone who hasn’t cleared a background check from three days to 10; preventing people convicted of domestic violence from buying a firearm; banning bump stocks used to increase the firing speed of semi-automatic rifles; and requiring out-of-state residents who own homes in the state to waive their home state’s mental illness confidentiality records before they could own a gun in the state.

March for our Lives’ 80-city tour made its final stop on Sunday at the site of another school tragedy, the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 20 children and teachers were killed by a school shooter in 2012.

David Hogg, one of the Parkland student survivors who has drawn national attention for his role pushing for legislation to tighten firearm restrictions, said that voter registration is key to the group’s mission to oust “morally corrupt leaders” and replace them with elected officials not beholden to corporate money.

According to Ramon Contreras, Bronx anti-gun violence groups and national initiatives share a common theme.  

“Pain and trauma connects all of us,” he said.