Movement not moment: Jr. Bills move through downtown St. Louis protesting against gun violence

On Oct. 17, 2021, a mere eight miles from the campus of St. Louis U. High, 19-year-old Cardinal Ritter alumnus Isis Maher was tragically shot, another victim of senseless gun violence. A month and a half later, on Dec. 1, 38 Jr. Bills gathered with other area high school students to march against gun violence. 

Sophomore Courtney Lucas and Senior Ryan DeCarlo marching down Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. Photo: Jack Figge.

Following the death of Mahr, students and administrators decided that they needed to do something to raise awareness about gun violence in St. Louis. This was the second Cardinal Ritter alum to die due to gun violence within the 2021 year. Students and administrators decided that the best way to raise awareness and draw attention was to host an event that emphasized high school student and youth involvement. They planned a march and programming to help educate students about this issue. 

“No movement has ever started without involving the youth,” said Cardinal Ritter president Tamiko Armstead as she addressed the marchers. “We need to involve you more and this is the beginning of that.” 

A couple of weeks ago, event organizers reached out to principals of area high schools, inviting them to gather a group of students to participate in the march. SLUH principal Fr. Ian Gibbons S.J. passed the information on to Director of Equity and Inclusion Frank Kovarik. Upon seeing the information, Kovarik  knew that this would be the perfect opportunity for SLUH students to branch out from the halls of SLUH and work for change in the greater St. Louis community. 

“Well, I think it's a great way for us to live out our Catholic identity, to show our value for life, our belief in Catholic social teaching,” said Kovarik. “But it was also great to be a part of our St. Louis community and participate in a larger event.” 

SLUH students and faculty standing in solidarity with teens who lost their lives to gun violence. Photo: Jack Figge.

SLUH students from a variety of different backgrounds came together to march on Wednesday, but they all had a common purpose: to raise awareness about gun violence within the St. Louis community. 

“Our contingent came from a whole bunch of different student groups: ACES, the BSU, Ignatian family teach-in, Ongoing Conversations and others,” said Kovarik. “So I think it speaks to the robust student participation that we have in the movement for justice.”

After homeroom, the march participants gathered together in the Commons, walked out to Oakland Avenue and boarded a bus to begin their short pilgrimage. The bus brought them to the nearby Wohl Community Center, where the SLUH students were immediately immersed into a sea of fellow high school students from across the St. Louis region. 

Once all the students had gathered in the Wohl center, Cardinal Ritter leaders and Mahr’s father, Atif Mahr, explained to students why they would be marching and shared personal testimonies about how gun violence has affected them. 

For many SLUH students, they found the testimonies especially moving as they were relatable. Many SLUH students that were marching had lost family members to gun violence, allowing them to relate to the presenters. 

“I lost two of my cousins to gun violence in 2020, so I have first hand knowledge of the pain and suffering that guns can cause,” said freshman Matthew Taylor. “I came out to show my support for the people who have lost a loved one due to gun violence like I have.”

Following the brief introduction, students progressed to Kingshighway, where they began their journey to Cardinal Ritter high school, a 2.8 mile walk. 

Students had many different motives for coming to the event: some because they knew first hand the effects of gun violence, and others because they simply wanted to support their friends and classmates who have been affected.

“There are people in our community that are hurting from gun violence and it is something that affects a lot of people I know in a very personal way,” said senior Luke Pierson. “I would like to see it come to an end and the way you get change to happen is through demanding it.” 

“I wanted to do something to help stop the violence in the city of St. Louis,” said sophomore VirShaun Mosley. “We have one of the highest murder rates in the city so it is time to put a stop to it.” 

High schoolers from SLUH and other schools leading the March against Gun Violence. Photo: Jack Figge.

Throughout the march, the marchers' rallying cry of “movement not moment” rang out above the marchers. The meaning behind the phrase: to remind students that this march was only the beginning and that they must not let it become one single moment, but the start of a movement. 

“We have to keep doing stuff like this,” said senior Andre Tucker. “We must keep pushing, like they said this is movement not a moment, it isn’t just a single thing that happens in a week, we have to keep going and have to keep making progress.”

At the end of the march, the students filed into Cardinal Ritter’s football stadium. Here, the marchers heard from a variety of presenters about the effects of gun violence on communities, including Atif Mahr, who spoke about how none of the effects of guns, or guns in general are cool, he then offered his support to the students, telling them that he stands with them. 

Following the presentations from community leaders, Ritter wanted to give students a chance to share their experiences with gun violence and pose potential solutions to curbing gun violence. Each high school that marched sent a representative up to speak; senior Pierston Sanders was SLUH’s delegate. 

“Gun violence really hit home for me because just this summer, my older cousin passed away due to it. I wanted to share my story and my point of view to help others,” said Sanders. “Any voice that can get their point across can really make a difference to those minds that are listening.” 

For many, these student presentations were the most moving part of the day, as it gave faculty members and students the opportunity to hear from their pupils and peers about their experiences with gun violence.

“The most powerful part for me was listening to students who've been personally impacted by gun violence and who have it taking place in the neighborhoods, day after day,” said Kovarik. “It was truly a moving experience.” 

“I was struck by how everybody was affected in similar ways,” said sophomore Ken Kaid. “The parts calling us to all come together and how being an individual isn’t going to affect anybody.” 

As the leaders at the event said though, this event was not one singular moment, but the beginning of a movement, and they asked the high schools present to choose at least two representatives to be a part of a planning committee for future advocacy events. 

“I think that this committee will be a great opportunity for ACES and other student groups at SLUH to contribute and collaborate with the broader St. Louis community,” said Kovarik. “Like they said, today was not a moment, but the beginning of the movement and we will work hard to help be a part of that.” 

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