These are the Solutions: An Interview with Lola Amador

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Lola Amador is a senior at Independent Study School in Marin and serves on the Marin County Youth Commission. The tragic events at Parkland ignited her organizing efforts on gun control, and she has participated in a series of actions to elevate the issue and ensure meaningful legislation is passed. On March 14th, she took a bus with ~50 of her peers to protest with the Women’s March at the California NRA headquarters in Sacramento, and meet with state legislators to lobby for reform. On Sunday, March 18th, she spoke at Congressman Jared Huffman’s Student Summit on Gun Violence Prevention along with ~20 students from high schools and colleges across Marin County. She is currently working with other youth leaders throughout the Bay Area to organize a day of action on April 20th.

She will be featured this coming Monday, March 26th, from 7-8pm on the radio show, City Visions, which airs live on NPR-affiliate KALW (91.7 FM).

In the following interview, she shares her thoughts about the events at Parkland, the influence of race, gun control, adult allyship, and the role of youth in the movement.

What did you do on National School Walkout day?

I belong to an Independent Study School, which has around 100 students total. Only 10-20 students are at school at any given time, and I wasn’t there on the day of the walkout.

Luckily, there were other opportunities to participate. The Women’s March national organizers provided funding for a group of ~50 students from across Bay Area (East Bay and SF) to take busses to Sacramento to rally and lobby at the California NRA headquarters in Sacramento. Speakers read out names of 17 victims along with their bios — I was invited to hold up a poster for one of the victims representing her life: her plans, where she wanted to go to school. It had a heavy emotional impact.

I spoke with some of the speakers but it felt a little like they were campaigning. I would rather have focused on the victims and calling for legislative reform, and it seemed that the politicians co-opted the moment. They are really quick to dismiss youth activists, but in this moment, it was good PR to take pictures with us. How can we leverage that power, and take advantage of this moment to influence them? Youth need to be vocal, not intimidated by politicians. We need to be able to speak up. We tend to think of them as celebrities, forgetting that they work for us.

Do you have any personal experience with gun violence?

One of the young people at the Student Summit was saying how sad it was that we even have to have these lockdown drills. My freshman year at Redwood High School we had a lockdown. A freshman had mistaken the sound of someone using their insulin pen in the bathroom for the sound of someone loading a gun and reported it to administration. It is so easy to laugh at that mistake, but what does it say about the state of our country that a freshman in high school, probably only 14 or 15 year old, was so quick to believe the worst, and was perfectly justified in that fear? It demonstrates just how gripped with fear our young people are, and I think it is absolutely tragic.

For us, the post-columbine generation, it’s not shocking to turn on the news and hear about a massacre. The shock was growing up to find out that these events are not normal, that there are places where this doesn’t happen, countries where this doesn’t happen, and that in fact the United States leads the world on rates of gun violence. On a conference call with my organizing group, every single person had a personal experience of gun violence: lockdown drills, a real lockdown even being in the presence of an active shooter. Everyone had something to share where they were terrified.

What do you think can be done to improve gun control in California?

It is a challenge in California because we already have such strict gun laws. It feels like we’re doing something productive and at the same time, we still feel powerless. Bills like Concealed Carry Reciprocity (H.R. 38) would defeat so much of the work that activists have done in states like California and that our state legislators have done, who, to their credit, have listened to and responded to their constituents on gun control. Concealed Carry Reciprocity means that concealed carry permits become valid in all fifty states.

In some states, convicted stalkers and domestic abusers can legally obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon, so even if California has a great, comprehensive, universal background check system, we could have people walking around Marin, Tiburon, San Rafael, Mill Valley, anywhere with a gun. Jared Huffman voted against it. Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris certainly will vote against it. What do you do? You can’t call your state legislators, because they can’t do anything about it. You can’t call your representatives – they are already against it, they agree with you. And you definitely can’t call other representatives, because they don’t care what you have to say if you’re not one of their constituents, which you can’t blame them for.

