Carolyn Ban opened “Looking Back, Marching Forward” at Temple Sinai on Sunday, April 28, choking back tears. “We will never forget those we lost as we work to keep others safe and spare other families such terrible loss.”
Ban is the co-founder of Squirrel Stands Against Gun Violence and one of the organizers of the rally/march, which was attended by almost 350 people and honored the 11 victims of the Oct. 27 Tree of Life massacre.
The event took place against the backdrop of another anti-Semitic attack, this time at a Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, near San Diego.
For over an hour, local and state politicians, gun-control advocates and survivors of the terrorist attack spoke, calling for an end to gun violence.
Before introducing the speakers, Rob Conroy, director of CeaseFirePA, told the crowd, “Think of today as the first, next step toward making sure no community, no family, no friend, no individual has to live with this type of loss ever again.”
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald recalled attending a vigil last year for the victims of the Tree of Life shooting and spoke about attending another the day before for the victims of the Chabad synagogue incident. He then drew parallels between gun legislation recently passed by Pittsburgh’s City Council and the smoking ban passed by the county in 2006. “We were sued … quite frankly we lost, but it created such momentum that the legislature passed a statewide smoking ban. I am hopeful that we repeat history and the legislature finally enacts some gun safety legislation.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto began his remarks stating, “I am out of words. I am beyond anger. I question how people still don’t get it; that think by doing nothing the problem is going to solve itself. How is that possible? How can you argue that?”
Peduto went on to say, “We have to not only win the hearts of people, we have to win the minds. Unfortunately, we are at a time right now where what was unacceptable to say, unacceptable to do just a few short years ago, is now normal. It’s not normal. We have to stand up.
“It’s not Poway and Pittsburgh. It’s San Bernadino and Sandy Creek and Orlando and Baltimore. It’s all throughout this country. The only way you can create change is by changing things. There are many more steps to take.”
In a voice filled with equal parts sadness, anger and defiance, Dan Leger, a Tree of Life massacre survivor, echoed a familiar Passover refrain: “We shouldn’t have to be here today because of Columbine. It was more than enough. We shouldn’t have to be here because of Parkland. It was more than enough. We shouldn’t have to be here because of Newtown. It was more than enough. We shouldn’t have to be here because of Charleston. It was more than enough. We shouldn’t have to be here because Orlando was more than enough. We shouldn’t have to be here because Las Vegas was more than enough. We shouldn’t have to be here because of Aurora, because it was more than enough. We shouldn’t have to be here because of Pittsburgh, because it was more than enough, and we shouldn’t have to be here because of Poway yesterday, because it was way, way more than enough, but we have to be here today.”
Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project, spoke of the gun violence that has affected the African-American community and how it is similar to tragedies experienced by the Jewish community. “We are all connected, whether we want to be or not. Last night, we had another African American killed in Homestead. It has become far too common in our African-American communities that we wake up to death. It is unacceptable. All of it is unacceptable.”
Stevens went on to discuss the death of Antwon Michael Rose II. In a moment filled with emotion, he held up a picture of Rose’s mother, saying, “The pain on the face of the mother of Antwon Michael Rose II speaks loudly. We don’t want to see a face like this because black folks are killing black folks and kids are killing kids. We don’t want to see a face like this because of the 11 people who represented those killed [at the Tree of Life massacre], some of whom were fathers and mothers. We don’t want to see these faces from any sort of gun violence.”
Also speaking at the event were state Sen. Jay Costa, state Rep. Ed Gainey and Pittsburgh City Council Member Erika Strassburger. Local interfaith religious leaders representing Jewish, Christian and Muslim organizations offered prayers during the vigil.
Once the speakers finished their presentations, a large group of attendees marched from Temple Sinai to Schenley Park where a tree was planted. The procession, which included Peduto, Fitzgerald and Costa, wound its way through the Squirrel Hill streets chanting and singing.
The black gum tree, explained organizer Anne-Marie Nelson, was meant “not to commemorate what happened before, but to mark moving forward to a future of growth, and to represent the community.”
Cindy Goodman-Leib summed up the feelings of many that attended, saying, “Hate, anti-Semitism, racism and violence steal so much from us. Yet when we come together, this hatred and violence are challenged and overwhelmed by an infinite number of acts of kindness. Our reaction ignites waves of support and fills holes in our communal heart. It was uplifting to be among so many people who care, and we felt the power of coming together.
“Individually, we may feel heartbroken and powerless from gun violence, and from acts of hate while people are in synagogues, mosques and churches and on streets and in schools…when we gather and remember the 11 murdered on October 27 in Pittsburgh, and so many others, we plant seeds that will grow into the future and help us take action that will eclipse hate and violence.” pjc
David Rullo is a local freelance writer.