“Today isn’t a vigil. It isn’t a memorial. It’s a call to action. We’re done lighting candles. It’s time to vote.” Those words from Michael Wukela, executive director of Progress South, summed up the purpose of the Stop the Violence rally which drew more than 100 people to the State House Saturday.
The rally was organized in just a few days in the wake of the shootings in Orlando, but thirty-five businesses and organizations stepped forward as sponsors in support of Progress South. “We’ve grown into a movement,” Wukela said. “Young, old, gay, straight, black, white, Latino, men, women and transgender, all joining in a single chorus to say enough is enough.”
The speakers at the rally represented the wide swath of society mentioned by Wukela. Tamekia Hunter Ross spoke on behalf of her nephew, Rodney Sumter, a bartender who was shot three times at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. “Our government and laws failed my nephew and everyone at the Pulse,” she said. “We need to bring about change when the laws of our land need to be changed.How many more victims and families will we continue to fail because of our gun laws?”
Speaker after speaker emphasized the importance of demanding action from legislators to prevent more tragedies. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin read the poem “Bury Me in a Free Land,” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. His speech following the reading brought the crowd to its feet.
Rep. Beth Bernstein spoke of her efforts to pass legislation closing what has become known as the “Charleston loophole,” the law allowing gun dealers to sell someone a gun if the required background check is not completed by authorities within three days.
“Unfortunately, since this is an election year, most of my efforts fell on deaf ears,” Bernstein said. “But tragedies like this will only renew my effort in the upcoming session….Background checks save lives.”
Bernstein said in the 18 states which go beyond federal law and require background checks before the sale of any gun, 46 percent fewer women are shot to death by intimate partners and 48 percent fewer law enforcement officers are killed by handguns. “I not only have served during the terrible tragedy of Emanuel Nine, but also in my own district, we lost an officer, Greg Alia,” she reminded the crowd. “We cannot pay for these loopholes with any more American lives. We should not be afraid to send our children off to school, be afraid to spend an evening out with friends, or be fearful when we walk into a doctor’s office or Planned Parenthood clinic.”
Litzel Martinez-Garcia, a 17-year-old who was born in Mexico, spoke on behalf of Young Immigrants in Action, asking “What are we willing to do after today?” She said hate is born of ignorance, and encouraged the crowd to get to know different people. “When we don’t know anything about our neighbors or their lives, we unknowingly tolerate violence towards them.”
Captain Roxanne Meetze of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department spoke as a person who has experienced gun violence firsthand. She was confronted in 2000 by a suspect armed with an AK-47, pointing it at her and another officer. “I was a lucky one,” Meetze said of surviving that encounter. “This morning as we stand united as one, someone is mourning the loss of their life partner. Someone is mourning the loss of their loved one. Tomorrow, someone will not be able to celebrate Father’s Day.”
Meetze called for laws establishing harsher punishments for hate crimes and banning the purchase of assault weapons, and spoke angrily of claims that the AR-15 and AK-47 are not assault weapons. “If a rifle can be used to attack a crowd of people, killing and maiming scores of them on multiple occasions, it qualifies as an assault weapon,” she said. She closed with a message of support. “On behalf of Sheriff Leon Lott and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and my brothers and sisters in blue, my gay brothers and sisters in blue, we are here to say to the community that we have your back.”
Jeff Ayers of SC Equality joined the call for a ban on assault weapons and a state hate crimes law. “Today we stand up because we’re hurting, we feel vulnerable, and we’re downright angry,” he said. “Let us raise our voices, calling on our legislators to get it right this time. We saw it when the Confederate flag came down. They can do it, and we need it now.”
“We all breathe the same air, drink the same water and live from the fruits of the same land, and we believe that all of us deserve to enjoy these gifts free from hate and from violence,” said SC Sierra Club Chair Chris Hall.
Martinez-Garcia read the names of those murdered in Orlando, as well as those of the Emanuel Nine. As she spoke each name, a person lay down as if dead on the State House steps behind her, symbolizing the fallen.
Wukela reminded the crowd again that mourning is not enough. Action is required to prevent more tragedy. “How many more must die before the blood is on our hands because we did not do enough to stop it? Hate doesn’t kill just one person or 10 or 50,” he said. “It kills a piece of who we are as a people and we will not stand for it. We say enough is enough, and heaven help anybody who will not listen.”
The rally concluded with local musician Madilyn McCoy singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” as the representatives of the fallen lay on the steps behind her.
The following groups and businesses sponsored the rally: Progress South, Project Unity USA, SC Equality, The Brady Campaign, Uptown Rising, The Harriet Hancock Center, NASW SC Chapter, Trans United of SC, Midlands Area Trans Support, Simple Justice/Black Lives Matter, SC AFL-CIO, Young Democrats of SC, SC Democratic Women’s Council, Young immigrants in Action, Carolina Peace Resource Center, SC Pride, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, The Coalition, People United to Take Back our Community, TNOVSA/Good Governance in SC, American Association of University Women SC, Columbia Urban League, SC College Democrats, Sumter County Democratic Party, SCDP LGBTQ Caucus, SCDP Education Caucus, SCDP Hispanic Caucus, SC Democratic Party, National Federation of Democratic Women, SCCADVASA, the SCEA, Tell Them!, Eau Claire Community Council, the Capital Club, Ambient Media, Trezevant Funeral Home & Crematorium, and the SC Sierra Club. Gareth Fenley initiated the rally and helped organize it.
More pictures from the rally are available at the Midlands Anchor Facebook page.
Columbia Poet Laureate Ed Madden composed the following poem for the occasion, entitled “Two Men Kissing.”
“The father said his son got angry when he saw two men kissing… and thought that might be related to the shooting.” -NBC News
I remember when you kissed me out
in front of the School of Business, and I looked
around, convinced that someone saw us, and that
it mattered. Was the air around us changed, did the wind become somehow
different? – a small butterfly on the rosemary
and somewhere, later, a hurricane swept a coast?
When I said I couldn’t hold your hand
on Main Street any day but Pride, a friend
rebuked me for my fear, my shame. We walk
through our lives vigilant, or maybe wince
at a lover’s touch in public, pull back
a hand when a pickup truck pulls up
beside – somewhere a hurricane nears the coast.
I know the necessity of every day, of living
with who we are, and where. As I walked
back from the concert last night, I saw
two men holding hands. They kissed briefly,
sweetly, on the street. The street was different,
the light brighter despite the overwhelming
dark beyond – the skies cleared, the forecast
changed for this one night, this place. We face
what we face. We struggle forward. We love.