Sometime early in 1965, I remember there was snow on the ground, a bunch of us left our college campus, went down to Times Square and demonstrated against American troops in Viet Nam. At the time there were only 20,000 or so fighting men over there and people who walked past us nodded politely, glanced at and then threw away our little leaflets. After an hour or so we all went home.
We never could have imagined that five years later there would be 400,000 American GIs in Southeast Asia, but we also couldn’t imagine that there were demonstrations daily in every American city, and that eventually the anti-war stance of a majority of Americans would help bring about an end to the war.
I was thinking about my experience as a college student during the Viet Nam War last week on Wear Orange Day. Because when it started in Chicago as a way to commemorate the life (and terrible, terrible death) of Hadiya Pendleton, I don’t think that anyone believed or even imagined that in two short years this event would swell into an international occasion embracing the activities and energies of millions of average, ordinary folks like you and me. And when I say millions, I’m not talking about single-digit millions; I’m talking about hundreds of millions – that’s right – hundreds of millions who were aware that wearing orange on June 2nd meant participating in an activity that allowed everyone to spend some time thinking about the violence caused by guns.
I didn’t notice, incidentally, that the event was embraced or even mentioned by the NRA. Usually when some organization, politician or celebrity says anything remotely reasonable about gun violence, Gun Nut Nation’s noise machine swings into action, inundating the faithful with emails, videos, and most of all, demands for cash. Last week it was Hillary, this week it was Katie, there are plenty of targets around. And the reason that the number of targets keeps increasing is the same reason why participation in the Wear Orange campaign is growing by leaps and bounds, namely, the silly and stupid arguments that are trotted out again and again to explain away the senseless deaths of more than 30,000 human beings every year from gun violence simply don’t work.
In 2015 there were 55,000 people who posted #WearOrange support on social media; this year more than 200,000 posts came up; last year the hashtag registered 220 million impressions across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – try seven times that number this year; in 2015 they held a Party for Peace in Chicago, last week more than 200 events took place countryside; the Empire State Building was lit orange, so were more than 125 other landmarks from sea to shining sea. Want a list of the hundreds of companies, major personalities, political leaders and professional sports teams that wore orange? It’s right here.
I have been following the argument over gun violence for more than thirty years, in fact it’s going on forty because I first started paying attention to the issue of guns and gun violence prevention in the run-up to GCA68. And what is so important and different about June 2nd from every previous activity designed to increase awareness about gun violence is that this time, for the first time, it didn’t grow out of an immediate response to a horrific shooting or other crazy, gun violence event.
Which means that the emotions and energy displayed on June 2nd aren’t just going to fade away. Because #WearOrange has now taken on a life of its own; it exists because people understand and support the idea that guns are deadly and gun violence needs to fade away. Tomorrow I’ll go walking and spot someone who just happens to be wearing orange. I’ll flash a quick grin of recognition and I’ll probably get a quick grin back. And if this happens to me it will happen to others and it will happen more and more.