By Celeste Kanpurwala
On the heels of yet another tragic mass shooting, this time in Trenton, NJ at an all-night art festival, the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s office held their annual Gun Safety Awareness Week Press Conference. This year, due to the recent student-led activism taking place across our country including in Ann Arbor, the four speakers were all recent high school graduates – two graduating last month and the other two having graduated last year.
All of the students were nominated to be Washtenaw County Young Citizens of the Year – three of them were awarded the title. Looking at the students’ list of accomplishments and hearing them speak, it is easy to see that they are all extremely active and involved in the community, as well as passionate about creating change.
Sheriff Clayton began the press conference by addressing the recent shooting, saying that they feel good about bringing awareness to gun violence, but then they continue to watch these horrors take place day in and day out. He advised that we must all “continue to commit and re-commit ourselves” to address the problem at hand.
Andy LaBarre, chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, spoke next, telling the crowd that he wishes that we did not have to keep having the event every year. He reiterated that the young people in this nation are leading us right now “and we need to listen.”
After the press conference, LaBarre said that he wishes that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners could do more.
Marquan Kane was the first student to speak. He was recently nominated the Washtenaw County Young Citizen of the Year and just graduated from Pioneer High School. His accomplishments, like all of the students who spoke, are numerous – including interning for State Representative Ronnie Peterson, being appointed to Governor Snyder’s Juvenile Justice Committee, and co-founding the Washtenaw Youth Initiative.
His conversation focused on concentrated poverty and his own first-hand experience of gun violence, having lost friends and family, with some still behind bars.
“It isn’t just about politics – it’s about budgets. It’s easier to get a gun than a state ID,” says Kane. He has determined that the level in which people care is directly linked to their pocketbook. He quoted some statistics, such as the fact that each day 1,700 millionaires are created in America, yet 43 million people live in poverty and over half a million Americans are homeless.
Kane also pointed out that we invest more in our prisons in this country than our education. He then stated, “They’ll talk about how we kill each other but they won’t talk about how we can’t get a job so we have to become drug dealers.”
Max McNally was second to speak. He just graduated from Lincoln High School and was nominated a finalist for Washtenaw Young Citizen of the Year. He has been a strong advocate to prevent gentrification of Ypsilanti and is also a co-founder of Washtenaw Youth Initiative, having also helped plan the Washtenaw County School Walkout on March 14.
McNally is extremely involved in politics, as he worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign, Heather Roe’s campaign for Ypsilanti Township Trustee, and he interns for Congresswoman Debbie Dingell. McNally’s mission was to address the state of our schools, mentioning that after the devastating Parkland shooting in February, his high school “went from loud to quiet in such an abrupt way.”
Clearly shaken from the recent shootings in both Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas, McNally told the crowd that there was not a day he went to school where he felt totally safe. Part of the reason is also due to several bomb threats his school received just this year. While feeling relieved to graduate from high school unharmed, now he is concerned for the livelihood and the safety of his younger brother and sister. While McNally bluntly stated the fact that he and his fellow classmates shouldn’t have to go to school and wonder if they will make it home or not, he ended by saying, “If we stick together, we can do anything.”
Sakinah and Zakiyya Rahman were nominated Washtenaw County Joint Citizens of the Year in 2017, both graduating from Ypsilanti Community High School last year. They are twin sisters whose kindness and compassion could be felt as they took the microphone and spoke in unison. Sakinah’s name means tranquility and Zakiyya’s name means purity. Their involvement in the community has focused on bringing people together – volunteering at the Corner Health Center, the Ozone House, and the Ypsilanti District Library to name a few.
Zakiyya spoke of growing up in Baltimore, MD, where gun violence is prevalent. She said that on the 4th of July, they would lay on the ground because they weren’t sure if the noises they heard were fireworks or gunshots. She also told a story of when they were young and playing outside, a man drove up and threatened to kill them, after which they were forced to only play in their backyard.
Sakinah started by addressing the older generation in the audience, saying that they have seen the evolution of gun violence. Now “we’re not dropping F bombs; we’re dropping bombs, in a sense.”
She questioned how people are driven to the point of killing another. Sakinah and her sister both spoke of families killing each other and children killing children. Sakinah’s response – “Love can fix anything. If we all love each other, we can respect each other, which will lead to respecting other lives.”
She said we shouldn’t be talking about bullet-proofing our schools but working to fix the problem at its root.
The press conference ended with Sakinah and Zakiyya leading the audience in the song Amazing Grace. It was such a pure, tranquil ending that gave us all hope that we can work together to create a better future for our children and future generations to come.
Before even entering the press conference, on the table outside of the room were some handouts with basic firearm safety. The handout includes such information as the fact that accident prevention is the user’s responsibility and that a gun should always be stored locked and unloaded. Gun owners are advised to teach children to, “Stop! Don’t touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult!” if they find a gun; however, a responsible gun owner would never have this happen in their home. The handout even states that having a gun in the home can actually negatively affect the homeowner if they were being broken into, as the criminal could then become armed. Then there is the obvious information, such as always being sure to remove guns from the home of the mentally ill or unstable, never assume that a pistol is unloaded, use the safety but don’t rely on it, and always point the pistol in a safe direction. One should always know what is on the other side of their aimed target as well, as the recent tragedy in Riley Township shows, where a man was target shooting in his backyard and unintentionally killed his neighbor when the bullet came through her kitchen. The handout ends by stating that the old adage “alcohol and gunpowder never mix” still rings so true today.