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Marie Delus, a Moms Demand Action volunteer and Everytown Survivor Network member in Brooklyn, is on the frontline of two public health crises in America: gun violence and COVID-19. Marie’s nephew, Pierre-Paul Jean-Paul Jr., was shot and killed in Cambria Heights in Queens in 2008. Then, her son, TJ, was shot and survived, and her youngest son, Theo, was shot at while he was still in high school. And now, Marie’s family is grappling with COVID-19: several of her loved ones have been hospitalized in New York City since the outbreak began, and one of them has been hospitalized for months.
Like many Black Americans, Marie is experiencing firsthand how these two crises are disproportionately impacting communities of color. Black Americans make up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, but they are 10 times more likely than white Americans to die by gun homicide, and Black children and teens are 14 times more likely to die by gun homicide than their white peers. That disparity also exists in the coronavirus pandemic: Black Americans make up 29.3 percent of the COVID-19 cases for which a patient’s race was known, and nearly one third of all deaths from the virus. These inequities are due in large part to discriminatory practices and policies that put Black and brown communities at higher risk for being victims of both violence and disease, and also minimize their access to power as citizens.
This week, I had the opportunity to moderate a conversation with Stacey Abrams, the founder of Fair Fight Action, Fair Count and the Southern Economic Advancement Project, organizations dedicated to supporting communities of color and advancing voting rights and social justice, about the coronavirus pandemic, gun safety and getting out the vote. In 2018, Stacey ran for governor in Georgia, becoming the first Black woman to be the gubernatorial nominee for a major party in the U.S. She is also the former Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, and one of the smartest and most inspiring voices in American politics right now.
You can watch my full Demanding Women conversation with Stacey Abrams here:
According to Stacey, longstanding disparities in access to healthcare are also making these crises harder for communities of color in every way, and can lead to a sense of despair and isolation. “People of color are the most likely to be frontline workers, they’re the ones who have to go to work every day, to go to the grocery store, or to serve as health sanitation folks at our hospitals,” Stacey told me. “They are in the positions with the least amount of power, the greatest amount of exposure and the lowest likelihood of actually getting services. We have to recognize that with that comes a despair that can lead to suicide, can lead to a sense of isolation. And when you layer that on top of the true isolation that comes with social distancing, we have both a mental health crisis as well as a physical health crisis. And that’s where gun violence becomes even more damaging and destructive.” When I started Moms Demand Action more than seven years ago, I learned quickly that Black and brown mothers had been in this fight for decades, and it was past time to join them. Standing with leaders in marginalized and underrepresented communities, as well as supporting community-based violence intervention programs, is at the heart of our mission, and even more critical during this pandemic.
Stacey and I were joined by John C. Yang, the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC. John spoke about the rising discrimination East Asian communities are experiencing during this pandemic, including some incidents of violence. All too often, we’ve seen the deadly effects when hate comes armed with a gun. In an average year, there are over 10,300 hate crimes involving a firearm in the U.S. But there are ways we can safely stand up to hate when we see it. Supporting a victim, helping them find resources, and reporting the incident to authorities are just some of them, according to John. And it’s on all of us to stand up to hate when we see it. “The first step is acknowledging that it’s happening and speaking out about it,” Stacey said. “We know that hate crimes are not isolated. They begin with the villainization of one community and they expand immediately.” You can go here to join an upcoming training from AAJC on being an effective bystander or here to report an incident of hate or racism.
Stacey is all about moving forward, and she’s working tirelessly to make sure every American is able to cast their vote this November. “Our campaign needs to be simple. We need to win America,” she told me. “We need to win it back from a leader who has said that he believes it’s okay to demonize and villainize our community members.” In order to change the country, Stacey said we must “participate in our own salvation.” That means filling out the 2020 Census to get the resources and legislative leaders our communities deserve. Stacey’s organization, Fair Count, is working on this issue right now.
Creating the America we want to live in begins at the ballot box. As Stacey pointed out in our conversation, voter suppression in 2020 isn’t about keeping voters from the polls with guns and hoses, which was common in the 1960s. Voter suppression today is about bureaucratic hurdles, voter purges and restrictive ID laws that disproportionately block voters of color. Through Fair Fight, Stacey is pushing to make sure people know it is safe to vote, and advocating for vote-by-mail options as well as early voting, all of which can help reduce big crowds and keep people safe as the COVID-19 crisis continues. “No one should risk their lives to participate in our democracy,” she said.
During her 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Stacey’s team increased youth voter turnout in Georgia by 139 percent. When one of our stellar Students Demand Action volunteers asked Stacey how she got out the vote with young people, she had some great advice. First, talk to young people, not at them — and invite them to be part of your campaign. Since many campaign events are going virtual, young voters can also capitalize on their digital savvy to get involved during this time of social distancing.
When I founded Moms Demand Action, I always wanted a way for my five children to get involved, too. Since then, Students Demand Action has grown into a political powerhouse of high school and college students with active volunteers in every state and nearly 400 groups across the country. And via their virtual field offices, our volunteers are using Zoom, Slack, Icebreaker, Hustle, and more to connect during social distancing.
Stacey is known for her candor, and she doesn’t see the uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis as a reason to stop pushing for the laws and leaders we need now. “We have this responsibility to speak aloud the concerns that we have. In the midst of COVID-19, that does not exempt lawmakers from being held accountable. We have to do the work of reaching out, telling our stories, and when they’re not heard, telling them again,” she said. Stacey suggested using analog methods like phone-banking and sending letters, and make sure you follow up and get an answer. Likewise, use social media to not only share “what you want heard, but who is listening,” she said. Don’t wait to address the other urgent political and economic issues in your community because of this public health crisis. “In the midst of a pandemic, our laws have to meet the moment,” she said. I couldn’t agree more, which is why our volunteers have taken our gun violence prevention movement back to its online roots to keep fighting for gun safety during this crisis.
The pandemic has exposed our country’s structural inequalities and lack of protection for communities of color more clearly than ever before. Seizing the momentum to effect change now is one way we can use this crisis to make America safer for all of our families.
I’ve been hosting conversations with women leaders from around the country. Catch up on the conversations!Watch here
Did you know?
The U.S. gun homicide rate is 25 times higher than that of other high-income countries.
Grinshteyn, E. and Hemenway, D. “Violent Death Rates in the US Compared to Those of the Other High-income Countries, 2015.” Preventive Medicine. (2019). https://bit.ly/3kyfsSs