Remarks from Pittsburgh’s Memorial for Victims of Gun Violence

Remarks from the Inter-faith Memorial for Local Victims of Gun Violence 

Heinz Memorial Chapel  /  Pittsburgh, PA  /  12/14/18

Heinz Chapel Outside 12_14_18Welcome. One of tonight’s co-sponsors is a group I’m proud to volunteer for – Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. We started just 6 years in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary by a suburban Mom in Chicago. We now have groups in every state and our supporters number more than 5 million making us a counterweight to the powerful gun lobby. 

Locally we’re busy, functioning as 3 teams—North Hills, South Hills, and Central—educating, organizing, and empowering people to lobby their elected officials for sensible gun safety legislation. My name is Jen Partica and I am proud to co-lead the Central Team with the incomparable Diane Matway who sits here in the front.

My family moved to Western PA two and a half years ago and settled in Moon Township, and on Monday night our town experienced gun violence. A man visiting another in his home at night, stabbed the homeowner and the homeowner shot his visitor. The home owner later at the hospital from the stabbing, but the visitor survived his gun shot wounds. 

After those facts, things get murky. Rumors are running rampant around town about the circumstances surrounding the incident. People speculate as to whether or not anything shady or illicit proceeded the violence, and I have to say I find the inquiry rather exhausting & distasteful, because the undercurrent there is questioning whether or not the victims “deserved” what happened to them. 

And I don’t believe violence is EVER deserved.Me at Heinz Chapel 12_14_18

We do this a lot in our country. When our communities look different our gun violence looks different, so we explain away this public health epidemic by finding reasons to justify it in the neighborhoods where we don’t live, in the victims we don’t identify with. And it is this very sick ability to bargain and barter with our morals, to assume the standing to judge others, to determine who “deserves” violence, that allows a man to feel justified in entering a place of worship and massacring a large number of people he’s never even met based solely on their religious identity.

And in the wake of such violence, our response awed the world. But there were some in our city that asked why we do not mourn for all victims the same. And I don’t know all the answers to that question, yet I still understand it. 

Our group has heard this question before, and our annual memorial here is one small way to answer for it. Because tonight we will read the names of ALL victims of gun homicide this year in Allegheny County. We read them all because NONE of them deserved it. No matter their age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, criminal record, or neighborhood, not one of them deserved to be shot and killed. 

So I ask you tonight to open your hearts to the victims you know well—and to the victims you know not at all—and to recognize that while we are not solely responsible for the violence in our communities, neither are we totally innocent. 

To recognize that not one of us is immune to gun violence.

So when you’re ready to take on the responsibility of addressing this issue, to help others bare this weight with the strength that only love can give you, CeaseFirePA, and Moms Demand Action, and groups like us are ready to welcome you to this fight. 

 

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Celebration w/ Bloomberg

The following are remarks I delivered on Oct. 21, 2018 as the Co-Lead of Pittsburgh’s central team for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America as part of a celebration for the signing into law of Pennsylvania’s Act 79 of 2018 to disarm domestic abusers. We were joined at our celebration by Michael Bloomberg, former NYC mayor & founder of Everytown for Gun Safety, Everytown’s President John Feinblatt, Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto, survivor Gina Pelusi, and two student leaders from the Univ. of Pitt’s Student Demand Action team.

“Welcome everyone! I’m Jenny Ruth Partica, the Co-Lead of our central Moms Demand Action team here in Pittsburgh and I want to thank you for coming today. I have never been more excited to get a party started!

I have been a volunteer with Moms Demand Action for 2.5 years. As a mother, my first priority is the safety of my children. And as a gun owner, I know we can support common-sense gun safety measures while also respecting our Second Amendment rights. 

I’m glad we are gathered here today to reflect and celebrate on the work we’ve been doing. Because every time there’s a shooting, it impacts a whole circle of people in its proximity, whether there’s a death or not. And our city has been rocked by some especially tragic shootings this year. We all see the headlines on the news — and we also know there are far too many shooting tragedies that never make the headlines.  Like so many of you here in the audience, myself included, you came to Moms Demand Action because you were angry, righteously so, and you were scared. You said “I want to do something. I feel powerless and I want to make a change right NOW.”

