What I ’m Fighting for—and How We Can Win
May 6, 2016. That’s the day I felt my family dodged a bullet. Soleil, who was not yet two, was at daycare when my phone started to blow up. There was an active shooter at the shopping mall adjacent to the daycare facility. The emails from the head administrator were to let parents know that the center, with its brightly colored circular rugs and different stations for creative play, was on lockdown. It took a moment before I realized Soleil was safe. It was only by pure coincidence—blind luck—that my partner, Suzanne, and I had moved our daughter to a different, closer daycare. We were still on the email list that went out to parents whose children attended the daycare.
But it hardly mattered that Soleil was now several miles away from these unfolding events. My heart was pounding as though I had just competed in an 800-meter race—and taken first place. I could see the teachers’ faces—all of them young women of color—and imagine their terrible fear as they raced at top speed to gather up the infants and toddlers in their care hoping, praying, that if they followed their well-rehearsed drills, they could keep these precious beings and themselves safe. All while projecting confidence and good cheer to their tiny, innocent charges that everything was okay!
I thought of Suzanne’s and my friends and acquaintances—the mothers and fathers of these children. The police tell you not to come, the school tells you not to come, the administrators tell you not to come, but I had zero doubt that they were at that moment hurtling to the daycare center, panicked beyond all imagination, to see if their babies were safe.
The next email I got gave the all clear: the kids were fine. The teachers were fine. The gunman had been subdued—a mentally ill man with a history of public disturbances.
But I couldn’t help myself. I put aside the exams I was grading for my Columbia students, postponed the grooming appointment I was going to make for our dog, Mardi, and sidestepped the whites I had planned to presoak in OxiClean before washing. I grabbed my car keys and ran to my car, only just remembering to slam the front door so Mardi didn’t get loose.
I had to see Soleil, even though it was the middle of the afternoon and she usually stayed at daycare for another three hours. I cradled Soleil’s little head and buried my nose in her soft curls, a barrette in my eye. She was nonplussed by my unexpected appearance, more interested in a pink unicorn covered in glitter than in me as I worked hard to quiet the boiling cauldron of bright red rage I felt—mingled with overwhelming relief.
Even the 2012 slaughter of twenty elementary school children—all of them six or seven years old—and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, didn’t change the gun laws in America. It was the worst day of Obama’s presidency and according to his wife, Michelle, the only time he asked her to come to the Oval Office unexpectedly. “When I walked into the Oval Office, Barack and I embraced silently,” Michelle Obama wrote in Becoming. “There was nothing to say. No words.”
Nothing has changed since that terrible day—December 14, 2012. Every single day, there’s a new headline about innocent people taken from this earth because the National Rifle Association (NRA) owns senators and congress members.
You almost get used to it. But we can’t allow that. The gun maniacs definitely are not complacent. In fact, mass shootings sometimes lead to a spike in gun sales. This tends to happen when the Democrats—aka gun-safety folks—are in charge of national politics. I saw a CNN Money headline dating back to his presidency that read “Is Barack Obama the Best Gun Salesman in History?” There was no such fear on Valentine’s Day in 2018 after the Parkland, Florida, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in which seventeen people died. With Republicans leading both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, there was not a chance that a national restriction on gun sales would be passed by Congress and signed by the president. Meeting with Parkland survivors, Trump called not for fewer guns but more. He suggested fighting fire with fire—arming teachers in the classroom.
Of the 251,000 gun-related deaths worldwide in 2016, half occurred in just six countries. Because of NRA money pouring into Republican coffers, the United States ranked number two, just behind Brazil in number of fatalities. (Recently, two groups asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether Trump’s 2016 campaign illegally coordinated its advertising strategy with the NRA. The gun lobby donated over $30 million to the Trump campaign, triple what it donated to Mitt Romney’s presidential race four years earlier. There is also the mysterious connection between a red headed Russian woman named Maria Butina and her connections to top NRA officials and Republicans.)
