WASHINGTON, D.C. — The day after his son Christopher was fatally shot in Isla Vista, California, last year, Richard Martinez went on the news and asked Americans to send postcards to politicians with the words “not one more” etched on them. Andy Parker, whose daughter Alison was murdered on live television in Moneta, Virginia, two weeks ago, emerged the next day saying he would do “whatever it takes” to end gun violence.
On Thursday, the grieving fathers co-headlined a rally near Capitol Hill, and it was Parker, on the latest, biggest stop of his nation-wide campaign, who topped most outlets’ coverage. (Disclosure: Everytown for Gun Safety, a seed donor to The Trace, organized the D.C. event.) But to this observer, a speaker who garnered a scant few mentions from the press left the most lasting impression. In a five-and-a-half-minute address to a crowd of more than 300 assembled in the shadow of Washington Monument, Reverend Sharon Risher, who lost her mother and two cousins in the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in June, issued her own rallying cry.
“It’s time to rise, people!” the 57-year-old religious leader wailed, her voice roaring. “To rise from Chattanooga, to rise from Lafayette, to rise from Roanoke, to rise for the awful number of Americans that are killed by gun violence.” But despite those soaring notes, her remarks were less sermon than screed.
At the memorial service to honor Risher’s murdered relatives, President Obama dipped his head and sang “Amazing Grace.” Other family members of the Emanuel nine were praised for their humility and grace when they stood at the accused gunman’s arraignment and forgave him through agonized sobs. Tears, somber remembrances, and candlelit vigils usually define the public’s reaction to a high-profile shooting; anger is less commonly broadcast on cable news, which is why Risher’s indignation was so striking. She is not ready for absolution, and she’s unabashed about the axe she still carries three months after the attack.
Because of a recent leg injury, Risher rolled onto the stage on a mobility scooter.
“There was gonna be nothing that was gonna keep me from being here today,” she said after acknowledging the impediment, her voice rising. “In the days after my mother’s death, nothing made sense to me. After such an action of violent hate, violence of racism, I knelt in prayer more than I ever have before. I was sure that God had forgotten me.”
A short time earlier at the same podium, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia appeared to choke up when discussing the toll gun violence has taken on his state, and the need to stanch the bloodshed with legislation. But there was no breaking down for Risher, who stood defiantly and called out both the perpetrator of the shooting and a federal government still dragging its feet on gun reform.
“My mother took care of that church to make sure that every corner, nook and cranny was clean and available for all the worshippers to come in that house,” she bellowed, “just like the day Dylann Roof came with his racist thoughts and his racist heart and he killed them all.”
After expending some of her anger on Roof, Risher, who is a trauma chaplain at Parkland Hospital in Texas and sees gunshot wounds every day, unloaded on the lawmakers across the street. “I’m asking the politicians here in D.C., for whom do you stand?”
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough, people,” she said in a measured tone, setting up a dramatic finale. “When the vigils are over, when the candles stop burning, we need to stand up and say, whatever it takes, I am going to do it! To God be the glory!”
When DeAndra Yates got her turn at the podium, she didn’t hold back her anger, either. Her 13-year old son, DeAndre, was seriously wounded last year when someone opened fire at a home hosting a birthday party in Indianapolis, Indiana. Shot in the back of the head, he suffered eight strokes and can’t walk or talk. He now resides at a rehabilitation center four hours from Yates’s home.
“People say to me all the time, ‘You’re lucky he’s alive,’” Yates said. “Well, I say I’m blessed that my son was not killed. But there is nothing lucky about Dre’s condition.”
After a few sobs escaped her throat, she launched in.
“A single bullet changed our lives!” she cried.
As the event drew to a close and the field before the podium cleared of people, Nardyne Jefferies stood alone holding a graphic photo of her daughter, Brishell, lying on a medical examiner’s table. The 16-year-old was fatally shot in the last of a series of retaliatory shootings that began over a missing fake-diamond bracelet in 2010. Jefferies didn’t take a turn onstage, but throughout the event stood silently holding the photo of her daughter’s mangled body, its flesh split below the collarbone, exposing muscle and fat.
“I have been showing that picture for almost six years but no one wants to see it,” she said. “But people need to see this. This is what gun violence does.”
Risher was found sitting unaccompanied on a bench, gazing into the sunny afternoon. She rested her leg on her scooter, and offered a final thought on forgiveness.
“I’m just not there yet,” she told me. “You’re gonna forgive somebody who doesn’t even wanna be forgiven? Forgiveness is about you moving on. So I don’t even think about this little punk.”
[Photo: AP Photo/David Goldman]