Every morning, Marlon West scouts out a location in his city — a porch, a riverbank, a grassy park, a footbridge. Once he finds the right spot, he sets up his camera. Then he lowers to the ground and begins to do push-ups. West isn’t creating fitness videos. Each push-up he completes, at times more than 60 in a single take, is a tribute to a person killed by gun violence in 2018.
West is not an activist or a gun violence expert. A native of St. Louis, he is a longtime animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios in suburban Los Angeles. He has a personal connection to gun violence — three of his cousins were fatally shot in his hometown — but says what really motivated his push-up project was the daily torrent of news about gun deaths and injuries.
His fifth day, he did push-ups at the foot of a mural of Hollywood jazz icons. On Day 57, at the bottom of a colorfully painted staircase. Day 133: In the sand beside rolling surf. Day 204: With his feet propped on a wooden bench, before an audience of kittens. Some days he’s dressed for work and buttons his blazer or tucks in his tie before dropping to the ground.
Amid ceaseless reports of shootings, it can be easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed, unsure what to do. With his push-up project, called “One for Each,” West joins a scattered group of concerned citizens finding unique ways to acknowledge violence. Among them, a retired carpenter who builds a wooden cross to honor each new person killed in a mass shooting; a Washington, D.C., high-schooler organizing a mural of slain teenagers in her city; and a photographer who documented mementos and scraps of condolences left after school massacres.
West talked with The Trace this month, at his midpoint in a year of thousands of push-ups, about what he hopes to accomplish.
I started doing push-ups back in 2016, initially to raise awareness for veteran suicide. Then this year I decided to track lives lost to gun violence with a silent tribute each day.
Every morning before I get out of bed, I go to Gun Violence Archive on my phone. I take that day’s total of those killed and subtract it from the previous day’s total, and I come up with a number. And because numbers don’t always resonate with people, I find a news article about one of those tragedies that leaps out at me, either because of body count or poignancy, and I share that on social media. Then I get up, take my daughter to summer camp, and try to find someplace to record the videos.
I spend an almost absurd amount of time location-scouting. I look for somewhere meditative where there’s not a ton of folks walking in and out of the frame, like a park. I try to make them look compelling, without being too joyful or cutesy. I film a lot of them at Disney, where I work. After the Santa Fe, Texas, high school shooting, I did a set of push-ups at Marshall High School, a famous high school in L.A. Today I went up to Griffith Observatory, another iconic spot in the city, since it’s my halfway point in the year.
Sometimes I have a friend film, but I do a lot of them alone because it is more meditative. I try to be very focused on what I’m doing — I don’t want it to be a workout video. If it’s a lighter day, I might do the push-ups slower. They feel more thoughtful that way, one per breath.
Push-ups are a skill that one can cultivate over time. They clear the mind. They can be done anywhere. They also force you to breathe correctly. They are a basic thing people understand.
Some days are physically harder or heavier than others. Parkland was a particularly hard day, as was the Capital Gazette newspaper shooting. And then there are the shootings that don’t make national news, but that still really affect me: One day a woman and her grandson were killed on their porch in Buffalo. It was her birthday.
I have learned a lot about this issue since I started tracking gun deaths. Something I didn’t realize until I started counting is how many women die in domestic violence incidents every day. That was such a wake-up call to me. A bunch of women were killed on Mother’s Day. People should have the expectation of safety in their own home and among loved ones. But that is so often not the case.
Some of the deaths have crawled into my psyche more than I thought they would. I worry more. There is a background of sadness that I didn’t anticipate. But it is a small weight to carry compared to what others experience, like someone who is mourning the death of their child or dealing with the effects of being shot. There are people wounded and carrying those scars emotionally and physically for the rest of their lives.
My life is pretty good. I work on films that people like. I’ve got great coworkers, a cool daughter, and a beautiful partner. But I do delve into this darker thing every day. I go from making uplifting, fun imagery at work to the push-ups, which are meditative and quieter and often very sad. To acknowledge these deaths on the daily seems like a reasonable thing to do.
These videos are a way of sparking awareness and discussion that hopefully leads to making a dent in the body count. I would love if they reached people who are maybe not exactly like-minded, but who would would like to see some reasonable legislation — like raising the age limits to buy a gun, strengthening background checks, using gun locks. I’m not a spokesman for gun control. I’m just a guy who makes cartoons for a living.
I did my first post on January 2 in my backyard — 37 push-ups for those lost on the first day of this year. I have done a post every day since. The least deadly day so far has been Super Bowl Sunday — I did 17 for that day. The deadliest day was June 11, with 69 deaths. It was just a day when a bunch of Americans decided to kill each other. I was very upset that day, and they were harder to do. I got up to 40 push-ups and stopped. Getting to 69 took me like three tries.
It’s been 207 days since I started this and I’ve done 8,234 push-ups so far.
Note: West determines his daily count using the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence incidents through news reports. Gun Violence Archive constantly updates its tallies, so any given date may be updated days and sometimes even weeks later.