That said, we could be doing a lot more about police brutality – which is a form of gun violence that I think gets less attention and often gets left out of the conversation. I asked Representative Huffman if he would support a bill for more explicit guidelines for appropriate use of force for law enforcement. I felt a little like he dodged my question because he blamed the Department of Justice and Trump, which to be fair aren’t helping, but this was a problem long before Trump, and there is so much more Congress could be doing. I’d like to see a bill that explicitly stated deadly force is only permitted when there is clear and imminent danger to the safety of the officer or others, and perhaps required a verbal warning be given, when possible. We need to narrow the definition of “reasonable force,” in general, because right now it’s left too open as a judgement call and that presents a huge problem for holding police officers accountable.

 

Demilitarizing police forces is another thing that is both vital and not at all dependent on the DOJ. Obama issued an executive order that barred state and local police from accepting decommissioned military equipment, but it was rolled back by Trump within his first 6 months by executive order. Congress could fix that. California has already accepted over $160M worth of military equipment since program 1033 began. There is no reason that our local law enforcement needs to be riding down the street in tanks.

I wanted to push Rep. Huffman on his ability in Congress to pass some of these measures on police brutality, for example, making body cams more widespread and increasing transparency about police discipline. In California, we have body cameras, but the people allowed to see the footage is extremely restricted, and that presents problems. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance as I lost the mic to someone else on the panel.

How has race influenced the national response to Parkland, and the larger issue of gun violence?

I see race everywhere in this issue. You can dissect any moment from the beginning of the tragedy, to the response. The Town Hall meeting with Marco Rubio, for example. The youth got a lot of positive publicity for being tough on him, which I think is right, but what would the response have looked like if they had been students of color? 98% of shooters have been male. This is not an issue of bullying — people of color and women have also been bullied. Students of color go to school every day and suffer through racist attacks. Female students endure sexual harassment. Both of these are more extreme than bullying, because they are attacks based on identity, and yet they are not the ones shooting up schools. I also think the fact that the school in Parkland was predominantly white and affluent played a role in the national response.There would have been a lot less coverage and outrage if the victims had been people of color. Courtlin Arrington, a black student, was shot at school just weeks after Parkland, and there was almost no media coverage.

Far too much attention has been paid to the mental illness status of the Parkland shooter and far too little attention has been paid to the fact that he was affiliated with a white supremacist group, that he had a swastika carved into his gun, that he publicly expressed his hatred for his Jewish and Black peers, and that that was definitely a motivation in the shooting. There is no doubt in my mind that, had he been a brown student or student of color, that Fox News would have been extremely quick to paint him as a terrorist, to try to find any sort of ISIS connection. But, because the shooter was white, it’s not terrorism, even though it was politically motivated, even though it has a foundation in white supremacy. We don’t call it terrorism. We say, ‘he’s a lone wolf.’

Racial justice and gun control are deeply entwined. Every time we try to push for gun control, there are repercussions for communities of color. “Stop and frisk,” for example, was, genuinely or not, said to have been started as a method to get guns off the street, but it ended up creating an avenue for racial profiling. The 2nd Amendment is by white people for white people. Every time a young man of color is killed by police, the first question is, “was he armed?” As if the answer “yes,” means he deserved to die. There is no question of what his conduct was, or what police were after him for in the first place (usually “fitting the description”) if he was armed we use it to justify his death, even though the constitution guarantees us our right to due process. And this happens in open carry states. Black men are shot in open carry states and we say “he was armed,” as though that makes it okay. So, no, there is no right to bear arms if you’re a black man.

What are your reactions to Trump’s proposal of arming teachers?

The reason that students of color, people of color are targeted by gun violence is the exact reason why banning gun stocks, banning assault weapons, banning silencers, establishing gun violence restraining orders – those are the solutions and not more security in schools and not arming teachers. Because the same biases that are causing the police brutality problem we have will persist if we put guns in schools as well. The fact is that more security does not make every student safer, and more security sure as hell does not make every student feel safer.

There is a huge problem that is well-documented, of students of color being disproportionately disciplined. They are suspended more often and punished more harshly. What does that look like when we have guns at school? I have been hearing about several teachers with explicitly white supremacist views. One of these hosts a white supremacist podcast with a pseudonym and describes how they try to engrain white supremacist ideology in their students. Another was reported saying, “We don’t need to deport undocumented immigrants, let’s just kill them.” Imagine if they had guns?

