Cuyahoga Falls vigil commemorates Colorado, Georgia shooting victims, demands better gun laws

Seyma Bayram
Akron Beacon Journal
Citizens gather to mourn the victims of the latest act of gun violence following the shooting in Atlanta during a candlelight vigil at the amphitheater, Monday, March 29, 2021, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

More than 70 people gathered at the amphitheater in downtown Cuyahoga Falls on Monday evening to mourn the recent spate of deadly mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado and to demand policy solutions that could put an end to America’s ongoing gun violence crisis. 

“Remember, React, Reform: A Vigil for Action Against Violence and Hate” drew remarks from survivors, legislators, local activists and faith leaders, all of whom delivered remarks on the intersection of gun violence, racism and hate crimes. The speakers urged those in attendance to pressure public officials for better gun control legislation and other safeguards to protect communities most vulnerable to violence and hate crimes. 

“We cry with the children who have lost parents and grandparents, we rage with the brothers and sisters that have lost a sibling, and we sit in silence and hold the hands of bewildered parents who have lost a child. We sit in shocked silence with spouses," said Meredith Gregory, a Cuyahoga Falls resident and longtime volunteer with Moms Demand Action, a nonpartisan advocacy group that fights for tighter gun laws across the nation. 

“These tragedies once again underscore the fact that America is in the grips of a gun violence crisis, that includes both mass killings and daily shootings that plague communities around the nation,” continued Gregory, who urged attendees to pressure senators to pass robust background checks legislation. 

“I can think of no better way to honor the memories of those we have lost than to say something when they no longer can,” she said.

Sponsored by Dimensions of Isms, Crooked River Action, God Before Guns and Moms Demand Action, the candlelight vigil comes on the heels of a record-breaking year for gun violence in America. The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group, reports that at least 19,223 people died in 2020 as a result of gun violence — a nearly 25% uptick from 2019. 

“We know that the majority of hate-motivated violence is directed against communities of color,” said Gregory. More than 10,300 hate crimes in America are committed with firearms, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for gun control. 

Buffalo-native Cynthia Lehman of Cleveland clearly displays her beliefs on her protective mask during a candlelight vigil held in honor of the lives lost in the Atlanta shooting earlier in the month. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

Elaine Tso, chief executive officer of Asia Services in Action in Akron, discussed her own family’s experience with gun violence and the need for more comprehensive hate crimes legislation in Ohio. 

“I’m so proud that the community has finally woken up to the reality of how serious the issues impacting Asians in this country are,” Tso said. 

Tso encouraged community members to reach out to lawmakers to pass House Bill 224, which would create the first Ohio Asian-American and Pacific Islander Affairs Commission and the Office of Asian American and Pacific Islander Affairs. 

Once established, the commission will collect data, including on discrimination and violence, on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in order to better understand the specific issues and needs of these communities.

The bill is co-sponsored by state Reps. Stephanie D. Howse and Tavia Galonski, who introduced it in part to address the lack of Asian American representation from Ohio in the House of Representatives. The bill is more urgent than ever, said Galonski, given the surge in violence towards Asian Americans over the past year. 

Ohio Rep. Tavia Galonski, D-Akron, holds up a copy of House Bill 224, a bill which will help members of the Asian and Pacific Islander communities, as she speaks during a vigil following the shootings in Atlanta earlier this month, Monday, March 29, 2021, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

“We need a commission to begin to ask the questions that we don’t have the answers to,” Galonski told vigil attendees. “Let’s start this commission so we can start this conversation and we can end this hate.”  

Other speakers included Sean Lowe, staff assistant to Rep. Tim Ryan, who reiterated Ryan’s commitment to tighter gun laws.

“We need to keep the pressure on the senate to pass H.R. 8, universal background checks. We need you to continue to put pressure on the senators, and we need to get that bill to President Biden’s desk so he can sign it, so we don’t have to come to more events like these, to grieve and to remember,” Lowe said. 

A.J. Harris, president of the Cuyahoga Falls Democratic Club, emphasized the importance of voting and electing officials with a demonstrated commitment to challenging the gun lobby and ending gun violence. The Rev. Kris Eggert, executive director of God Before Guns, a multifaith coalition of faith individuals and organizations working to end gun violence, spoke of Senate Bill 175, which removes the duty to retreat from Ohio’s Stand Your Ground law, as “a racist bill if there ever was one, as it provides the more effective defense for white people to kill people of color” and urged attendees to have the “audacity to speak what we know our leaders don’t want to hear.”

Sunny Matthews — one of the co-organizers of the vigil along with the Revs. Debbie Saxe, Ginger Bakos and Kody Cross — described the ongoing toll of gun violence as a symptom of a failure to act. 

“We need to remember those who have lost their lives because we failed to act. We need to remember people are more than hashtags. … We have a right to life, and we don’t have that if we can’t go to the grocery store, if we can’t go to school, if we can’t go to movies,” Matthews said.

“We can’t just hope it away. We have to act. … I urge you to remember, react, and demand reform,” she added. 

Citizens light candles during a vigil held in honor of the lives lost during the shootings in Atlanta earlier this month, Monday, March 29, 2021, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

At the end of the speeches, vigil attendees lit candles to commemorate the eight victims in the Atlanta-area spa shootings and 10 victims in the Boulder supermarket shooting while the Rev. Debbie Saxe led a prayer. 

Eggert, who noted that Ohio’s yearly rates of gun violence surpass the national average by 12%, called on community members to change the trajectory of where society is headed. 

“A society armed against itself, we are alarmingly close to being that,” Eggert said. “On any given day, that’s no way to live. We must do better, we must be better.” 

Seyma Bayram is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Learn more at reportforamerica.org. Contact her at sbayram@gannett.com or 330-996-3327 or on Twitter @SeymaBayram0.