One woman’s anger ignites grassroots activism targeted at gun reform
Ellen Katzen's movement started with an email titled "mad as hell." Now, the group has a three step plan for tackling gun violence.
Ellen Katzen was “mad as hell.” Four days after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, in which 17 people were killed and another 17 were wounded when a former student opened fire inside the Parkland, Fla., school building, Katzen, 77, sent an email to 93 friends.
Titled “mad as hell,” she wrote, “Dear friends, I am so angry about the school shooting in Parkland — and all other school shootings. I can’t stop thinking about all of the gun violence.”
The Squirrel Hill resident had just returned from seeing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” an award winning film which stars Frances McDormand as a determined mother who rents multiple billboards in an effort to challenge the town’s local police chief, played by Woody Harrelson, and address her daughter’s unsolved murder. After explaining that the movie had spurred a thought, Katzen closed her email with the words, “If you have a better idea — let’s get together and brainstorm and DO SOMETHING! I can’t stand what our country has become.”
It was clear that “she was mad as hell,” said Laurie Moser, a recipient of Katzen’s message. What transpired next, though, was that “everybody rallied. It was really interesting; it was grassroots at its best.”
Enough is enough. We can’t lose another child or another person to this kind of violence.
Days after the email was sent a group of eight people gathered in Katzen’s home and crafted a three-pronged approach. Step one involves advertisements in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, designed to “raise some awareness and activate some people who are mad as hell and don’t know where to channel that anger.”
“The hope is that we’ll be able to put that into some positive action,” said Moser, 70.
Step two is to “support local students who are going to take part in the marches locally and in D.C.,” said Elliott Oshry, 73. This Saturday, March 24, is a national day of scheduled student and activist led rallies to end gun violence. The Washington, D.C., demonstration, which is expected to welcome 500,000 people, has been organized by survivors of the Parkland shooting. Sibling marches are scheduled at more than 700 sites worldwide, including one at the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh.
“A part of us has raised the money to charter the kids to go to D.C.,” added Oshry, a member of Katzen’s group.
The final step is to “identify for the public a list of local and national elected officials who accept money [from the National Rifle Association] and refuse to enact humane legislation,” explained Katzen.
We want the politicians to know “that they work for the electorate and not the NRA, and they have to pay more attention to what we want more than what the NRA wants,” said Oshry.
“We hope the outcome is that we can get legislators elected who believe in gun control, to stop the sale of assault weapons, to raise the age limits, to have better background checks that include gun shows,” added Moser. “And not only do we want to elect people who want to do that, but push the needle on people who are [already] in office.”
We can’t let the energy of the students’ response to the shooting go by.
Since sending out her initial email and convening a small committee, Katzen’s supporters have grown. A second email, titled, “Enough is Enough,” reached a larger audience. In it, Katzen explained that she and a small group will be meeting a representative of CeaseFire PA, a statewide organization that works with leaders to “take a stand against gun violence.”
“They looked to us as a resource and to advise them on how best to maximize their efforts,” said Rob Conroy, CeaseFire PA’s director of organizing. “I gave them information and let them dictate what they wanted their message to be.”
It is a pretty clear message, said supporters.
“Enough is enough,” said Moser. “We can’t lose another child or another person to this kind of violence.”
What distinguishes Katzen and her group of likeminded septuagenarians is that for most of them this is their first run at grassroots activism.
“We think it’s the time,” said Bob Katzen, 77. “The students took the lead. We empathize with them and we think we should seize the moment. They created something, and if we don’t seize the moment we’re missing something.”
“We can’t let the energy of the students’ response to the shooting go by,” echoed Oshry.
In the four weeks since Ellen Katzen initially sent her email, the group has raised more than $7,000. Pledges and donations ranging between $50 and $1,000 dollars have been received, she said. Similarly, professionals with expertise in law, advertising, community activism and fundraising have aided logistics.
The “turnaround” has been tremendous, said Moser, who although co-founding Pittsburgh’s Race for the Cure more than 25 years ago delineated the two bottom-up endeavors.
“With Race for the Cure we knew that there was going to be research” and other elements that would slow the process, she said. “There’s an urgency about this that I haven’t felt before.
“Look at the statistics. We are losing 17 here and 50 something in Las Vegas and Columbine and Sandy Hook and all the schools that don’t get registered because of gun violence,” she added. “It gets on the fifth page and it shouldn’t be on any page.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.