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Nick was the very first friend I made in high school. We rode the bus together every morning freshman year, discussing whatever 14-year-olds cared about in 2007 while a couple of our classmates sang along as Baby Bash and Vengaboys played on their iPods a few seats in front of us.
Nick loved Blink 182; he played tennis and volleyball and was great on the drums. He and I had very few classes together, but we always wound up being in the same Homecoming groups together, or making the trek to Summerfest with our handful of mutual friends, or being partnered up to work on rooms in our school's haunted house, or running into each other in the aisles of the Kohl's near both of our houses.
After we graduated in 2011, Nick's dreams of becoming a pharmacist took him to St. Louis University and mine to pursue art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We mostly fell out of touch, though we met up once when he was in Madison for a concert. He was the same sweet, happy-go-lucky Nick I had first gotten to know freshman year of high school.
On March 1, 2014, Nick was celebrating Mardi Gras with friends in the backyard at a house party in St. Louis' Fox Park neighborhood when an unidentified gunman with no connections to any of the partygoers pulled up in the adjacent alley and opened fire. A bullet struck the upper left side of Nick's chest. His friends carried him inside the house, where he was later pronounced dead.
I don't remember much about that day except for a single phrase kept playing on a loop inside my head over and over and over as I scream-sobbed into the cushions of my couch: He didn't do anything wrong. He didn't do anything wrong. He didn't do anything wrong.
* * *
Mortician and author Caitlin Doughty points out that different cultures have different ways of describing "the good death." For some, a "good" death involves dying outside, or free of sin, or among friends, or in battle. But "cross-culturally," Doughty says in a video on her popular YouTube channel, "the bad death tends to be somewhat the same. It's tragic and unexpected."
To this day, I can't shake the image of Nick's death — the mental image of him sprawled on the floor of his kitchen with a bullet in his torso — nor the feeling of how his friends felt in the moment, blood and life pouring out of him as they watched on helplessly. It's hard not to categorize his death as among the worst imaginable, especially considering the fact that his killer hasn't been found and likely never will be.
I went to the March for Our Lives rally in Chicago this past Saturday with Nick and his death on my mind. Though he didn't die in a school shooting, he had a fair bit in common with the victims of last month's tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida: They had friends, best friends. They were supposed to go to high school reunions one day. They had futures. They didn't do a single thing wrong, but paid for it anyway. They experienced the ultimate bad death.
I expected to feel angry as hell during the rally; to be a 5-foot-9 bundle of pure rage as I stomped around Union Park with the hand-painted sign I'd brought with me. But as the demonstration spilled out of the park's fences and made its way around the city's West Loop area, I felt an immense sense of comfort — like my grief was credible, as was my frustration with Nick's bad death.
For me and the millions of other people who have been touched by gun violence, a protest as massive, powerful and thoughtful as this weekend's March for Our Lives isn't just an act of solidarity, but one of validation. It almost felt like a wake in that sense: Having so many people showing up to fight the cause that took away a life that mattered to you corroborates your pain and deep-rooted desire for change.
But the impact of the March for Our Lives and its corresponding #NeverAgain movement cannot be sustainable in the long run unless we all address the big, fat elephant in the room: the fact that young activists of color have been repeatedly demonized and dismissed for protesting this exact same cause, these same types of bad deaths, for nearly five years now.
As prevalent as mass shootings are in the U.S., they don't accurately reflect the country's issue of gun violence at large, as HuffPost points out: While there were about 12,500 to 15,000 gun deaths each year from 2014 to 2017, only around 100 people died each year in mass shootings — incidents in which at least four people are fatally shot, not including the gunman — from 2009 to 2016. By and large, gun violence happens on the streets and disproportionately impacts communities of color. Per the gun control reform nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety:
"Although African Americans make up only 14 percent of the U.S. population, they account for a majority of gun homicide victims in the United States (57 percent). Black women are three times as likely to be murdered with a gun as white women, and black men are nearly ten times as likely to be murdered with a gun as white men. Indeed, black males age 15 to 34 are more likely to be killed with a gun than to die by any other cause. Violence is the second largest contributor to differences in life expectancy between white and black males overall, gun homicides reduce the life expectancy of the black male population by nearly a year."
The fact that Nick and I are both white is the reason why I could see us so directly reflected in the conversation that's followed last month's shooting in Parkland.
The recent wave of mass shootings followed by virtually no answers or justice has likely been most white people's first encounter with the injustice and trauma that people of color have been living with for ages, but only the former party's cause has gained significant traction and empathy: The March for Our Lives was met with donations from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and the Clooneys, highlighted in primetime town halls on CNN, and graced with appearances from pop stars. Contrast that with the reception of Black Lives Matter, which has garnered rivaling "Blue Lives Matter" legislation and immense, often unfair criticism from liberals and conservatives alike. (Remember when Oprah accused BLM of lacking leadership?)
“White people get to be everything. They get to victims, they get to be heroes. And Black people, unfortunately, continue to be criminalized for our moments of courage, for our moments of mourning and grieving,” Black Lives Matter Network co-founder Patrisse Cullors explained during a HuffPost Black History Month panel in mid-February. “And that often looks like when we go out into the streets, when we protest, when we demand for our lives to matter, we’re given heavy police repression.”
“Why don’t Black people get to be victims?" she added. "That’s the question we have to ask ourselves."
The fact that Nick and I are both white is the reason why I could see us so directly reflected in the conversation that's followed last month's shooting in Parkland. This isn't to knock the student organizers of the March for Our Lives movement, to be sure, who did a fantastic job of making Saturday's rally inclusive. (David Hogg, one of the MSD shooting survivors who spoke at the rally in Washington, D.C., went so far as to call out the media for "not giving black students a voice" even though a quarter of the school's population is black.) But the foundations of the movement will mean little if the rest of us refuse to put their plan of inclusivity into place, or acknowledge the feelings of people of color who have been fighting for this cause for nearly half a decade with little to show for it except lingering, unacknowledged pain.
If you showed up to one of this weekend's March for Our Lives protests around the country, good for you! I'm really, truly proud of you and hope you left the rally inspired and electrified. But if you actually care about gun control reform — about the Nicks, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas victims, the Trayvon Martins, the Philando Castiles, and the Stephon Clarks — you still have so much more to do. Show up to a Black Lives Matter protest. Show up for people of color whose grief in the wake of a bad death hasn't been deemed as worthy as yours. Show the fuck up. Your mere presence grants sanction and solace.