Thanks to the ready availability of firearms, more than twenty thousand people kill themselves with a gun each year. One statistic stuns me every time I see it. While it’s the fatalities that grab the headlines, an estimated 100,000 Americans survive a gunshot injury every year. Many of these survivors are permanently disabled. It’s hard to measure the cost—financially, emotionally—to themselves, their families, and society.
The trauma can persist. A year after the Parkland shooting, two teenagers who were students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took their own lives. Survivor’s guilt might have played a role, according to one of the suicide victims’ families. The father of a Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim took his life more than six years later.
There is another, rarely mentioned consequence: the all-pervasive fear. I have a friend who, when she drops her teenagers off at middle school and high school every morning, utters a silent prayer that what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will not happen to them that day. That the kids won’t have to crouch under their desks in silence as they have practiced during countless active-shooter drills to keep from being the target of a real shooter. My friend struggles every day with this sense of dread. As do the children. For several weeks after the Parkland shooting, her twelve-year-old would come home from school talking about which teachers she thought would “take a bullet for students.” This is NOT normal. Do we as a society have any idea of the emotional damage we may be inflicting on these vulnerable young psyches?
This same friend sent her son to camp in rural Vermont, thrilled that he could immerse himself in nature. For a month, he would be away from not just technology but all modern conveniences, including running water and wristwatches. Her reverie was smashed when her cell phone rang one afternoon in early July. It was the camp director calling to say that a man with an AR-15–style rifle had entered the camp and had become belligerent when he was asked to leave. The campers and counselors, some of whom were whittling or reading while others were up the mountain on a hike, had to be immediately evacuated. They were sequestered at another camp for nearly two weeks while the gunman remained at large before being caught. Many parents picked up their sons and brought them home. The remainder vainly tried to recapture the esprit de corps they had enjoyed before. “So much for Max getting away from it all,” she told me, sighing. “But thank God everyone was okay. It could have been so, so, so much worse.”
But saying prayers and seeing the bright side are not enough.
I’m fighting against the absolute insanity of how we approach guns in our country.
There are so many ideals I’m fighting for as well.
Because I am a dark-skinned Haitian American child of the working class. Because my parents are immigrants from a beautiful country derided by Donald Trump. I believe in justice and equality. I believe that the growing economic inequality between the 1 percent and everyone else is an existential threat to the survival of a country I love deeply. I know racism is alive and well and growing. I think health care is a human right, not a lottery that people play. It enrages me when I see folks having to raise money for their kids’ cancer treatments on Kickstarter or GoFundMe. Although I have worked every day of my life at either a full-time or part-time job since I turned nineteen, I have gone without health insurance for years at a stretch because I just couldn’t afford it. I always think of the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968, Shirley Chisholm, and her quote about health care: “We have never seen health as a right. It has been conceived as a privilege, available only to those who can afford it. This is the real reason the American health care system is in such a scandalous state.”
And in so many ways, I am fighting for my family.
The 2008 Great Recession isn’t something that happened to other people. It happened to Mummy, who lost a house in Hempstead, Long Island, to a predatory tax lien.
This was the modest, all-paid-for redbrick Colonial that my mother and father had worked years to buy—and that Mummy, who is in her sixties, planned to use for her retirement. She has worked two to three jobs a week—years of sixty-hour weeks—caring for senior citizens. Papi, now in his seventies, has driven a taxi for four decades, getting up at 4:00 a.m. so he can be in line early to pick up the first international travelers at JFK Airport. It’s an exhausting life of waiting, driving, and hoping for good tips. Now Uber, Lyft, and Via are decimating his income.
For ten years—since the Great Recession in 2008—Mummy was underwater on the second house my parents bought in a better school district, in Wheatley Heights, after I left for the city and Columbia. She was a victim of a system that preys on people who don’t understand how it works. The house finally sold in a short sale while I was writing this chapter.
