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Local women join Million Mom March next Sunday to fight guns

Sunday, May 07, 2000

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Michele Brisker of Wilkinsburg has attended the funerals of more young men than should be allowed by law.

Renee Goodson, left, of Wilkinsburg and Adrienne Young of Garfield both lost sons to gun violence and plan to join the Million Mom March next Sunday. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)  

"Personally, between myself and my daughter, we've known upwards of 50 young African-American men [who] have been killed in the Pittsburgh area," she said.

Last week, the weight of a decade of loss coupled with a newspaper article about the NAACP's response to the latest local gun rampage was too much to bear. "I just got overwhelmed with the grief of it all," said the 53-year-old grandmother of four. "I was really sobbing. I was surprised that I broke down at my desk."

When she came across the phone number for the Million Mom March at the end of that article, she called.

Unlike Brisker, Valerie Carney, 40, of Cranberry has not had to swim against a tide of gun violence. Her day is filled with the doings of a stay-at-home mother of two preschoolers.

But there was something about Sally Kalson's column in the March 1 Post-Gazette that struck a chord with her. Kalson wrote about the killing of a 6-year-old by another 6-year-old in Michigan, about how a gun lock could have prevented that tragedy and how the Million Mom March wanted to bring about sensible gun laws.

"I thought about it. I thought that's a wonderful cause," Carney said. Five days later, she joined in the effort.

Different women, different backgrounds, different neighborhoods, same cause -- that's what the Million Mom March is all about. The Pittsburgh area contingent is an example of that diversity. Sixteen buses carrying more than 700 people will be leaving at 4:30 a.m. Saturday from Squirrel Hill, Wilkinsburg, North Side, Cranberry, East End, South Hills and Homewood. They will leave the nation's capital about 10 p.m.

Million Mom March and Armed Informed Mothers March reflect opposite stands next Sunday in D.C.


"And I'm getting more phone calls every day," said Cathie Kopecky, Western Pennsylvania coordinator for the Million Mom March. Initially, she reserved five buses and wasn't sure she could fill them. Now, Kopecky, who lives in Sewickley, says she might have to add two more to the convoy.

Besides working a full-time job, Kopecky, 43, has been spending 45 hours a week for the past six weeks figuring out the logistics so that everything runs smoothly. She's been working on the Million Mom March since October. That's when she first learned of the effort of a 42-year-old New Jersey publicist named Donna Dees-Thomases to organize a grass-roots march.

"I think people are really getting that it's not only happening to other people," Kopecky said. She concedes that too many people are indifferent to the gun violence that has plagued black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh for more than a decade.

"So much of the black violence was always talked about as gangs and we could reason it was gang stuff," she said. "I think people are realizing that that's not true, and shame on us for not acting sooner."

Adrienne Young seconds that emotion. She's the mother of Javon Thompson, a promising Carnegie Mellon University art student who was killed six years ago when a young man burst into a home he was visiting and shot three people.

"I've probably been the most vocal on the gun issue in this city ever since my son was killed," Young said. She was asked by national Million Mom March organizers to take part. When she attended a local organizational meeting, it bothered her that the other women did not acknowledge the gun violence that has taken so many black lives.

Young, 43, made her feelings known. "I said whenever they hear about our children dying, it's always gang violence. When their children die, it's gun violence. If that angry boy did not have a gun, my son would not be dead. When I stood up and said this to these ladies at the meeting, they looked at me in astonishment, as if it had never dawned on them that it's the same thing."

Young, who was the only black person at the meeting, told the group that people in her community would go to the march if they had the means. Afterward, a woman, who wished to remain anonymous, gave her a check for $1,000 to use for renting buses.

Since then she has been getting the word out, and the calls have been pouring in from East Liberty, Garfield, the Hill District, the North Side and Penn Hills.

Carney also thought she'd get a big response and fill three buses in Cranberry once she put up fliers and contacted community organizations.

It hasn't happened. She has been able to get only one busload of 30 people.

Carney knows it's Mother's Day and people often make big plans. But she believes the sign-ups are slow because so many people have not been touched by gun violence.

"Maybe they don't want to be honest enough to say they don't care," she said.

But Carney knows people have guns and will travel. Richard Baumhammers, the man who's accused of killing five people in a shooting rampage April 28, was arrested in Ambridge, only minutes from her daughter's preschool.

Gun violence has never been far from Brisker, of Wilkinsburg. LaShawn Hall, the father of two of her grandchildren, was one of six people shot last year in Frankie's bar in Swissvale. Hall's brother had been shot the previous year in front of his East Liberty home.

"I've been to many funerals. ...It's heart-wrenching to see these kids grow up from kindergarten at Turner School and be gunned down," she said.

Despite it all, Brisker has never taken a stand until now. She plans to be in Washington, D.C., on Mother's Day. So does Young.

"We have lost the most children proportionately than any ethnic group. I think we should come out in numbers," Young said. "Our voices need to be heard, our faces need to be seen and our pain needs to be known."

Seats may still be available on buses leaving from Cranberry, Squirrel Hill and the South Hills. Call 412-369-4461. Cost is $23.

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