Ke’Shon Newman was 6 years old the first time he had to run from a shootout. “I was in first grade,” he remembered, sitting on the bench of a Chicago park not far from John W. Cook Elementary School. “I was living in a neighborhood that you got to get in at a certain time because they shoot around there. I had to duck down and run inside my house, because they were shooting not too far away and you could actually hear how loud the gunshots were.” Auburn Gresham, where Newman currently lives, was named the fourth most dangerous neighborhood in the country five years ago, according to the Chicagoist.
On March 17, 15-year-old Newman, along with two dozen students from Chicago and Parkland, Florida, held a press conference at Chicago’s Saint Sabina Church in front of a handful of local camera crews. They’ve joined to address an issue that ties them tightly together: gun violence. According to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago had 3,457 shooting victims in 2017—246 of these victims were under 18. Since Columbine in 1999, there have been at least 129 school shooting deaths, per the Washington Post.
A gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14 and killed 17 people. Emma Gonzalez, 18, survived the shooting and traveled to Chicago to speak at the press conference as part of her crusade against gun violence. Gonzalez’s shaved head and fiery criticism of the government and NRA have made her the most recognizable figure from Parkland. During an anti-gun rally in Florida shortly after the shooting, Gonzalez established a catchphrase for the movement: "We call B.S." Leaning into her rising status as an activist, she’s spearheading March For Our Lives, a student-organized event that, at the time of this writing, has spawned 838 planned marches worldwide. It’s all set to take place on March 24, with a march on Washington, D.C. billed as the main event. Celebrities including Oprah, George Clooney, and Steven Spielberg have all donated to the cause.
In a student-led conversation held after the press conference, Gonzalez told Complex that the deaths in Parkland have opened her eyes to Chicago’s deep cycle of violence.
“There's so much more loss here,” Gonzalez said. “And it was spread over such a large period of time. ... We might have differences, but we have something in common. And it's a really, really big thing.”
Newman spoke alongside Gonzalez at the press conference and will attend the Washington, D.C. march she organized. He became involved with the Parkland-Chicago alliance through BRAVE, a Chicago violence prevention youth council that establishes social justice leadership skills and assembles protests against gun use. Newman has a close connection to BRAVE’s cause: His 16-year-old brother Randell Young was killed in spring 2016.
“He left one night to take his girlfriend to the bus stop so she can get home safe,” Newman explained. “And as he was coming back, he seen his friend. So he had went over towards them and talked, and then as they started to leave, there was a shootout down the block. I guess he was in front of them all, so he got caught in the crossfire and got shot. The man came up to him afterward to make sure he was dead and shot him twice inside the head. So he was shot 9 times that day.”
Newman says the loss and pain he’s experienced led him to be more hands-on in guiding his city and his neighborhood toward a safer era. “I just don't want to lose no one else,” he said. “So whatever I can do or anybody else can do, I suggest that they do that. Because a small difference can make a big impact.”
Newman is determined to spark a change with the students he took a stand with at the Saint Sabina press conference—students like Emma Gonzalez, who isn't afraid of a challenge, but acknowledges the skepticism that goes hand-in-hand with a youth-led movement.
“The reason that people think this way is because adults and messages by the conservative individuals at the top who dislike listening to the younger generation—those people have been trying to disenfranchise kids,” Gonzalez said.
“They've been trying to take away their messages and trying to squish them down and say, ‘Tell them your vote doesn't matter, because you could never amount to anything. Because you could never say anything that would matter because you won't know anything until you go through college, until you have a house, until you buy a car with your own money and you work hard for this.’ We are working hard. We're making a march happen.”