I’m not exactly sure what it says about a city when some of its youth believe they must beg to be heard. That puzzle is what landed me inside Rainier Beach High’s cramped library Jan. 18. The occasion was the second student-led town hall on gun violence in as many weeks, a dialogue with Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz to discuss how violence had eroded their mental, physical, and emotional health.
Students had lost three current and former schoolmates in the span of three years. They’d been terrorized by multiple gun threats including one last December that forced a school closure and the postponement, until last week, of a gun violence town hall.
Alongside their community, they’ve been gutted by the tragic killing of Hansoo Kim, the beloved owner of Rainier Teriyaki, and multiple murders committed over a span of weeks.
Wedged into the students’ minds that day was the city’s 110% increase in gun violence from 2021 to 2022, with 22% of homicide victims being young Black people, all near the same age as the students, according to police data.
What’s resulted is an accumulation of tragedy and sadness, along with a perceived apathy for their suffering compared to schools located in wealthier and whiter parts of our city.
No wonder the first question to Diaz, though it could have been directed toward all of us, was:
“What are you going to do to keep us safe?”
For Diaz’s part, he laid out current violence reduction strategies either already in place or in progress, including street beautification and the Safe Passage program, where community peacekeepers roam the routes children take home to keep them out of trouble. He also cited his department’s gun recovery efforts, which have seen the highest number of firearms removed from circulation in the last 13 years.
However, it was a student’s next statement that had me biting my tongue to keep from audibly rejoicing. Caleb Presley, a senior and member of the NAACP youth council, mentioned that police are primarily relegated to arresting people and taking guns off the streets. In other words, they are a force of reaction, not transformation.
Students made it clear they want much more.
They want to trust that when they step on a street corner they can do so without the fear of being fatally shot. They want role models who sustain them through life’s progressions instead of charity-bombing them for social media content. Supremely, they want to be taken into account, as seriously as any school, as any person, in this city.
This was why several students at a town hall the previous week voiced their disappointment in how we have treated their ongoing trauma in comparison to that of students from other schools in the city.
Last November, following the tragic murder of one of their schoolmates, Ingraham High students were able to secure $2 million in mental health funding. That funding will be dispersed among 29 school-based health centers, one of which will be Rainier Beach.
Let me unequivocally state, there should only be everlasting admiration for the Ingraham High students whose march on City Hall led to that funding.
But I must share the Rainier Beach students’ recognition that those funds came at the request of a school in Seattle’s North End. I also share the recognition that the needs of students in one area of town are different from those in another. The students I sat with at the town hall have prematurely lost friends, brothers, sisters, cousins and mentors.
Through it all, they’ve seen others’ pain treated with responsiveness, while their pain has been treated with indifference.
Fortunately, what they haven’t lost, at least not yet, is hope. Hope that we in this city will listen to them, and act upon what we hear.
Our youth are demanding an environment where they are free from gun violence, free from being a casualty of gentrification, and free to have as much mobility, opportunity, and resources as anyone in our city.
I’ve found that ignorance is not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of notice.
As the gathering concluded, Daleceana Fudge-Minnis, a 16-year-old Rainier Beach student, told those in attendance how much of a life changer Rainier Beach had been for her, despite people in other areas of the city often stereotyping it as “ghetto.”
“Imagine our friends who aren’t kids of color, telling their friends and parents who aren’t of color, about who we truly are and who we’re trying to be. Our future children cannot only be proud of being a Viking but of being a citizen,” she said.
She has so much more to say. It’s a pity if we don’t listen.