At 5:30 Sunday morning, the streets of Harlem were empty and quiet. The sun was just beginning to rise above the Magic Johnson Cineplex and the Triboro Bridge on this Mother’s Day 2000.
The engines of four charter buses hummed and warmed up Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard during the last moments of this cool dawn. A few boys busily sized up one another as possible Game Boy cartridge traders as their mothers registered them and themselves to travel to Washington, D.C. to insist that guns leave their streets and their homes.
Once the passengers had settled into their seats, cartons of coffee made their way to the back by hand-to-hand pass-off over heads.
The not-mothers going to the Million Mom March–obviously not veterans of rising so early on Sundays–seemed to heave a collective sigh of relief for the caffeine. This division between mothers and others, however, evaporated with a prayer that all could say Amen to.
"Oh heavenly father, we pray that we arrive in D.C. safely," intoned Sandra Williams, a volunteer coordinator for the march and one of 20 official bus captains for Manhattan. "And we pray that you give our Congressmen some sense."
Williams sat in the front seat with her two sons, Simeon 7, and Sammy, 4. She became an organizer by responding to a flier at her sons’ school calling for a "few good moms"–an obvious spoof on the army advertisements. A cousin of hers was shot, she said.
"Sometimes you can sit kids down and explain the issues," she said. "But sometimes you just have to take them along so they can see what you do is all for them."
Williams’ bus was filled with adoptive mothers and childless-by-choice women; one husband; one brother-in-law and a handful of fathers. All agreed that taking a stand alongside women against gun violence would help every family.
A husband and wife artist team, George Goss and Audra Moore, said that they felt it was necessary to go to D.C. even though they have no children. Goss said they are hoping to sell hand-made jewelry that promotes peace by the symbolism of beadwork.
"Who wants to raise a child in the world we live in today?" Moore asked rhetorically.
Some said they were going to the march not because of the state of the world but because they want to make their perspective part of the gun control discussion.
"African-American mothers’ experience of gun violence is different," said Sister Moutique, founder of the Harlem Women’s Collective. "Our kids are not finding hunter’s guns. Our mothers experience a connection between guns and domestic violence, guns and police brutality."
Danni Tyson, a single, adoptive mother, sat next to her daughter, Sayde, in the middle of the bus. Both agreed that gun violence indirectly affects 12-year-old girls through the media influence of movies and music. Pulling off her headphones, Sayde added that she likes to talk about politics and serious issues.
"A group I am in at my school—-SADD–changed its name a while ago from Students Against Drunk Driving to Students Against Destructive Choices," she explained. When she told her friends she was going to the march, the discussion at her group’s last meeting focused on the destructive choice of purchasing guns.
Once at the Capitol Mall, the mothers and others could easily see that the health and well-being of families was the organizing principle of the demonstration. The grassy expanse was lined with Porta-Johns, diaper changing stations and booths distributing free Million Mom March bottled water. Giant inflated slides kept kids happy when the carousel line was too long.
Organizer Williams and adoptive mother Tyson ignored the events on the main stage and sat together listening to a jazz trio and discussed effective tools to bring back home. For them, the march wasn’t about the Second Amendment, taking on the National Rifle Association, attacking the gun lobbies or petitioning for national regulations.
Indeed, the bus group from Harlem did not come to the march to protest or grieve. They had a practical purpose. They did not seem to respond to speeches by the stars, but were more interested in connecting with each other, to share ideas on how to reduce gun violence in their neighborhoods.
They liked the Ask Campaign. It encourages parents to ask the parents of their children’s friends if there are guns in their homes before permitting their kids to play there.
Wilson and Tyson agreed that the strategy seemed to be an easy way to strike up conversation with neighbors too. Tyson–currently in a state-sponsored program to learn how to open a day care center in her home–plans to tell all her future day-care parents about it.
On the way back to New York City, most were quiet, if not dozing.
The bus driver, Joel Unger, has been driving activist groups to Washington, D.C. for 12 years. Some he supports, others he merely transports.
"I own two guns," he confides, "but I am very much for federal licensing."
"I saw unity here today," he added. "A rabbi came up to me in the parking lot to talk about all the people we met."