After walkout, early signs of powerful alliance begin to emerge

What’s next for city and suburban youth who believe they can make a change on gun violence?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For Jenette Wheeler, supporting the students of Lower Merion High on National Walkout Day was a no-brainer – even though she knows that they aren’t the ones who bear the brunt of the nation’s epidemic of violence.

“The city kids … that’s who I’m really for,” said Wheeler, who lives in Lower Merion, as a chilly wind whipped across the school’s well-tended lawn and rattled her handmade sign. “We’ve got to de-escalate. … The more guns are available, the more people will be shot.”

As a child in Baltimore, Wheeler was shot in the back by a stray bullet and nearly died. “I was at a friend’s house for lunch, and outside some boys were just shooting wildly.”

As an adult, she became a doctor working in emergency rooms, where she saw “the sadness and the devastation that comes from gunshots.”

Eventually, she moved to Lower Merion and became an activist with Ceasefire PA. As horrifying as the Parkland, Florida, shootings were, she said, they also gave Lower Merion students a crucial “wake-up call,” reminding them that gun violence doesn’t stop at the city limits.

“They should have been thinking of this all the time,” she said.

Later, when Lower Merion’s march was over, students echoed Wheeler’s point: They know that the violence they fear is something that countless urban students must actually live with.

“The students in Philadelphia see [violence] on a more day-to-day basis,” said Mimi Halpern, a Lower Merion freshman who helped organize the school’s walkout, in which about half its 1,300 students took part. “We empathize with them just as much as we do with the suburban students that have been affected by this.”

And although they want to be part of the solution, exactly what they can do to make common cause with students across the city line is less clear.

“We definitely need to have a conversation about that, after this,” said Catherine McFarland, a Lower Merion senior and the student body president. “We have not made the plan right now.”

A ‘unique political moment’

In cities and suburbs alike, National Walkout Day brought tens of thousands of U.S. students out of their classrooms and onto the streets. Although many urban marches emphasized racial-justice issues more than their suburban counterparts, demonstrations everywhere featured a similar core message to lawmakers: Students want safer schools and communities.

The walkouts in Philadelphia and Lower Merion reflected those differences: The suburban students focused on traditional gun control, while the city students added a strong emphasis on eliminating discriminatory police practices.

But in both places, students returned to the same bottom line. “Students all feel the need to feel safe in school,” said Justice Taggart of Central High, as she stood holding an “#ENOUGH” banner in the midst of Philadelphia’s boisterous City Hall protests.

“We’re scared,” said Lower Merion’s Halpern, facing a scrum of TV cameras after her school’s energetic but orderly march was done. “We’re the future of this country, and we deserve to be heard just like anyone else.”

Taggart, a Central High sophomore from East Oak Lane, said she hopes that people who follow the stories of the day’s walkouts see that suburban and urban students share a “common goal,” even if they don’t all share the same exposure to violence.

“It’s not just the people who are being affected,” Taggart said. “It’s people that empathize with the cause.”

The aftermath of the Parkland shootings has created an unexpected opportunity to build these kinds of bridges, said Shania Morris, an organizer with the Philadelphia Student Union.

“We’re in a very unique political moment,” she said, in which students in cities and suburbs alike can see vividly how both communities are ill-served by the adults that represent them.

“That can bring us together,” Morris said. “It doesn’t matter what your skin tone is – being oppressed as a youth is a thing.”

Like urban and minority students across the country, Morris was a bit put off by the nation’s intense emotional response to the Parkland shootings. She wasn’t surprised to see a largely white, suburban school get attention that Philadelphia schools don’t, despite the trauma and violence that urban students live with.

“Since when do they prioritize people of color, especially black students? When did they ever prioritize us?” Morris said. “Of course my heart is out for anyone and everyone who’s lost somebody or been injured. But it was like, ‘When is the voice of my neighborhood going to be recognized?’”

But Morris, a 2014 graduate of the Academy at Palumbo, has also felt encouraged by the apparent willingness of Parkland students and other suburban students to expand the conversation to include communities beyond their own.

“What those schools can do, which I feel they’re starting to do, is recognize their privilege,” she said.

Temple University Hospital’s Scott Charles, a trauma outreach specialist who has spent over a decade educating regional students about gun violence, said he’s had a similar experience in the weeks since the Parkland shootings.