And then we looked at you, and we said “I understand. And what I need you to do right now with that conviction is I need you to call your local state senator and demand action.

Advocating for gun safety legislation is not always glamorous and it can be tedious. The victories can take time. It’s the first time you call your representative’s office and don’t have to give your name because they recognize your voice. Or it’s that time you pull into the driveway after picking your kids up from school and you see a notification on your phone that causes you to jump and cheer as you get out of the car your neighbor shouts over “What is it?”  and you respond “My bill’s going back to the Senate for reconciliation!!”

Just last week, we saw our demands for action come full circle with a MAJOR victory for gun safety in Pennsylvania. Governor Wolf signed legislation to disarm domestic abusers. We have worked at this for years, and you have trusted us along the way. You’ve trusted that each little step was productive. That every call for action was necessary. I’ve seen so many of you get involved in advocacy for the first time because of this bill, and I know that can be intimidating and I am so proud of every phone call, tweet, share on Facebook and every conversation you’ve had about this bill. 

I am a woman of faith and I believed we would get here. When we feared the bill would waiver we all kept the faith. When the local gun lobby spread lies about it. We still believed.  

I had faith that you, and lawmakers like (NAME ELECTEDs IN ATTENDANCE) and our partners like Rob Conroy from CeaseFirePA, and Nicole Molinaro Karcazun from the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, and law enforcement, like Sheriff Bill Mullen, and all the other groups who joined us from across the state, I had faith that we all believed in this bill. And if we stood up, and showed up, shouted about it long enough, everyone else would follow. Because how couldn’t they? How can you say no to a bill that disarms domestic abusers?

 

When I tell people I’m a volunteer lead in a gun violence prevention program, they say “wow, that’s really brave.” But I don’t feel brave doing this work because it seems so obvious. The goals all of us share, the common sense steps we want to take to reduce gun violence, they seem so obvious to me that I can’t help but have faith that my fellow Americans will agree. But what’s obvious can take time, and we’ve all learned that with this bill. So let’s take some time to congratulate each other, to thank each other, and to recharge so we can keep going. Because we did it!”

 

 

Essay in Yellow Arrow Journal

Pleased to announce I have a new essay published in the latest issue of Yellow Arrow Journal. You can visit Yellow Arrow Press’s website to order a beautiful hard copy of the journal, purchase the Kindle version, or learn more about this fabulous mag and other projects from the publisher.

The essay, “Susquehanna,” deals with a period of time when I lived on the Susquehanna River. It begins with the memory of a neighbor apologizing for hating me, something her rehab program was encouraging her to do, yet I had never spoken to her until that moment. It comes in at just under 1,000 words and is accompanied by some outstanding works from fellow prose and poetry writers. Grab your own copy today!

“Bullets Into Bells” event in PGH

I had the honor of participating in The Bridge Series’ event at City of Asylum in Alphabet City for the book “Bullets Into Bells,” an anthology of poetry and essays addressing gun violence in America. The book was edited by Connecticut poet Brian Clements, husband to a teacher who survived the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. We were joined by my friend & survivor Gina Lodato Pelusi, a leader for Pittsburgh’s Moms Demand Action teams who captivates a crowd with her story of love, loss and hope. I joined Brian & Gina on a post-reading panel as both the co-lead for the local Moms Demand Action and as an contributor to the online conversation happening on “Bullets Into Bells” website. A collection was taken at the door, and $260 was donated to Moms Demand Action.

I am continually humbled to be involved in this work. I feel inspired by everyone who shows up and asks how they too can get active, because we can end gun violence.

Photo Credit: City of Asylum

Welcome to the Movement to End Gun Violence

“If Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were alive today, they’d be my age,” is what I say because using terms like “gun violence prevention” and “activist” just elicit drawn out ohhhhhs and wows from people stumbling through some awkward variation of “thank you for working on that really important issue.” But wow isn’t in reference to importance; it’s in recognition of danger. Then there’s a turn, a distinct switch to gossipy whispers as they ask why I became an activist for gun violence prevention. What happened to me? I see a series of images in mind, each a reason why, each either too private to tell or not mine to tell. So I pick a story that makes me seem like the vapid white suburban lady who knows nothing of gun violence aside from what she sees on the news. I pick a story that belongs to us all.  

