Column by Madhulika Pesala
On January 21, 2013, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was performing at President Obama’s second inauguration. One week later, she was shot and killed while standing in a park in her hometown of Chicago. Pendleton’s classmates wore orange —the color worn by hunters to protect themselves— in remembrance of her life.
Pendleton’s death sparked national attention, with first lady Michelle Obama attending her funeral service and President Obama mentioning her in his 2013 State of the Union address. Her death inspired the “Wear Orange” movement, which calls on all Americans to honor victims and inspire action to end gun violence. The movement is held every year on June 2, also known as National Gun Violence Awareness Day.
Last Thursday, hundreds of community members of all ages gathered in the Pure Elegance Barber and Beauty parking lot in south Columbus to hold a march and rally as part of National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Several Radio One Columbus stations organized the event.
Ninety-nine homicides were reported in Columbus last year, with 94 cases resulting from shootings, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
Attendees included local pastors, fraternities, city council members, and Mayor Andrew Ginther. Several members of the Columbus Peacemakers activist group also attended.
As I approached the parking lot where the rally was held, I was greeted by a sea of orange and the sound of a local radio station playing over loud speakers. Attendees were busy shaking hands, dancing along to the music and running after their kids, while dozens were filming the event with their cellphones to share on social media.
A trumpeter called everyone to a small stage, where several local radio hosts took the microphone to speak to the crowd. They all had the same message: stop the violence in our community. They stressed this event would be the first of many.
A great deal of time was spent thanking the event’s sponsors, which included local churches and businesses, the city of Columbus, Columbus Parks and Rec, and Ohio Concealed Carry Institute, a company that offers classes for obtaining a concealed carry license in the state.
Mayor Ginther was also called to the stage, and spoke for under a minute, thanking everyone, including the city council president and several council members, for attending. Ginther addressed the crowd, demanding that all violence come to an end, saying “We are drawing a line in the sand today.”
“We’re gonna march for him,” Ginther pointed to a young boy in the crowd, “and for her,” he pointed to a girl, “and for all of our children who deserve a safe place to grow up, and let’s make sure to commit ourselves to that, to build a future where they are safe and where they can thrive.”
Ginther ended his brief talk by saying “God bless you. We are all orange today.” He was followed by a pastor who led the crowd in prayer before the actual march began.
Some joined hands, and others continued filming the event as the march began. The procession was led by several families who have lost loved ones to gun violence.
The crowd chanted several messages together as they walked, including: “stop the violence,” “put them guns down,” and interestingly, “all lives matter.” Without context, the phrase seems to be good-natured, but it has recently been used by many to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement, although that doesn’t seem to be the case in this instance.
The march ended in Deshler Park, where hundreds of orange balloons were released in remembrance of lives lost to gun violence. Organizers again thanked everyone for coming, and urged the end of gun violence in the community.
As the event started to die down, I wanted to talk to Mayor Ginther to get more information on what his plans were to ensure safety in the community. Ginther was surrounded by several people who were taking pictures and having conversations with him. As I waited my turn, I was approached by a plainclothes police officer who asked me what I was trying to do. After I explained, he told me to keep it short.
I asked him how exactly the city plans to reduce gun violence. He explained the city would be taking an “all of the above” approach, citing the new Community Safety Initiative, a 13-week program designed to cut down crime.
“We’re keeping our rec centers open later, we have a program to help give safe, constructive programming for young adults later into the evening, we’ve got a very robust summer youth employment program,” Ginther said. “Our division of police is really using data and intelligence more than ever before to go after elements in our neighborhoods that are negatively impacting quality of life, so, disrupting gang and drug activity, and those things.”
On the topic of gun regulation and illegally obtained firearms, Ginther said he welcomes suggestions from anyone. “I know there’s lots of different groups out there, and if they have some good ideas that we think can work in the city of Columbus, we’re all ears,” he said.
Ginther stressed that the issue wasn’t just about guns. “It’s very important for us to make a shift in our community and our culture that embraces peace, conflict resolution, mediation, self-respect and respect of life.”
In the past few years, Columbus police have killed more citizens per capita than many other major cities and entire states, according to Columbus Free Press. In 2012, Columbus ranked second for highest number of police shootings per capita in the country. I asked Ginther if he plans to take action on this issue, to further protect citizens from gun violence. Ginther said he thought my statistics —obtained from the U.S. Department of Justice— sounded inaccurate, but said from his perspective, Columbus police were the best in the country.
“I believe our chief of police has embraced community policing and bridging that divide better than anywhere else, but we have to remain on the offense,” he said. Ginther also stated he would start the process of using body cameras for police officers by the end of the year, to “make it safer for people on both sides of that camera.”
“We’re going to remain aggressive,” Ginther said.
2015 yielded the highest number of homicides in Columbus since 2010, according to The Columbus Dispatch, and with at least 36 homicides already reported this year, there doesn’t seem to be a trend for improvement.
To many people in Columbus, the sudden loss of friends and family to gun violence is unfortunately their reality. As I and others watched young children run around and dance freely in that small hair salon’s parking lot, the urgency for peace in the community became achingly real. Regardless of any personal or political differences, community members are united by the common hope for a safer future, one where their children will never be faced with the senseless loss of life resulting from gun violence.