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    Keeping the Pulse Alive

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    As we waited in line at Newark Airport to board our flight home to San Francisco after a recent trip back east, we struck up a conversation with a delightful and outgoing African American woman, who lives in New York but was returning home to East Oakland, where she grew up. 

    We soon noticed, however, that tears were welling up in her eyes.

    Without hesitation, she revealed to us that she was coming home to bury her lifelong best friend, who ten days before had been murdered in East Oakland—shot in the head near her house by a stray bullet intended for someone else. “She didn’t deserve this,” said our fellow traveler over and over again.

    She then told us how her friend’s adolescent son had dashed out of their house as soon as he heard the shot. The killer made a speedy escape, and minutes later, the son cradled his mom’s bleeding head in his arms as she breathed her last breath and he felt her pulse stop. The family waited a week to tell his 8-year-old sister that her mom had been murdered. They understood that the young girl would not immediately be able to comprehend that her beloved mother would not be coming home again. 

    Our new friend showed us a beautiful photo of her lost friend whose name was Hadiyah, and talked about their years growing up together. She then divulged that she had been unable to eat or sleep since she had learned of Hadiyah’s murder. She explained that, as soon as she got to Oakland and saw the children, she would simply embrace them, hold them tight and comfort them.  She had no words to console them in the face of their unspeakable loss.

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    Pulse—a mom’s pulse ceasing to beat as her young son held her in his arms. Pulse—a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where 49 mostly Latinx members of the LGBTIQ community were shot and killed, and 53 others wounded, three years ago in the wee hours of June 12, 2016.

    It is staggering to consider the thousands of Americans killed or wounded by gun violence in the three years since the Pulse nightclub massacre. These include the headline-grabbing mass shootings, such as at Las Vegas, Parkland, Pittsburgh and Virginia Beach; police shootings, like Stephon Clark in Sacramento; and the murders of trans and other queer people, like Anthony “Bubbles” Torres, who was shot in the Tenderloin. There are thousands of people, like Hadiyah, whose names don’t make the headlines, but whose loss is felt keenly by their friends, families and communities.

    A Japanese friend of ours visited us last week from Tokyo. Her visit reminded us that it doesn’t have to be this way. In all of Japan, with its strict gun control regulations, only three people were murdered and five others were wounded in gun violence in 2017.  

    We must not relent in making gun control in America a political priority and in remaining mindful of the harm that gun violence inflicts on Americans daily. Our fellow traveler reminded us of that reality as we waited together to board a plane together at Newark Airport two weeks ago. She spoke the truth about gun violence spontaneously and from the heart.

    Every year, on the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre, we recall the entreaties Christine Leinonen made in a live television interview as she desperately searched for her son Drew, whom she later learned was killed in the shootings: “We’re on this Earth for such a short time. Let’s try to get rid of the hatred and the violence, please … . [P]lease could we do something with the assault weapons … . I beg all of you, please.”

    The heartbeat must become a drumbeat. We must keep the Pulse alive.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.