Our Rights are Under Attack in Orlando and Beyond

Memorial outside of Dupont Circle in Washington, DC
Memorial outside of Dupont Circle in Washington, DC

I began my career working for a gun violence prevention organization twenty years ago. When I shifted my career to working on economic equality, and later specifically addressing economic equality through health equity, it was because I knew we could not solve America’s gun violence problem without addressing deep social injustice in our country. As I write this, I ask myself, can we address social injustice without addressing gun violence?
From Charleston to Colorado Springs to Orlando one thing is clear: gun violence is a social justice issue.
Over the past year, we have watched as people were massacred by guns for exercising their constitutional rights.

  • Last June, nine people, including the pastor, were shot and killed while attending a prayer service at one of the oldest black churches in the South, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
  • In November, three people were killed and nine were injured when a gunman attacked a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs.
  • This past weekend, 49 people were killed and 53 were injured when a man attacked a gay nightclub in Orlando on Latin night with an assault-style rifle.

We have watched again and again as African American and Latinx members of the LGBT community suffer disproportionate levels of violence.
Our rights are literally under attack.  People are attacking and shooting African Americans exercising their First Amendment right to practice religion and right to assemble, women who are seeking access to constitutionally protected reproductive health care, and our friends in the LGBT community as they come together to celebrate who they are.
When people are shot and killed in America for exercising their rights, we need to stop and assess ourselves. We must reflect on what it means to have these rights in a country where people are walking into buildings with assault-style weapons. We have civil rights laws that protect African Americans, but they could not stop Dylann Roof from entering an African-American church and shooting those inside. We have a right to abortion services, but our abortion providers face extreme violence on a regular basis. Less than a year ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, but over 100 people were shot for dancing at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida as our country celebrated Pride month.
It is not just violent attacks. A woman’s right to decide about whether and when to have a family is under constant attack in state houses and Congress. In 2015, the year of the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting, states adopted 57 new restrictions that limit access to abortion. State legislatures are considering and passing laws that restrict the rights of LGBT people across the country. Anti-transgender “bathroom bills” have been spreading across the country. Like restrictions on access to abortion, these bills aim to limit our control over our bodies. We are barraged by public leaders making racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic remarks.
When African Americans and other people of color, when women, and when our LGBT friends and family members have their rights infringed upon by policy makers and attacked by public leaders, can we be surprised that some people go further and violently attack our communities? If policy makers do not respect our civil rights, who does?
Places of worship are places that should be safe. Health clinics are places that should be safe. Gay nightclubs are places that should be safe – they are places to dance, to laugh, to enjoy life and stand together in solidarity. As President Obama said, they are places “where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live.” When I began working in gun violence prevention twenty years ago, you would have found me dancing with my LGBT friends on the weekends. Today you find me mourning in solidarity and pledging to take action.