In Central City, Students Add Their Voices To The Post-Parkland Conversation On Guns

Apr 4, 2018

Pastor Lisa Fitzpatrick spends every weeknight at an old Catholic school building in Central City. Tonight she’s sliding slices of pizza onto paper plates for about a dozen hungry teenagers.

"Two pieces!" she calls out.

This is the APEX youth center. Fitzpatrick started it about a decade ago to provide a safe space for neighborhood kids in a part of New Orleans where shootings are especially frequent.

"I know several houses just within a few blocks of here that have bullet holes in the walls," Fitzpatrick says.

Tonight, Fitzpatrick has gathered the teens to reflect on the Parkland, Fla. shooting that killed 17 people — and the nation's response.

"How many of you know someone who has been murdered or injured by gunfire?" she asks the room.

Every single student raises his or her hand.

"Have you ever heard someone say 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people'?That's actually not true" - Activist and high school sophomore Zianca Bailey

While they eat, kids speak with one another about their own experiences with gun violence. Eighteen-year-old high school junior Larry Brown was 12 when he witnessed a shooting on his way to the corner store with his sisters. He remembers telling the girls to run.

"I wasn’t worried about me getting hit at the moment. I was worried about getting them in front, because I knew I was going to catch up," he explains.

The Parkland shooting made the threat of gun violence real to school-aged kids and their parents across the United States. But for Brown and many of his classmates at his majority-black high school near Central City, getting shot was already a daily concern.

"I have to go to school and speed walk because I'm scared that I'm going wind up walking into a bullet," Brown says.

It doesn't escape him that all the students at the APEX youth center who have experience with gun violence are kids of color.

"Usually people who are talking about being shot, or who have been shot, or have experienced shootings are black," he says.

Brown is right. In Louisiana, African Americans are almost twice as likely as white people to die from gunfire. Data from the city’s anti-violence initiative show more than 90 percent of people murdered in New Orleans are black — nearly all by guns.

New Orleans high school Junior Larry Brown wants changes to gun laws to help end the gun violence he protects himself from on a daily basis.
Credit Jess Clark / WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio

Since Parkland, student activists have been calling for stepping up background-checks on gun-buyers, and banning assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines. Brown supports that movement, but he doesn’t think those reforms will be enough to help his community.

"I think they should just get rid of guns in general. That should be something only used by militia and military forces," he says.

"That's usually how these type of things work - you have to have hope for change in order to make the change" - high school sophomore Larry Brown

On a quieter day at APEX, Brown is hanging out with friends in the common room. Some kids are doing homework, others are talking or playing computer games. Fifteen-year-old Zianca Bailey is there too, wearing a high-school T-shirt, glasses and shimmering eye makeup. She agrees with Brown when it comes to gun reform.

"Have you ever heard someone say 'Guns don’t kill people, people kill people?' That’s actually not true," Bailey says. "The guns kill people. People might kill people with hands and knives and stuff. But guns kill people."

Bailey grew up in the Iberville housing project, where she says shootings were commonplace. 

"I got used to it," Bailey says. "And that’s something no one should get used to — hearing gun shots literally outside your window almost every night."

Inspired by their personal experiences and conversations at APEX, Bailey and Brown and a number of their friends from the youth center went to the March for Our Lives Protest in New Orleans at the end of March. Bailey was on the planning team. She put up posters in the hallways of her school the week before.

When hundreds of students showed up on the day of the march, Bailey ended up front and center.

"I was like, 'Wow, this is really big. I am helping make a change for something that is — good,'" Bailey remembers thinking.

Bailey and Brown are hopeful that with the attention school shootings are getting, the nation will also start paying attention to the gun violence young people of color experience outside their school walls — in streets, through windows and on front porches. And done mostly with handguns — not AR-15s.

"I'm very hopeful. You know? That's usually how these type of things work," Brown says. "You have to have hope for change in order to make the change."

After an evening of leading conversations with teens about gun violence, Pastor Lisa Fitzpatrick takes a seat in the APEX library.
Credit Jess Clark / WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio

After most of the kids have gone home, Pastor Fitzpatrick sinks into a chair. Behind her, a line of bullet holes arcs across the library window. Strays, she says, from a shooting that happened a block away. When I ask her what she makes of the surge of attention around gun violence, she says she’s glad someone is finally listening to young people.

"I’m very grateful to the students who are bringing voice to a long-overdue issue," she says, "because our children have been screaming into the night for decades."

In the meantime, Fitzpatrick says APEX will stay open as a space for kids to keep themselves safe.

Thanks to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for the audio from the March for Our Lives rally.

Entergy Corporation supports WWNO’s education reporting.