A year before Columbine, there was Jonesboro. Two boys attacked their middle school, one pulling the fire alarm, the other a sniper on the perimeter picking off kids as they filed outside. I was in 10th grade. The next time the fire alarm was pulled at my school, I walked outside with two friends. One led us to the center of the crowd. “Better get in the middle in case one of us turned psycho overnight and is across the street with a deer rifle,” my friend said. We laughed. I added, “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true,” and we laughed even harder.

The day after Columbine, things changed. The mood, most of all, changed in our school. Our spring-time tradition of Color Week, filled with pranks and intra-class water gun warfare, was suddenly not so innocent. We lost freedoms we didn’t even know we enjoyed. We were locked up, but in no less danger. 

Have I mentioned I went to high school in Amish country, where a man would massacre a school full of girls a few short years later? Or that I was on the college campus where I worked, listening to the eerie tests of a new emergency

broadcast system blaring from campus-wide speakers, when news of Virginia Tech broke? Or that I was 8 months pregnant with my first child when Sandy Hook happened? Or that my son came home from daycare the Monday after the Pulse nightclub shooting, told me how safe his school was, and I couldn’t agree with him? 

It wasn’t any one of those that made me finally join the movement. It was all of them, and more. 

Can I tell you about the unfathomable shame I felt the first time I attended a memorial for gun violence victims in a black neighborhood? The first speaker looked at my friends and I and said, “Oh good, white people care. Maybe now something will happen.” It was a punch in the gut, and I deserved it. 

Communities of color have long endured an epidemic fueled by illegal guns, obtained through shitty laws and loopholes kept in place because there’s profit in their death. I feel the awesome weight of responsibilities white people have shirked for so long, in so many ways, on this subject and others. But we also applied this violent indifference to our own communities, endangering  ourselves too. In our wake, no one is immune. 

I am not solely responsible for this, but neither am I innocent. I have long felt an internal rage for being so foolish for so long. I feel this rage for others too, for the people desperate to get involved after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I welcome them, joyously, at meetings and rallies and online forums, because we need them. But I’m still pissed. Do they think Parkland’s teens are the first ones to feel this way? I hear that the outspokenness of high schoolers has woken people up, headlines read “now there’s no more excuses.” I wonder what were the excuses when I was afraid of being shot in my high school? These aren’t the first students to live with this fear. If I give voice to this resentment, will it turn people’s anger inward when it should stay focused on the gun lobby?

If Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were alive today they would be 36.

When my son enters kindergarten in the fall he’ll practice ALICE drills, hide in the closet of his classroom and be scolded silent because everyone’s pretending an active shooter is on campus. He’s sure to come home and talk about it. He’s sure to notice that once again his mother can’t assure him he’s safe. He’ll be the second generation of his family to live with this fear. The second generation to go to school with the understanding that evil can walk in, armed with military-style weaponry, and massacre him along with his friends. The second generation to know that the leaders of his country can’t be bothered to value his life. 

Is this the time to tell you I’m a gun owner? That’s really why I joined the movement. As a white, suburban mom I know the gun lobby pretends they speak for me, and most people assume they do. But the gun lobby speaks for gun manufacturers, so I bear the responsibility to make it known otherwise. 

When I tell people I work on gun violence prevention because I’m a gun owner, they are always surprised. I want to look at them and say, “I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. My family hunted to fill our freezer each winter. Of course I own guns.” So many Americans do own guns. Pretending this is a “gun owner vs. anti-gun” argument is to prolong it, to play into the hands of those who profit from our fear and our deaths. We are part of the problem when we are unable to imagine anything other than this typical “us vs. them” debate that turns Americans into extremists. So sometimes I short-hand it and say, “I’m a gun owner, not a monster.” 

My activism is comfortably occupying all my conflicting identities while educating and organizing people to lobby their elected officials for effective and sustainable legislation. I wield the privileges my race, income, and zip code afford me. I recognize I’m armed with this power by an oppressive and unjust system, so I must use it for the good of those in more danger than I am.     

There is evil in this world. While we’re squabbling among ourselves, unable to imagine a society with more than a dichotomy of parameters, that evil has access to high-powered firearms. When I want to know about evil, I turn to my church. When I want to keep evil from obtaining lethal weapons, I turn to my government. I hound my government. I badger my government. I nag, pester, and bother. It’s not glamorous or sexy. It’s often tedious. It never feels like enough, but it works. Slowly than it needs to, but it does work.

