The complex fears of the gun violence generation

Gen Z activists are trying to get their peers – and the adults who created the gun violence crisis – to hear them out.
DJ Hemphill, a 14-year-old Black boy, stands next to Simon Thompson, a 17-year-old white boy. They are standing on a sidewalk in a suburban neighborhood looking toward the camera.
14-year-old DJ Hemphill (left) and 17-year-old Simon Thompson stand together. Photo by Kristie May.

Simon Thompson and DJ Hemphill are part of an entire generation forced to grow up in the shadows of gun violence. 

Their experiences are different, one living in proximity to community gun violence, the other in fear that national headlines will one day broadcast from a local school. Both are trying to get others in their generation more involved — if not to get older generations to be more proactive than to prepare to do it themselves when they are old enough.

“People my age are going to be the next generation of protesters and we need some people who can be leaders and not followers,” says 14-year-old Hemphill. 

Seventeen-year-old Thompson sees the news of communities across the country devastated by rampant school shootings. It sets off an anxious, invisible countdown in his mind to a shooting in his own hometown of Portage.

Simon Thompson, a 17-year-old white boy, stands in front of his school's front entrance. White letters above the doorway read "Northern High School." Simon wears a light blue tee-shirt and white shorts.
Simon Thompson in front of his high school Portage Northern as a senior. Photo by Kristie May.

“I had to face instances of having to leave school because I felt unsafe or where I was placed in lockdowns and watched the police move through our halls,” says the Portage Northern High School student when describing the source of his uneasiness.

Beyond the school walls, the concern expands throughout an entire neighborhood for Hemphill, whose family lives on the Northside of Kalamazoo.

“I remember it was a couple weeks straight where someone was dying every day,” he says. “You wake up, look at your phone, and someone was dead.”

“A lot of people are being hurt by it cause I’ve seen people be hurt by it first hand.”

Firearms have become the number one killer of their peers, according to a study by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Their generation also has to live with the consequences of inaction (or inadequate action) longer than any of the adults with power to enact change. The inevitability of gun violence jeopardizing their futures weighs heavily on both teens, which has thrust them into advocacy.

“I sort of realized that if no one else was going to step up then I was willing to do it,” Thompson says about organizing a walkout back in April at his school. With 250 classmates by his side, Thompson, then a junior, wanted to send a message that the mere possibility of schoolchildren being shot to death at school should enrage everyone.

“That’s where we are eight hours a day, every day,” says Thompson.

When he decided to cut one of those days short and walk out to demand legislative action, it made the local and statewide news headlines, two months after a mass shooting at Michigan State University.

“You never expect it to be your community that it affects next and you shouldn’t wait until it is,” he says.

Hemphill says he believes school shootings deserve the high level media attention they receive, however he wishes that same effort and prioritization would be given to the everyday intervention work he does in his neighborhood.

DJ Hemphill, a 14-year-old Black boy, stands next to a tree on the grass in a residential neighborhood. He wears tight khaki pants, blue sneakers, and a blue tee-shirt with the words "Death Row Records" in red lettering.
DJ Hemphill poses in his neighborhood. Photo by Kristie May.

“The school shootings, they should be getting attention,” Hemphill says. But in Kalamazoo County, it’s not mass shootings in schools but routine gun violence that takes place in neighborhoods — and those, like his father, whose work is preventing an argument from escalating into gunfire, should be given more attention and funding, he says.

It’s a different reality from kids who fear the hypothetical. “People who don’t really have the neighborhood violence (don’t) have to worry about someone they love going out and getting shot, and not coming back to the house because they’re in an unsafe community, but they want their child to be safe.”

Media attention has typically downplayed or ignored the realities behind neighborhood violence, Hemphill says. It ultimately fails to articulate how deep-rooted economic and racist inequities have bred and sustained violence.

Hemphill says he witnesses how these inequities, like concentrated poverty in historically redlined communities and the lack of social mobility, breed shooters. “Some kids are just born into it and they have no choice cause that’s where they live,” he says “unless you have a good job, you can’t really move out, you gotta provide for your children, you gotta provide for yourself, you gotta pay the bills.”

The skewed coverage of neighborhood violence which usually centers the voices of lawmakers or law enforcement, largely undermines the impact and insight of those doing work on the ground.

For Hemphill, the successful ways to prevent neighborhood gun violence is to provide clarity on alternatives in the short term and to address the root causes so that the cycle of violence falls apart.

DJ Hemphill, a 14-year-old Black boy, walks confidently down the middle of his neighborhood street. He has a slight smile on his face. Behind him are trees and well-manicured lawns.
14-year-old DJ Hemphill walks down his street. Photo by Kristie May.

He also says there has to be commitment by elected leaders. Each month he meets with a group of his peers in Youth Juvenile Justice Fellows, organized by Western Michigan University’s Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations in 2021, to pitch ideas to convey to lawmakers in Lansing.

“This year we’re talking about the age when you can be sentenced,” Hemphill says.

Both teens recognize the need for intergenerational involvement, especially since adults can actually vote on policies and the politicians who can uphold them.

Thompson says many parents and teachers were “surprisingly positive” in their response to and support of the demonstration, even though he read some hateful comments on social media mocking the effort. Hemphill says he knows adults are just as concerned. “They’re feeling the same way,” he says. “My grandma has the same idea cause she stays on the Northside and she always hears the gunshots when she’s going to sleep. She just wants it to stop.” Yet, he notes there’s a struggle to get these adults to speak out.

Simon Thompson, a 17-year-old white boy, sits on a wire bench on a sidewalk next to the brick side of a school building. He sits upright, looking off into the distance with his hands folded in his lap.
Portage Northern High School senior, Simon Thompson sits outside of his school. Photo by Kristie May.

There’s also a fight to get their peers on board. Thompson says although he considers the walkout a success, he struggles to keep the momentum when people have moved on from the latest school shooting. He says he struggles to convince his classmates that their involvement matters and that speaking out can be effective. “Despite the fact that we’re young and maybe don’t have the same wisdom that (adults) think they do, that we still have experiences and have watched things happen, that we deserve to be heard,” he says.

DJ echoes this concern, saying many of his friends are disinterested until it hits too close to home. “I don’t think they really see what I’m doing as serious,” he says “but when something will happen to them they’ll be like ‘wow, he was kinda right’… My friend, his cousin, recently died a couple of months ago by gun violence and he’s been sad for a long time.”

DJ Hemphill, a 14-year-old Black boy, shakes hands with Simon Thompson, a 17-year-old white boy. They both have smiles on their faces, as if shaking hands is awkward but amusing.
Thompson and Hemphill shake hands. Photo by Kristie May.

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