Suzanne, Soleil, and I would be thrilled to have Mummy join us in Maryland, but living on the crust of a daughter’s charity in a basement bedroom, far away from her friends and her church, is a hard place for a proud, self-sufficient woman to end up. I managed to save up enough money to buy her a small condo in Freeport, Long Island, New York, thirty minutes closer to the city than Wheatley Heights. The tremendous relief she said she felt after shouldering the financial strain for so long made my efforts to scrimp worth it. “I can’t believe this is mine, and I don’t have to worry about how to pay for it,” she told my brother Chris when he drove her to see her new place.
So I’m not just thinking about the next ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years of my life, paying off my grad school loans and saving money for Soleil to go to college, I’m also thinking about the next decades, God willing, of Mummy’s life. I am sandwiched between generations, as so many people are. I also feel guilty, because I used to go to meetings with Mummy to translate and read over documents before she signed them. But when I left for grad school, I started living my own life like an American daughter and stopped paying attention. I thought she had the situation in hand and then bad things started happening that I didn’t know about and my mother couldn’t understand. Do I blame my mother? Absolutely not. I blame a financial system that uses incomprehensible jargon and shady gimmicks to lure hardworking people into unsustainable money traps: mortgages with interest rates that no one tells you will one day skyrocket without warning, credit cards with massive hidden fees and interest charges. One of my heroes is Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has dedicated her career to protecting the American consumer from the corporate predators who, in search of vast profits, are hollowing out the middle class and the working class. How utterly typical of Trump’s attack on the 99 percent have been his efforts to destroy the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau established by Obama. “People feel like the system is rigged against them,” says Warren. “And here’s the painful part: they’re right. The system is rigged.”
I know in my heart that guilt about my mother losing her life savings and rental property is a useless emotion. The better thing to do is to channel it into action.
Most of all, I am fighting for Soleil to have her best chance in life. A real opportunity to grow up in a gun-free environment. A real opportunity to get a good college education that won’t bankrupt her. Or us. A real opportunity to live a healthy, happy life without being impacted by racism or sexism. A real opportunity to fulfill her unique promise in this world. A real opportunity to live in a world that is not being decimated by climate breakdown or choked to death by pollution or poisoned by toxins like mercury and lead.
Today, Soleil is a thriving preschooler with large, expressive eyes, an infectious laugh, and a fixation on unicorns and the color purple. She will wear her Spider-Man pj’s one night and her ballerina nightgown the next. She is impressively indepen-dent and fearless.
Even at her tender age, I already tell her that I am Haitian American. When she gets a little older, I’ll tell her, a smile tugging the corners of my lips, that Haiti was the first country where enslaved people overthrew their colonizers to create the first ever independent country of freed people. I’m going to tell her how that independence, that strength, continues to run through our blood. I’m going to tell her, too, about the tough times my parents faced in Haiti. I’ll tell her about how my mom, who lost her own mother, started working young—so, so young—because she was forced to fend for herself when she was still just a child. I’ll tell her about how my parents eventually left Haiti, fleeing a dictatorship where their words were censored but their ambitions couldn’t be. My daughter will hear about how my mom worked as a home health care aide here in the United States, my dad drove an NYC taxicab, and how they scraped by, never able to take a break, just so that I could catch mine. I’ll tell her how that ethos of hard work, grit, and determination runs through our family.
It runs through our country, too.
Moving Forward by Karine Jean-Pierre
An inspiring political memoir from Karine Jean-Pierre, Chief Public Affairs Officer for MoveOn, chronicling her path from New York’s Haitian community to working in the Obama White House, and offering a blueprint for anyone who wants to change the face of politics.
Most political origin stories have the same backbone. A bright young person starts reading the Washington Post in elementary school. She skips school to see a presidential candidate. In middle school she canvasses door-to-door. The story can be intimidating. It reinforces the feeling that politics is a closed system: if you weren’t participating in debate club, the Young Democrats and Model UN you have no chance.
Karine Jean-Pierre’s story breaks the mold. In Moving Forward, she tells how she got involved, showing how politics can be accessible to anyone, no matter their background. In today’s political climate, the need for all of us to participate has never been more crucial. This book is her call to arms for those who know that now is the time for us to act.