And even for teachers without malicious intent, there is huge danger. The NYPD, a highly trained police force only has an 18% accuracy rate in gunfights imagine teachers who have very little training? Those who use weapons for self-defense are far more likely to have their weapons taken and used against them. That’s why I don’t advocate for women to carry arms to defend themselves. In a situation where there is an active shooter at school, that means the shooter or a student could get ahold of the gun. A student could get ahold of the gun and then become an active shooter.

Providing people with more access to guns is just not the solution to this problem. Just recently in California, on March 13th, the day before the school walkouts during a lesson on gun safety, a teacher misfired and injured one of his students. He literally said, “and you’re gonna want to make sure your gun is unloaded,” right before he accidentally fired the weapon. What more proof do you need that it’s a terrible idea? And what about teachers of color? What would happen if a teacher of color had a gun in hand when the police showed up, knowing there was an active shooter on campus? Look what happened to Charles Kinsey, and he didn’t even have a gun.

What are actions young people can take to move this issue forward?

On one hand, it’s a really great thing to have publicity for the movement, but it’s hard to control the message. Politicians can say that they went and listened, but they may not follow up. I got a lot of positive responses: the former mayor of Sausalito said I did well, someone wanted to take a photo with me, which is nice, but it has to be more than clapping ourselves on the back for saying something. It feels like a challenge to get anything done since the state legislators can’t do that much – they already passed laws and your representatives agree with you.

One action that can be taken is registering more young people to vote, because our best shot at reform is if Democrats can take back the House. I’d like to say that it’s not a partisan issue – and it shouldn’t be; when you have situation where 46 kids are shot everyday, 7 of whom die, it shouldn’t be partisan — but looking at the voting records of our members of Congress, it is very clear that it is. There are 7 districts in CA that are Republican controlled where Hillary won – we’d like to see those flipped.

We as young people organizing have our eyes on April 20th. I am working with a group of ~60 students from 16 schools to plan a bay area wide action. April 20th was proposed as a deadline for Congress to pass legislation on gun laws. One thing that I think we absolutely must do before then is to have a discussion on policy. We all need to be on the same page, and I want us to be mindful that in a structurally racist society, legislation can often have unintended repercussions for people of color. We need gun control reform that makes everyone safer.

There is also a nationwide conversation going on right now about walking out and not returning to school until we have some gun reform passed. The idea is to send the message to congress: “we don’t feel safe at school, and we’re not returning until we are. Until you make us feel safe at school.” I certainly think it would be powerful, but I’m not sure how many people are going to be committed enough to do something that extreme. As passionate as they are, my senior peers may not be willing to jeopardize their ability to graduate to do that. Only folks who really genuinely do not feel safe at school will walkout and wait until they give us a reason to feel safe at school. A survivor of Parkland mentioned at the CNN townhall that that was her plan – it was her idea: “On April 20th I am walking out and I will not be returning until I’m safe at school.”

Youth have been at the center of social movements throughout our nation’s history. They have been the leaders of change from the Civil Rights movement to the movement to end the war in Vietnam. So I think the notion that we’re “too young,” is not only misguided but verifiably untrue. It is critical to be aware of the political image at play — how can you be of use? How can you be a danger? It is critical to know what politicians need from you. Elected officials are always reluctant to engage with folks who aren’t directly voting for them. Showing them that we can influence their voters — that’s how you get them to listen.

How can adults be good allies to youth in this critical moment?

I’ve been struggling with role of adult allies, especially in regard to the walkouts in liberal areas. In Marin, there was not just tolerance, but in some cases vocal support by school administrators for the walkouts. This is positive, but also feels like it defeats the purpose of a walkout, which is to create a disruption. There was something extremely powerful about students in San Jose who, in order to have their walk out, had to break down a locked gate. They literally had to shake the gate to get through.

Youth serving organizations are a powerful tool for providing structural support (where youth have organizing abilities). Adult allies can support by funding youth projects. They can donate to youth-oriented organizations that provide structural support that is so important. They can raise money for busses, for example, for young people to go to Sacramento.

Also, everyone can help by discouraging condescending attitudes about young people. Don’t ever underestimate someone because of their age, don’t use their youth to discredit people, even if you disagree with them. Adult allies have to be the microphone right now, and not writing the script. The role of youth is to be vocal, to talk about what you care about.