Tomorrow I’ll take to the streets of downtown Detroit to spend an hour or so walking a few miles with thousands of young people and not-so-young people in Metro Detroit’s March for Our Lives event. I’ll listen to speakers, many of whom will be students, as they explain their worries and hopes; some who are politicians, who will say the right words, at least; and a few other folks who have made gun violence reduction a life’s work. I’ll march for the students from Parkland and Sandy Hook and Columbine and Great Mills. I’ll march to be heard, to be counted, to be hopeful, to be part of the solution, to be a human who cares and cries and mourns when children from Parkland and Sandy Hook and Columbine and Great Mills are killed with weapons much of the world finds unacceptable for civilians to own. And, I admit, I’ll march as a talisman of sorts, a way to protect my sons in their classrooms.
I’ll also march for young people who fear their own city streets every day, where school can be a safer spot than the route leading to school. I’ll march for those in Chicago, Baltimore, Philidelphia, and Detroit, where I grew up, for those whose lives are treated as disposable because their skin is dark and their pockets, too often empty. I’ll march for all the young people who are shot and killed and mourned for by their families, friends, and immediate community, but who are ignored, scorned, and deserted by those whose skin is not dark and whose pockets hold wealth and power and privilege.
And I’ll march for Melody. Melody Rucker, who was shot and killed at age sixteen on August 17, 1986. Shot outside at a party — a chaperoned party — by a young person just a year older than herself. A child killed by another child who, more than thirty years later, remains in prison, by many accounts a changed man, and who may be paroled this year. Shot for, well, being in the way of anger. Shot randomly, by another child who was, by account, upset that he wasn’t welcome at the party and wanted to make a point. Angry and young and armed — a lethal and all-too-common combination in this country.
I lived in Detroit from age five to age twenty-five. Detroit was, on and off, referred to as the murder capital of the United States. I called it home. Gunfire wasn’t an unusual sound while growing up, but I can’t recall particularly worrying about being shot. I often refer to my childhood neighborhood as a black, urban professional neighborhood with a moderate number of white folks, like my family, a perception that I can’t back up with anything but memories filtered through time. We weren’t rich. We weren’t poor. And more of our neighbors were better off than us than not. As a child, I worried about being abducted because every meal brought the pictures of missing children via our milk cartons. I worried about fire because the house across the street burned nearly to the ground when I was seven. And I worried about break-ins because that did happen with some regularity. I didn’t, however, worry about being shot.
I don’t know if Melody Rucker worried about being shot, as we never talked about that. I met Melody through the Episcopal Church’s Youth Task Force, a group I joined as a Catholic child with Methodist upbringing after being exposed to the group at my Episcopal summer camp. It was a group of preachers’ kids and other young people whose families were active in the Episcopal church, with a splash of others who, like me, had found the group through the camp. We met several times a year across Michigan’s lower peninsula to plan gatherings for young people. It was a chance to shape programs based on our concerns and perceived needs as much as a time to just hang out with friends. I could no longer tell you just what we planned and how well those plans were executed, but I can tell you we felt both valued and valuable, two primary needs of any teen.
I do know that at sixteen, I had no template for what to do when a friend was shot. I did what kids do when they meet tragedy as a group: I cried, I worried, I ranted, I pondered, and I reached out to friends who knew her. When the shock wore off, or at least a bit, we talked about Melody and about gun violence, specifically in Detroit. We were geographically scattered and few of us drove, and this was, of course, decades before social media allowed quick and easy contact. It was when calls out of your immediate area were expensive during the weekdays and only cheaper on weekend nights, often after parents said “no” to phone calls. So, no. We didn’t organize. We didn’t speak our truth to power. We didn’t march. Too many months later, I wrote my first letter to the editor, which was too long and too late to be published but was also my first attempt at writing for change, albeit a failed attempt.
Melody’s mother, Vera Rucker, however, acted. In the wake of her daughter’s death, she joined with other grieving parents to form and grow SOSAD — Save Our Sons and Daughters. SOSAD both offered support to families who had lost children to gun violence and worked to curb that violence. All this was done decades before social media allowed a swift path to many eyeballs and helping hands. SOSAD made a difference by caring for the families of those experiencing violent loss and in serving as an anti-violence movement. SOSAD changed lives for the better.
But tomorrow I’ll just march. That won’t change lives, I know. Changing lives take more than two miles of walking on a cold Detroit morning. It takes more than speakers with heart and hope and good intentions. Change takes more than signs and slogans, chants and cheers. Marches and speakers and gathering with one voice does make a difference, yes, as they let us know that others also want a more peaceful nation. That matters.
What changes lives comes next. What changes lives is whom we vote into positions of power and who we back with time and money. It happens when we refuse to be quiet and accept a new ‘normal’ of armed teachers and police where our children learn and grow. It happens when we stop confusing our personal wants for firepower and might with our nation’s needs to protect people from that firepower. It happens when we, as a society, decide that people matter more than things. It happens when we worry just as much about kids who don’t make the national news when they die from gunfire, the ones whose skin is darker and pockets are emptier.
It can happen. It has to happen. It cannot continue to not happen. Change must happen, but it’s in our hands.
But tomorrow I’m marching for Melody. Yes, also for the tens of thousands murdered after you, and for the ones yet to die. But, for tomorrow, it will be Melody on my mind and in my heart. May there never be a loss of another Melody.