Two days before the March for Our Lives drew as many as 800,000 demonstrators to Pennsylvania Avenue, students at Thurgood Marshall Academy in southeast Washington held their own rally in the school gymnasium. “Living in DC, it’s easy to be in a bubble. We live in the nation’s capital. There’s the monuments, the statues, the memorials, and all of that,” Jayla Holdip told her classmates. “But we need our stories to be heard. It should not be normal for everybody in this room to be affected by gun violence.”
In 2016, 77 percent of all homicides in Washington, DC, were committed with a gun, and Thurgood Marshall is located in one of the most dangerous zip codes in the city. In the past two years, the Sixth and Seventh Police Districts, which cover the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, recorded 154 homicides and 829 assaults with a deadly weapon in which a gun was used. By comparison, the Second Police District, which encompasses a geographical area about as large as the Sixth and Seventh combined but also has a richer and whiter population, saw just five homicides and 37 gun assaults over the same period.
“Gun violence is an issue that our DC community and other cities have experienced for generations. Although we personally have not experienced a school shooting, we know the destruction of guns all so well,” said Zion Kelly when it was his turn to speak. At the beginning of the school year, Kelly’s twin brother Zaire, also a Thurgood Marshall student, had been shot and killed on the way home from a college-prep class. He was 16. In January, Paris Brown, a junior, was shot to death less than two miles away—the second person in a school of fewer than 400 students to be killed with a gun since the school year began.
Murders in this part of the city, much less meetings of student activists, aren’t normally headline news. But that day, two risers full of news cameras were on hand to record the rally. “To these cameras,” said one of the students, Aaron Woods, staring directly at the camera to the laughter of his classmates, “and these government officials who we’re trying to reach—yeah, we’re looking for y’all.”
The cameras were there because some of the now-famous students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, had come to join the rally. They didn’t waste any time noting the irony. “We’ve seen again and again the media focus on school shootings, and oftentimes be biased towards white, privileged students,” said David Hogg, one of the most visible Parkland survivors. “Many of these communities are disproportionately affected by gun violence, but they don’t get the same share of media attention that we do.”