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Black teens on Parkland gun debate: What about us?

David McFadden and Rebecca Santana, Associated Press | 3/28/2018, 7:16 a.m.
Imani Holt was just 10 when she saw a neighbor get fatally shot by a triggerman riding a bicycle. The ...
Student Imani Holt poses for a photograph in a classroom at Excel Academy in Baltimore. Holt was just 10 when she saw a neighbor getting fatally shot by a triggerman. She was so traumatized by the violence she refused to leave her family's apartment for weeks. She's since seen and heard the horrific aftermath of two more deadly shootings and attends the high school that's lost seven classmates to the daily drip of gun violence. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

BALTIMORE — Imani Holt was just 10 when she saw a neighbor get fatally shot by a triggerman riding a bicycle. The African-American girl from a gritty section of Baltimore was so traumatized by the drug-fueled bloodshed she refused to leave her family's apartment for weeks.

In the eight years since, Holt has seen the chaotic aftermath of two more deadly shootings and has lost seven high school classmates to the daily drip of gun violence.

Like many black teenagers in neighborhoods hobbled by generational poverty, she is scrutinizing the national gun control debate intensely, frustrated because her community feels ignored but also cautiously hopeful that the massacre in Florida may bring about change closer to home.

"I feel really bad that they lost those kids in Florida. But, like, we go through shootings all the time. It's just that our shootings happen day by day. Because it happens on the regular up here, the world says it's really not that important," said the 18-year-old Holt, a junior at Excel Academy, an alternative high school across the street from a cluster of West Baltimore's boarded-up row houses.

Christina Martin, a 17-year-old who lost two schoolmates to gun violence this year at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, noted that the victims in the affluent Parkland community were mostly white and Latino. None were African-American.

"We should have got the same attention in return," said Martin, who is black.

The gun violence toll is unrelenting in parts of Baltimore — a city that reached a grim milestone last year when the per-capita homicide rate rose to 56 killings per 100,000 people. That's the highest rate among the country's 30 biggest cities.

Even as Excel Academy students prepared for last Saturday's March for Our Lives protest, gun violence struck again: A 17-year-old classmate was shot on a street corner, three bullets in the back by an unidentified gunman.

The deaths of seven classmates to gun violence over the span of 15 months have left deep emotional scars. The students at Excel agree that their high school — with a metal detector at the entrance— provides a sense of security. But the toll on their bodies and minds is significant. Nerves are on edge. It can be hard to concentrate.

"It's really scary. You just want to go to sleep, wake up and see the same people you saw yesterday. But it's like: One day you see somebody, the next day they're gone," Holt said.

At the New Hope Baptist Church in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood — an area that has struggled with crime — Pastor Jamaal Weathersby has presided over funeral services for a toddler killed in a shooting and three brothers all shot in the same incident. He worries about the impact that repeated gun violence has on young people.

"There are so many young people who are suffering silently, trying to internalize how their brothers, sisters, uncles, even parents are being gunned down in our streets and I think it's something, no matter how long, eventually I believe it's going to come out in some shape, form or fashion, whether it's depression, keeping up in school," he said.