He wasn’t surprised to see a national outpouring of concern for the trauma visited upon a largely white student body – “America can see her own children in suburban classrooms” – but he has felt encouraged by the Parkland students’ inclusive attitude, revealed most visibly by their meeting with Black Lives Matter activists in Chicago soon after the shooting rocketed their cause to prominence.

“That is a promising sign,” Charles said. “If they’re willing to allow their moment to be leveraged by kids in the city, there is really powerful potential there.”

In the weeks since the Parkland shooting, Charles has been encouraged by the relatively optimistic attitude he’s seen in the Philadelphia students he works with. They’ve noticed that Parkland students aggressively confronted the adult establishment and made lawmakers flinch, he said.

“To be quite honest, I expected that our kids would be like, ‘Hey, what about us? Where were you?’ But instead what I heard was a level of respect,” Charles said. “Game recognizes game.”

But if the potential for a powerful alliance is there, the specifics of the urban and suburban issues can differ significantly, Charles cautioned.

Parkland raised the focus on in-school violence; urban students experience violence in the streets. The post-Parkland discussion has been largely about controlling legal gun sales; urban shootings tend to involve guns bought illegally or through straw purchases. While some lawmakers call for more armed security and metal detectors, urban students and their advocates are more focused on social justice, calling for an end to racially biased police strategies that feed the school-to-prison pipeline.

Even the weapons are different: Semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 are the “weapon of choice” in suburban mass shootings, while most of the damage in Philadelphia is done by 9mm pistols.

And all those differences mean that any urban-suburban alliance can be split relatively easily if politicians choose to only address the concerns of more prosperous constituents, Charles said.

“You could do away with every assault rifle tomorrow, and it’s not going to make a dent in the carnage we see in America’s urban centers,” he said.

Bill Hangley Jr. Capturing the energy

One lawmaker who knows the urban/suburban divide well is State Sen. Vincent Hughes, whose district includes some of North Philadelphia’s most dangerous neighborhoods, as well as relatively prosperous slices of Northwest Philadelphia and Montgomery County.

Although those communities may be very different, he sees plenty of issues that students in his district could easily team up on to make them safer, involving both school policies and gun control.

“For example, [funding] counselors in schools, who can purposefully spot kids who are having problems,” he said. “The whole issue of automatic background checks. What does it have, 90 percent support? Let’s get that done!”

Hughes was a vocal presence at the lectern during Philadelphia’s rowdy City Hall protest, urging students to seize their moment and leading them in chants of “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power!”

“This is a time and moment when young people can come together, beyond city lines and district lines,” he said later. “It harkens back to the youth movement in the Sixties and Seventies that produced so much positive change in this area. These moments don’t come together that often. … We’ve got to put that energy to use.”

In the next few weeks, Hughes plans to bring together student leaders from across his district to try to do just that.

In Philadelphia, organizers with the Philadelphia Student Union have only just begun to think about such alliances. They have more violence-related action on the drawing board, including an upcoming March for our Lives event and some Columbine-related activities in April. Organizers say they’re primarily focused on building support within Philadelphia, not crossing the city lines.

“This is a time and moment when young people can come together, beyond city lines and district lines,” said State Sen. Vincent Hughes.

But they also say they can see the value of urban-suburban student coalitions, which Hughes says are potentially “extremely powerful.” Philadelphia Student Union’s Morris said she would welcome them. But she warned that students from more advantaged backgrounds will need to consciously work to hear and respect their less-privileged neighbors’ concerns.

“Are you going to be someone with white privilege who recognizes your oppression, but [also that] you get to act on it and rise above it? Do you now advocate for other students to have those same opportunities?” she said. “It’s all about how we start to think about each other.”

In Lower Merion, Mimi Halpern said she and her fellow students know there’s a bigger picture. They want to be part of the solution, even if they don’t know exactly how yet.

“Mass shootings aren’t just school shootings,” she said. “There’s 96 Americans killed every day due to gun violence, and something needs to be done.”

And outside on the school lawn, Jenette Wheeler said she hopes that the Parkland shootings, as shocking as they were, help bring together a political coalition of students and adults large enough to create lasting change.

“But the fact that these [suburban] kids are starting it – now everybody can get on the bandwagon,” Wheeler said. “We’re finally getting to a point where maybe people will change their minds.”

Bill Hangley Jr.