On Tuesday night, about 50 Penn students gathered on College Green for a candlelight vigil commemorating victims of recent acts of gun violence.
The vigil was organized by Penn Democrats, the Pan-Asian American Community House, the Spiritual and Religious Life Center, and Amnesty International at Penn, and featured City Councilmember and Penn alumna Jamie Gauthier, along with a number of community leaders. Speakers shared their thoughts regarding the recent shootings, particularly the March 16 Atlanta spa shootings that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, the March 22 Colorado grocery store shooting that killed 10 people, and the April 15 Indianapolis FedEx shooting that killed eight people, including four people from the area's Sikh community.
The Indianapolis attack was at least the 50th mass shooting — defined as having four or more casualties excluding the shooter — in the United States since the Atlanta shootings.
Throughout the vigil, attendees and speakers wore solemn faces, with some tearing up.
College first year Mira Sydow, a Penn Dems member and the main organizer of the event, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that their goal in organizing the vigil was to offer support to the Penn community.
"Even one person showing up and feeling a bit better and feeling like they are supported in this community would have been enough," Sydow said. "Seeing that we got as many people as we did and that we were all so touched by the remarks from the speakers is incredible."
Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Sydow explained that she was very involved with Atlanta's Asian American community and local activists last semester when she was mobilizing Asian American voters for the January runoff elections for U.S. Senate.
"When the Atlanta shootings happened, I just felt extremely helpless, and like I was so far removed from that community, [which] had supported me through so much," Sydow said. "I wanted to try to do something to also support them and bring some community and support to Asian Americans at Penn."
The vigil's first speaker, Associate Chaplain and Associate Director of the Spiritual & Religious Life Center at Penn Sana Saeed, discussed her experience in dealing with the emotional toll of gun violence targeting people of color. Saeed talked about the tale of Hagar, a religious story in which Hagar, Abraham's concubine, was expelled to the desert after bearing Abraham's son, where she spent days trying to find water for her and her son.
"I consider Hagar an ancestor whose resilience, strength, and faith inspires me and helps ground me in moments of despair," Saeed said. "I ask you all, friends, to not let us forget our ancestors, to remember our most recent ancestors who have passed, and those historical ancestors of color who have survived injustice and plagues historically. Let us ground ourselves in the resilience of our ancestors."
Saeed then invited everyone to a moment of silence in remembrance of the lives lost to gun violence since the Atlanta shooting.
Shortly afterwards, College first year Milan Chand described his own experience dealing with the trauma of gun violence. Chand, who began his speech with a poem he wrote following the Atlanta shootings titled "Desensitized," then spoke about his own community back home in Newtown, Conn. and how they coped with the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings. He emphasized that the worst thing is that people have become desensitized to gun violence.
"The death of innocent lives is unbearable, to say the least. But when that is preventable, the crushing weight of guilt is suffocating," Chand said. "So as we stand here today, honoring and remembering the lives of so many we have lost, I urge you to feel the pain and embrace the heartache, because if we can all feel just a little piece of that humanity, we can work diligently and passionately towards creating a better society."
Following Chand's speech, PAACH director and Asian American Studies lecturer Peter Van Do reflected upon the relationship between the recent Indianapolis shooting and the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, which he said occurred during his first year working at Penn and reminded him of his purpose in his role at Penn. Van Do urged people to gain awareness of anti-Asian hate and Islamophobia, and the relationship between the two.
"Islamophobia is real, and there are many South Asians and Southeast Asians and other communities that are impacted, whether they identify as Muslim or not," Van Do said. "Let's remember that the act of anti-Asian racism and violence due to Islamophobia is happening to this day, and it needs to be recognized and addressed now."
He added that anti-Asian violence is made possible due to "anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity."
To close the vigil, Gauthier, who represents Philadelphia's third district, which encompasses West Philadelphia — including Penn and University City — spoke about how the United States and the city of Philadelphia are in a gun violence crisis, stating 2020 was the second most violent year on record for Philadelphia and that, as of April 2021, Philadelphia is on track to exceed that number by 30% from this time last year.
"Today I'm here to say enough is enough; we're tired of not feeling safe on our own blocks, or being afraid to let our kids play outside for fear that they'll get shot. And personally, I'm tired of hearing that this is purely the result of gun laws that we can't change or have a culture of violence that exists here in our city. When it comes to gun violence here in Philadelphia, we know what we need to do to stop it," Gauthier said, adding that resolving the issue of gun violence will be her top priority in the upcoming budget cycle.
After her speech, Gauthier told the DP that the city has to see gun violence as a public health emergency and should invest in preventing gun violence from happening in the first place using the investments coming in from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress — which she called "historic."
Gauthier said she hopes these budget investments will be especially directed towards local grassroots organizations and evidence-based programs, like Readi Chicago, which have been shown to reduce gun violence significantly across the country where they have been implemented.
"The reason why those programs work is because they focus very intently on people who are participating in gun violence or at risk for participating in gun violence, and it connects them to support like counseling, or to jobs, and just helps redirect people and get them on a different path," Gauthier said. "We invest about $750 million in policing; we need to make serious investments in the things that can stop guns from being shot in the first place."
College first year Emre Duvenci, who attended the vigil, said that he believes the most important message emphasized throughout the vigil was that of unity.
"We cannot let this go unchecked until it impacts us, and we must all work together in order to fix it — even if our community isn't the one impacted specifically by it," Duvenci said. "I think that, without unity, gun violence will never be solved."