Ed. note: After Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton was murdered Jan. 29, 2013 — shot in the back at a park — her friends wore orange to honor her life. This year, from June 5 through 7, Everytown for Gun Safety's Wear Orange campaign marks its sixth year raising awareness of gun violence prevention by hosting virtual events and asking those opposed to gun violence to wear orange.
Among the participants will be Emmy Award-winning actor Jason George. In a heartfelt op-ed for PEOPLE, George reflects on the personal significance of gun violence prevention to him. George provides perspective as a resident of Virginia Beach, Va., where a gunman killed 12 innocent people in 2019. He also provides perspective as a black man during a time when disproportionate police violence towards people of color has drawn widespread outrage.
At the start of the COVID-19 shutdown, I was talking on the phone with a friend who was about to make a midnight snack run to the convenience store down the block. He was getting his protective mask and gloves on when he suddenly stopped short and said, “Dude, I’m a Black man wearing a mask! It might keep me from getting sick, but what’s gonna keep me from getting shot?!”
We laughed. We laughed that laugh that trails off at the end because you know it’s a little too true: We’re Black. We are perceived differently. And that perception could end our lives.
When I look at the portrait of Ahmaud Arbery in his tuxedo, I see my sons. I perceive a hopeful young man ready to charge into the future. When I see the photo of Breonna Taylor in her blue EMT uniform, I see my daughter. I perceive a young woman beaming with pride, serving her community as a much-needed medical professional. And sometimes when I see a photo of myself as a teenager, I see the only time I’ve ever had a gun pointed at my head — a police officer pulled me out of my friend’s car because I “fit the description.” He perceived me as a criminal suspect, not as the Student Council Vice President. I survived. I was lucky. George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor were not.
Black Americans are 10 times more likely than white Americans to die by gun homicide, and black children and teens are 14 times more likely to die by gun homicide than their white peers. Parents raising black children live in fear that our children will be perceived as threats and taken from us just because they’re wearing a hoodie, or jogging down the street.
As a professional actor, it’s my job to be able to see things from someone else’s—even multiple—points of view. I come from a military family in Virginia Beach, Va., a military town where many people, myself included, grew up around weapons and I strongly believe in the Second Amendment. Gun violence has also touched my family. I still don’t know who shot and killed my cousin, Darrell Whitman, and I often think about the time he tried to teach me to drive stick-shift in just one afternoon. It’s possible to support responsible gun ownership and common sense gun laws like background checks and secure storage.
I also understand that the presence of a gun instantly changes the dynamic in any situation, often escalating tension. I once visited Ft. Irwin, the Army’s main training center, and I watched how trained soldiers create relationships in the cities they patrol and de-escalate conflicts. Paradoxically, our military has been training on de-escalation while our police force has been becoming more militarized. The military sometimes gets it wrong too. But the military people I know fully understand the power at their fingertips when they’re carrying a gun, as well as the necessity of restraint. Many will acknowledge that some tools — weapons intended purely for war — are just too dangerous to have on the streets, let alone in your home.
Growing up in a military town shaped my perspective on guns and gun violence, but never more than when it famously became the center of gun violence itself, when twelve people were shot and killed in a mass shooting in my hometown almost exactly a year ago. Last year, I mourned with my Virginia Beach community. This year, I mourn for the lives cut short by racism and gun violence. The situation frustrates and infuriates me as it does many others. But it also motivates me. I’m inspired by the millions of Americans who agree with me. This year, I’m joining thousands of other volunteers participating in National Gun Violence Awareness Day by wearing orange from home. Gun violence hasn’t stopped because of the coronavirus, and neither has our movement. We continue to organize, educate and rally for safer communities knowing that our work is more urgent than ever.
We must all raise our voices to call out racism and white supremacy. We must all stand up for communities that live with gun violence as a backdrop. We must all stand with community organizations doing this life-saving gun violence prevention work by making sure they have the funds and support they need to continue the fight during and after the pandemic. We could do so much tremendous work to end gun violence and save lives but first we must change our own perceptions.
On June 5, I will wear orange for George, Ahmaud, Breonna and Darrell. I’ll wear orange for the black and brown boys and girls who deserve better than lives cut short or forever changed by bullets. I’ll wear orange because I want my children and every other child in America to grow up knowing they can share their gifts and fulfill their promise. And, yes, I’ll wear orange to change people’s perceptions. If you’re ready to join me, visit wearorange.org.
Jason George is an actor and a member of the Everytown Creative Council.
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