By Celeste Kanpurwala
It’s been six years since Sandy Hook Elementary School was gunned down. It’s been six years since America came to grips with the fact that the unthinkable happened in this country.
I remember everything about that day. I remember finding out two days prior, on 12/12/12, that I was pregnant with my first born child – my husband and I were elated. I remember waking up that Friday morning still in that state of bliss, heading off to work, and then coming home for lunch after meeting with some clients to grab a quick bite to eat. I turned my little kitchen TV on, and that is when my world came crashing down. I spent the majority of my pregnancy in a state of anxiety.
Had I known that a woman named Shannon Watts was starting an army of Americans across the nation to combat the NRA and the gun lobby from her own kitchen the day after the tragedy in Newtown, CT, I would have joined immediately. I did not find out about Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America until the organization was about three years old, and multiple other gun tragedies had already befallen our great nation. I joined in December 2015 and have not stopped pressing forward since.
Today, being a part of Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety is part of who I am. Unlike the majority of the nation who commonly makes the false statement that “nothing has happened since Sandy Hook” as far as gun legislation, I know better. I know that Moms Demand Action volunteers across the nation have helped to pass Red Flag Laws, bills to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, and bills to close the background check loophole. I know that we have stopped 90 percent of BAD gun bills from becoming law, such as allowing guns in schools, lowering age limits to obtain guns, creating more Stand Your Ground laws, and so many more.
For the past year and a half, I have had the extreme pleasure of planning events for our Washtenaw County Moms Demand Action Local Group. This past Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, we held a vigil for the Sandy Hook victims, as well as all victims and survivors of gun violence across the country. Thanks to my brilliant Co-Lead, Nic Cooper, we decided to change the dynamic of the event this time. Instead of holding a more somber vigil, this year we wanted our fellow Americans to hear more stories of hope and change. When we marched outside this time, instead of being silent, we were LOUD.
Our co-sponsors this year included the Newtown Action Alliance, which worked with vigils across the nation; and also locally the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice; Students Demand Action; Washtenaw Youth Initiative; and Physicians for the Prevention of Gun Violence.
The evening began with welcoming words from myself and Nic Cooper, as well as beautiful music from Sandor and Emily Slomovits. Sandor is part of the music group Gemini, which has been around Ann Arbor for decades. Sandor and his daughter Emily sang uplifting songs – We Shall Not Be Moved, We Shall Overcome, and Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.
Next we watched as Erica Lafferty-Garbatini, the daughter of the Sandy Hook Principal, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, addressed the group and shared with us a message of hardship mixed with hope for what is to come. This year was especially hard for the survivors of the Sandy Hook tragedy, since the anniversary date fell on a Friday just as it did 6 years ago when the horror unfolded in their small New England town. Lafferty-Garbatini thanked us for all of the work that we are doing and encouraged us to also take care of ourselves.
After Lafferty-Garbatini’s beautiful message, we watching adoringly as The Boyd Family Choir took the stage to sing us four songs of peace and love. These gorgeous, lively children lifted our spirits and brought us to tears simultaneously, reminding us of the students who were slaughtered at Sandy Hook. In fact, my Co-Lead, Nic Cooper, spoke to Brianne Boyd, the mother and choir director, before they took the stage – warning them of the messages that we would be delivering throughout the evening, letting them know that they may want to shield their children. Boyd stated matter of factly that her children are living in the Sandy Hook aftermath every day, so she did not mind them staying for the whole event. Hearing this made me cringe. We as a nation have to do better for our children.
Zaynab Elkolaly from Washtenaw Youth Initiative delivered the powerful essay written by Sandra Parks before she was murdered in her own home by a stray bullet. Before reading the essay, Elkolaly told of Parks’ story, stating emphatically that Parks was merely watching television in her own bedroom when she was struck by the bullet. Parks’ essay can be found online and is called Our Truth – I highly recommend you read it. She speaks of the state of chaos that our country is in, and she even says, “Little children are victims of senseless gun violence.” How ominous a statement that turned out to be for this courageous 13 year old girl.
Anthony Morgan, who was recently elected to the Ypsilanti City Council Ward 3, spoke to the crowd, addressing the fact that blacks are disproportionately affected by gun violence. He told his own personal story of being pistol whipped, shot, and having a gun in his mouth. Morgan’s YES campaign to win his council position focused on youth, environment, and safety.
Arguably the most powerful portion of the evening was a compilation video that was put together for our event. I addressed the crowd of 50 people before showing the video, informing them that in addition to my Events Co-Lead position, I am a Survivor Fellow for Everytown for Gun Safety. I am a Survivor Fellow because my dad took his own life by firearm suicide over 4 ½ years ago. The fellowship program has allowed me the opportunity not only to share my story, but to hear the heartbreaking stories of my fellow survivors across the country.
The survivor compilation video includes five stories – Michele Norton from Colorado, who was held at gunpoint while working for a Seattle bank in 1995; KharyPenebaker from Wisconsin, whose mother Joyce took her own life with a gun; Valerie Burgest from Illinois, whose son Craig Williams was a victim of homicide in Chicago; Pastor Jackie Jackson from Ohio who was shot at age 10, whose eldest son was shot 37 years later, and who has had 10 family members shot in Cincinnati in the last 4 years; and Richard Martinez from California, whose son Chris was murdered in the Isla Vista mass shooting in May 2014.
As tragic as these stories are for these survivors, they are pressing on and making change. Norton spoke about influencing her school board to not keep a long rifle in the local schools but instead to increase resource officer staffing. Penebaker spoke about his own run for Congress in 2016 (which he unfortunately lost) and being interviewed by Spike Lee to tell his story. Burgest told her story from a hotel room in Washington DC, where she was attending and speaking at their Sandy Hook Vigil with close to 100 other survivors of gun violence.
Pastor Jackson is also a community outreach advocate who responds to shootings and homicides in Cincinnati, providing on-site counseling, conflict resolution, and crowd control. Lastly, Martinez recorded his video after just having spoken at a Sandy Hook Vigil with Nancy Pelosi, who assured Martinez that ending gun violence and enacting stronger gun laws is going to be a top priority in the New Year when the Democrats take the majority in Congress.
Theevening ended in a short march. My voice is still hoarse from leading the crowd in chants like “No Justice, No Peace” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” while holding the handmade signs of Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung and Ana Marquez-Greene. Our group carried all 26 signs, making our voices heard and our mission evident. Also throughout the crowd were signs that read, “We can end gun violence.”
We have a long way to go, but we can most certainly do it. By holding vigils and marches, meeting with lawmakers, and telling our survivor stories, we are making the changes necessary to accomplish our mission.
The only question is when.
MAIN PHOTO by Chris Wagner