Clark Atlanta student: We’re bearing brunt of America’s gun violence

The AJC’s Get Schooled Blog is publishing a series of guest columns this week focusing on school safety in Georgia and nationwide. This is the first of these columns.

Clark Atlanta University student Jackie Azah is a volunteer with Students Demand Action, a youth organization dedicated to ending gun violence. Azah, 22, studies political science at Clark Atlanta and is originally from the Bay Area in California.

In a guest column, Azah writes about the impact of guns on her life as a college student in Atlanta.

By Jackie Azah

Find a way or make one — that mentality has shaped my life. Since I was young, I’ve wanted to work to improve the lives of people in my community. I ran for student body vice president in middle school, and, after graduating from high school in the Bay Area, I knew a historically Black college or university would give me the tools to better serve and connect with Black people. So, I left California to attend Clark Atlanta University.

I fell in love with this city, this school, and all the history rooted here, but being a student at Clark Atlanta hasn’t been without its challenges. Since my first year, I’ve lived through a global pandemic, stood on the front lines of a nationwide reckoning on racism and watched extremists put our democracy to the test. And as I’ve seen the world change, I’ve still had to manage the mental and emotional challenges of being a student.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

That’s why moments of joy, like homecoming, mean so much. Homecoming is a time for HBCU students to connect — a time to celebrate Black joy and be in community with each other. But this year, our celebrations were interrupted.

Shortly after midnight Sunday on homecoming weekend, gunfire broke out at an event near our school library. Four people, including two Clark Atlanta students, were shot and wounded. I was lucky to have been at a different event that night, but I had friends who were there when the shots rang out. They described the scene as terrifying and chaotic, people trampling over each other while running for their lives.

I was upset to hear about the shooting, but I wasn’t shocked. Clark Atlanta is no stranger to gun violence. The night before my first day of school in 2019, there was a shooting just outside my residence hall. And across the South this year, there have been multiple acts of gun violence in or around HBCUs that have turned celebrations into tragedy and shaken entire communities, including at Livingstone College, North Carolina A&T, and Southern University.

We shouldn’t have to live in fear like this — on or off campus, but for students at Clark Atlanta, campus safety and community safety aren’t mutually exclusive. Gun violence in the city bleeds onto our campus, and vice versa.

It’s clear what’s causing our gun violence epidemic — weak gun laws and unfettered access to firearms. These conditions have created an environment where gun violence thrives. Our state already has some of the weakest gun laws in the country, and many of our state lawmakers are only making things worse. This year, they passed a permitless carry law against the will of Georgia voters, opening the doors to even more gun violence in our communities.

And we can’t talk about gun violence in America without talking about its disproportionate impact on Black communities. Systemic inequities in areas ranging from education, to health care, and the criminal justice system, along with generations of racial discrimination, have exacerbated this country’s gun violence crisis in a way that disproportionately impacts communities of color.

It’s unacceptable. As gun violence continues to impact Atlanta and communities across the state, Georgia students are feeling the impact, and it’s Black youth who are bearing the brunt. If we want to stop gun violence from shaping our student experience, we have to take a multifaceted approach to keeping our cities safe.

On top of organizing in our communities and working alongside partners to advocate for commonsense gun safety policies, another critical step we can take is to vote for lawmakers who will listen to us and work hard to keep us safe, because we can’t end gun violence on our campuses or in our communities with gun lobby-backed politicians writing our gun laws.

While no single policy will put an end to all gun violence, we know that taking commonsense steps like repealing Georgia’s Shoot First law and funding community-based violence intervention programs can help protect Georgians on and off campus. But to pass these policies and support these programs, we need leaders who will put public safety first.

Luckily, we have an opportunity Tuesday to put Georgia on a path to a safer future. So make a plan to vote and make sure you know which candidates will work to keep us safe.

Creating a safer Georgia will take all of us. We cannot continue to accept a reality where shots can ring out at any moment, and we must continue to fight until we can all walk around our campuses and attend celebrations in safety.