On National Gun Violence Awareness Day, Families Recount the Aftermath and Push for Change

At 12:30 a.m. on a November night in 2013, a policeman knocked on Jacquelyn Burke's door to tell her that her son was dead.

He was found fatally shot in a park, 20 years old. Burke says the young men charged with killing him were his best friends from high school, the boys he played on the football team with. She still doesn't know why they killed her son, Harley, or what happened that night, and she won't until the trial. But by now, Burke is done staying at home. She still grieves her son every day, and turns on Fried Green Tomatoes whenever she needs to cry. But Burke has found ways to channel the pain into a cause, she said — it's why she came out on a stormy evening to Highland Park in honor of National Gun Violence Awareness Day, and in honor of Harley.

About 75 people packed into the park's community room, all wearing orange, the cause's official color. Many were with Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America, while about a dozen had lost loved ones to gun violence. The Houston Health Department had come, acknowledging that the city considered gun violence to be a public health dilemma; and so did the president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Fernando Stein. From the podium, he reminded the crowd that America was a country home to more guns than citizens, a country that was outraged by the tragic shooting death of a gorilla — while the roughly 300 other gun deaths every day since then have mostly quietly faded from public consciousness following their 30-second slots on the local evening news.

"We are a society that is sensitive," he said, "but we are in this rhythm of violence, and we are unsure how to get out." To loud applause, he later added, "The only wrong thing to do is to do nothing."

No one at the rally liked the fact that the rally was necessary in the first place — no one liked what it was that had brought them together. But as one man, Arvind Sriraman, whose wife was murdered by her vengeful ex-husband, had said, "I didn't know how difficult it would be to speak here tonight, but the positive energy really makes me happy." 

Telling his story was worth it, Sriraman and other advocates who spoke said, because it's the stories from those forced to live with the aftermath of gun violence that can silence the floors of legislatures and make waves. After leaving the podium, Sriraman hugged Calandrian Kemp, a woman who, after losing her son, has since inspired nearly 800 people nationwide to start telling their stories loudly. She had brought together at least several mothers in the crowd that night, who had nearly become sisters after joining her large support network, called Village of Mothers.

Kemp started the group nine months after a teenager shot and killed her 20-year-old son George Kemp Jr. in an otherwise quiet suburban neighborhood 25 minutes west of Houston. Like Burke, she at first had trouble even leaving the house, and even getting out of bed. But eventually, like Burke, she felt as if she needed to do something about it. 

"I could have stayed home and sat back and cried if I wanted to — but that would be too easy," she said.

So instead, she and the other mothers — and fathers — go to rallies like this one, and they talk about what happened to their children who never quite made it to adulthood, hoping to convince at least one person not to pick up a gun. Kemp said that seeing all the orange was almost surreal: A year ago, when she first heard about the #WearOrange movement for National Gun Violence Awareness Day, she promised George that Houston would turn orange for him the next year. Recently, Mayor Sylvester Turner signed a proclamation saying he will light up City Hall through June 5 in remembrance of those who died.

Burke, however, said that while all the orange was encouraging, in at least one way it was almost unsettling too: On her 14-year-old son's last day of middle school, he and all his friends wore orange shirts with Harley's picture on it. She thought about how different and normal Harley's last day was ten years earlier, when she didn't have to think about gun violence, and she said to herself, "Where did we go wrong?"
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn