October 20, 2018

Sending a clear message against gun violence

When the organizers of the “Concert Across America to End Gun Violence” decided they needed to shout their message from the rooftops of Los Angeles on Sept. 25, they took things pretty literally.

Stationed on the trendy rooftop of the Standard Hotel, overlooking the downtown cityscape and cluster of high-rises, nearly 300 people gathered for a night of music and anti-gun activism with a host of high-profile performers and survivors.

Held on the National Day of Remembrance for Murdered Victims, the event took place in concert with others at more than 350 venues across the country featuring more than 1,000 artists. 

Reacting to the frequency of mass shootings that occur in this country — including in Washington and Illinois during the week leading up to the event — the bare-headed musician Moby (a surprise guest) may have summed things up best at the Los Angeles concert when he said, between songs, “I’m f—— sick of it.” 

For two hours, the serenades of Moby, Don Felder (of the Eagles), Carnie Wilson, Ryan Cabrera, the Gay Men’s Chorus of L.A., Sebastian Kole and Sam Harris (from X Ambassadors) accompanied the sounds of the city.

Echoing Moby’s sentiments (minus the expletives), concert emcee Kevin Frazier of “Entertainment Tonight” opened the evening with the precursor, “I, like many of you, am sick and tired of what’s happening in this country.”

Frazier was preaching to the choir, as many of the concert’s attendees were family members and survivors of mass shootings. 

One of those survivors was Josh Stepakoff, a 23-year-old graduate student at Pepperdine University with black-frame glasses. Seventeen years ago, he was attending summer camp at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills when a white supremacist charged the grounds with two weapons, a Glock and a machine gun. He wounded three boys — including Stepakoff — a teenage girl and an adult staffer.

For Stepakoff, legislative reform needs to happen now. “I think we’ve been taking slow steps towards progression, but I do foresee a change coming and I think it’s becoming more and more apparent that change will come,” he told the Journal. 

Stepakoff was only 6 years old when he was shot twice, once in the hip and once in the knee. He was immediately airlifted to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for treatment. “I have physical scars, but other than that, it’s fully emotional,” Stepakoff said. 

In and out of therapy for 17 years, he was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) back in 2009. “It’s been an everlasting battle that I think will continue for the rest of my life,” he said about the emotional repercussions. 

Also in attendance was Loren Lieb, Stepakoff’s mother. She told the Journal, “It’s so weird because in some sense it seems like it never happened. I think: Well, that couldn’t have happened in my life.” 

And yet, in the immediacy of the family’s nightmarish experience, Lieb said they tried to retain some normalcy after the tragedy. “The shooting happened on a Tuesday. Josh was in the hospital until Friday. And the JCC opened the next week and both the kids [Josh and his brother] went back.” 

“On that day, I became a gun prevention activist,” she said. An active member of Women Against Gun Violence and co-leader of the San Fernando Chapter of the nonprofit Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Lieb doesn’t take her activism lightly. “The cause we’re promoting is peace and common sense in gun legislation,” she said.

Lieb wasn’t the only concerned mother at the event who had been personally touched by gun violence. 

“I belong to this club that nobody wants to belong to,” said Donna Finkelstein, the mother of Mindy Finkelstein, who was 16 when she was shot twice in her right leg at the JCC shooting. “From that day forward, I promised myself if she survived, I’d do everything I could to prevent this from happening to any other family.” 

Donna Finkelstein, like Lieb, is an active member with Women Against Gun Violence and the Brady Campaign.

Mindy Finkelstein, who was a camp counselor at JCC, also suffers from PTSD, according to her mother. “She has suffered terribly, where she has stopped eating and stopped drinking. It’s trauma. It’s so painful because it’s an unimaginable and unrealistic event. It’s unnecessary and needless,” she said.

An anthem for the evening could have been sung by musician Sebastian Kole, who hails from Birmingham, Ala., when he performed his heart-rending song “Love’s on the Way,” a gospel-inspired melody that he wrote after the 2012 Aurora, Colo., shootings. The first two lines of the song captured the desperation and outrage of the concert’s attendees: “Is it just me or is the world going crazy lately? What’s going on?”

For Kole, music was a natural way to protest against gun violence.

The musician told the Journal, “Anybody who believes in any kind of greater power, even if you believe in science, you’d have to assume the first thing ever created, that ever happened was sound. Right? If it was two molecules that crossed each other, their friction made sound. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ There was sound.”

Kole paused, before continuing: “You are what you hear.”