Vigil attendees feel a ' state of emergency' on gun violence nationally — and in Peoria
The killing of 19 elementary school children and two teachers by an 18 year-old man with a legally purchased AR-15 semi-automatic weapon in Uvalde, Texas, last month compelled dozens of Peorians to attend an anti-violence vigil at Peoria’s Gateway Building on Wednesday night.
Though the vigil was intended to honor and pay respect to the victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting, local survivors of gun violence and relatives of victims turned out to urge state and local officials to do more to protect vulnerable citizens here in Peoria.
“Nationally we are in some kind of state of emergency, and we are also in one here in Peoria,” said Chris Schaffner, program director for JOLT Harm Reduction in Peoria and a self-described community organizer. “Let’s pay attention to what is happening around us.”
Schaffner led the crowd in a moment of silence in honor of the 21 slain in Texas on May 24. Among those attending were those who had been touched directly by gun violence, including close relatives of those recently killed or injured in Peoria.
“This is about gun control,” said Sharon Webster, who came to the vigil to honor Peoria’s youngest 2021 homicide victim, Jamilya Webster-Carlton, along with another local victim of gun violence, Ashley Tankersley, who was shot to death in August of last year at age 37. Webster-Carlton perished after just 23 days of life due to birth complications sustained after her mother, Breannia Webster, was shot September 23, 2021 in the 200 block of West Ann Street. Breannia Webster barely survived the attack.
“This is about keeping felons and criminals from access to guns. They get arrested and within a week you see them back on the street — it’s ridiculous,” added Webster.
Others who attended the anti-violence vigil had not been directly affected by gun violence, but support gun law reform.
“We must stand against gun violence in this community that we care so deeply about,” said Kshe Bernard, who traveled from Morton with her children, Rain, Lucien and Luna, to attend the vigil.
Those who spoke during the gathering included Schaffner; the Rev. Carole Hoke; Sincere Johnson from the Peoria Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); Karli Johnson, who survived the deadly 2008 mass shooting at Northern Illinois University; Becky Rossman, president and CEO of Peoria Neighborhood House; Dan Walther, District 150 School Board member; Demario Boone, chief of school safety for Peoria Public Schools; Harlow Meierkord, the 9 year-old daughter of Peoria Chapter ACLU President Kristen Meierkord; Tylynn Johnson, an 18 year-old Peoria High School graduate who is co-authoring a book on gun violence; and Gloria Clark, Peoria Center for the Prevention of Abuse.
“We will always have issues; we will always have problems,” said Hoke. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t take our collective grief and our collective anger and use it for good. I’m here to say I don’t believe we are powerless, and I hope that we are not hopeless.”
Hoke suggested that in addition to praying for the victims of gun violence, prayers should also be offered for the shooters.
“Rarely do we pray for the shooter. This is something that folks don’t want to do, and it’s very difficult to do,” she said.
Hoke mirrored Schaffner’s recommendation that those who wish to see gun laws reformed take their complaints to the lowest and the highest levels of government. “Let them know how you feel,” Hoke urged.
Johnson took the microphone to warn vigil attendees to never let their guard down when in crowded, public situations. “You never think this could happen to you, to your community, your children, your family, your friends, until it does,” said Johnson, who huddled in her dorm room texting her family in the aftermath of the 2008 NIU shooting. “It’s been 14 years since my friend was shot in the head and killed for going to class. 14 years of more and more mass shootings with hundreds and hundreds of students and children murdered. That trauma follows us.”
Rossman noted that 143 Peorians were gun victims in 2021, with homicide the leading cause of death for Peorians aged 16-24.
“While we can’t change the world, we can absolutely make an impact right here,” Rossman said.
According to Schaffner, gun laws need to change at local, state and federal levels. At the city level, Schaffner is upset that the Peoria City Council recently “shot down” a proposal to pay $25,000 to explore whether the Cure Violence Global Initiative program might help reduce gun crime in the River City.
“There is money earmarked for gun violence, and (the city council) needs to spend it on evidence-based public health initiatives,” Schaffner said. On the federal level, “I’d like to see common sense gun legislation. I’d like to see the banning of bump stocks, I’d like to see a ban on the sales of semi-automatic weapons. I’d like to see mandatory mental health checks for all people who are looking to purchase a weapon,” he added.
The Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde was at least the 30th shooting at a K-12 school in the U.S. during the first five months of 2022, according to CNN. As the Peoria anti-violence vigil was breaking up Wednesday evening, word of yet another mass shooting — this one at a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma — began to spread among vigil attendees.