Let this be our call to action. All of us. Disarm our rhetoric, our keyboards, our agreements to disagree. Disarm our violent resentment towards communities that look different from our own. Demand our government, our elected officials, our leaders protect us from evil. Show up, again and again. Evil will always be among us, but our government can keep it from waging war so efficiently, so effortlessly, for so long. Believe it. Commit to it. Now. 

 

No one’s coming to save us.

No one’s coming to save us. Not a heroic politician. Not a celebrity activist. Not a nation-wide march. Not the outrage caused by a string of increasingly gruesome mass shootings of historic proportions. Not even the fact that we’re averaging a school shooting every 60 hours this year will be enough to spur our leaders to make change. We are all there is.

But we are enough. We, each and every one of us, must make the decision that we’re going to change this. And then we have to commit ourselves to the tedious work of lobbying our elected officials. Not just flailing our arms in despair and yelling “do something,” but the unglamorous work of showing up, calling up, and consistently confronting our officials on the votes they cast for specific legislation to make our communities safer.

It’s not quick, easy, or sexy, but it’s successful. In the past 5 years, NRA-backed bills have been defeated in 30 states. It takes a coalition of different groups and approaches to do this work, so go find one and let’s share the load.

Bullets Into Bells

Beacon Press’s beautiful collection of poetry & responses from authors & activists addressing gun violence, Bullets Into Bells, came out this December 2017. They have chosen to publish my essay, This is What Happens Where You Live, on the website supporting the book. Check it out and then buy this amazing book! I received my pre-ordered copy on the book’s release date and devoured it. It helped that I was prepping for my Moms Demand Action chapter’s memorial to gun violence victims on the 5th anniversary of Sandy Hook, but I bet I would have read it just as quickly. So often I simply forget to read poetry, and then when I stumble upon it I act like it’s the carbs of literature!

I’ve understood for a while now that the world of guns would be the next subject I’d write about. Makes sense since I’ve spent that last few years writing about race, a natural lead in to America’s gun obsession. To have this first piece scooped up so quickly is really unexpected and lucky. It so happens that the web editor lives in my city and posted the call for submission on a local Facebook group to which I belong. I had the first few paragraphs of this piece sketched out when I saw the call. Aiming at a target publication with word count limitations really forced me to hone the argument. I’m grateful for all the right things that happened at the right time.

 

When the piece was sent to me for a few revisions, they were mostly style concerns (I just can’t break that AP habit). But the editor had one other note; could I please end on an uplifting note? Just a few sentences? I had originally ended the piece without the last paragraph, so Bill O’Reilly had the last word. It was a real downer, but seemed appropriate to me. I can forget to stay positive in the face of this gigantic problem. It was a good reminder to keep going, in every way.

b to b

finding a home for WHITE AND WORKING ON IT

Today Waxwing published my essay “White and Working On It.” The essay comes from my manuscript of the same name, a project that seems more and more timely with each passing news cycle. So to have this first published part of the whole in a magazine dedicated to “promoting the tremendous cultural diversity of contemporary American literature, alongside international voices in translation” is a perfect fit.

I tend to shy away from using the word “woke” because I’m not sure if it’s my word to use, and also because I believe I’ll work for the rest of my life on waking up. But I know that I was once asleep, filled with good intentions and love and a desire to “help people,” but fast asleep. Faulting people who have to yet learned what I’ve learned is unproductive and will never wake other up. So every time I see that “white women elected Trump,” I see no purpose in #notallwhitewomen. I know I’m part of the 40% who didn’t, but so what?

If we as a country truly wish to  confront our systemic racism, then we in the majority race need to reckon with our own identity. White people need to talk to each other about being white. And I’m trying to reach the biggest audience I can.

So what do you do with a large project that has defined purpose but no defined delivery method? Which to say, what do you do with a literary work that could be any number of things–a book, a serial web column, a workbook, etc…? Especially when said project challenges the identity of the largest book buying demographic? Which is also to say that agents and editors send me the most complimentary rejections.

So “White and Working On It” the manuscript is looking for a home, and I don’t know what kind of home it needs. But it is wonderful to know that at least this first seed of it, the essay that starts the whole project, has found at a place where it fits and can thrive.

Remarks from Lucy McBath’s visit to Moms Demand Action – Pittsburgh

On Sunday, August 27, the Pittsburgh chapter of Moms Demand Action welcomed a Mother of the Movement and national spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety, Lucy McBath. Lucy lost her teenage son, Jordan Davis, in 2012. The case made national headlines as it was reminiscent of Trayvon Martin’s, but in the end Jordan’s killer, unlike Trayvon’s, was brought to justice. 

Lucy McBath, Pittsburgh 2017

I spent a portion of my summer organizing Lucy’s visit, which included a screening of the documentary, The Armor of Light. We secured space by partnering with the Univ. of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, specifically Dr. Steven Albert. The following are remarks I delivered to the crowd to start the event and introduce Dr. Albert.

“Welcome. I’m Jenny Ruth, the events lead for Pittsburgh’s chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gunsense in America. Moms Demand Action started less than six years ago, and our local group is even younger than that. And as we work our way around the city, meeting survivors and community leaders and other people who just wake up in the morning and decide they’ve had enough, it’s clear that others have been hard at work addressing the public health problem of gun violence for a long time. We’re new to the fight but we’re bringing our own political power and weight to bear on the legislators and officials who make policies and craft the laws that govern our lives.

Right now we’re advocating for SB 501 that would require known domestic abuser to turn in their guns. In 2016 over half the people killed in PA were shot by domestic abusers. I encourage you to take a moment and sign a postcard for SB501 that’s in the lobby if you haven’t done so already. We’ll deliver them to legislators soon. We also want to stop the Guns in Schools bill that passed in the state senate earlier this summer, so when it rears its head in the House, we’ll tell yinz and mobilize to stop it.

In the year I’ve been involved in this fight, it’s become clear to me that when our communities look different, our gun violence problems can look different, but none of us are immune.

You may have come here today because you lost a loved one who took their own life with a gun; or because the young people of your neighborhood are taking each others’ lives with guns; or because you know a woman whose boyfriend or husband took her life with his gun; or maybe because you watch the news and have just had enough already. While all these reasons are important because they brought you here, the differences between them don’t really matter. Because as a member of our chapter, a pediatrician, says – when she sees a patient with a gun shot wound, it doesn’t matter if it was self-inflicted or accidental or from some fight on the street; they all look the same laying on her table.

There is not just one silver bullet that’ll take down our gun violence problems. It’s gonna take all of us, fighting on many fronts, to secure our safety. But there are more of us who care then there are gun lobbyists. There are more of us than their are politicians in the pocket of gun manufacturers. There are more of us than we even know, if we just find that one group or program that we can connect with and get to work.

With that being said, I’d like you to hear more about the work being done here by inviting to the stage our host, the Professor and Philip B. Hallen Chair of Community Health and Social Justice in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, Dr. Steven Albert. Lets give a round of applause.”

white responsibility on a day like today.

My dear fellow white Americans,

There’s some ugliness happening in our names today, and no matter how far you are from Charlottesville, VA, you cannot see yourself as removed from the situation. You’ve probably spent your whole life turning away from this kind of viciousness, but to what? So many of us feel we must make the false choice of either white pride or white guilt, and since neither is an attractive option we disengage, pretend we’re above the fray.

But we’re not. Embrace your responsibility.

Declare that these white supremacists in Charlottesville do not speak for you. Condemn them to your family, your friends, your colleagues, your classmates, your neighbors, and your elected officials. Don’t assume people will think today’s ugliness represents a minority of white people. White supremacists assume your silence is agreement. People of color will assume this too, and who will tell them otherwise if not you?

There are, of course, so many others things you need to do. The idea of all the work we must do together to heal this country is overwhelming, so let’s start small with this today. Share this as your social media, and then text RESIST to 504-09 and let your representatives in government know you condemn the hate masquerading as legitimate protest in Charlottesville today, and demand they publicly condemn it too. And if even this feel scary, like posting on your page will start some kind of argument with a family member or a friend you’d prefer not to initiate, understand that’s why you must do it. You can no longer sit in your sports chair and spectate. Justice is marching on.