Posted on

Why Laura Whitson’s family wears orange.

By Penny Okamoto, Executive Director of Ceasefire Oregon

This weekend, you’ll see many people wearing orange to call attention to gun violence and honor victims of gun violence. Today, we are honored to post Doreen Magee-Dodgon’s reason she wears orange. She is honoring her sister-in-law and nieces, Laura Whitson and Sarah (6), Rachel (3), and April (6 months) who were shot to death in Scotts Mill, Oregon, in 1995 by Laura’s estranged husband. April was shot to death in the arms of her grandmother.

Please wear orange this weekend to honor Laura, Sarah, Rachel, April, and their family, and to let people know we can fight gun violence.

why i wear orange (standing up to gun violence)

If you’ve followed my blog for very long you have likely stumbled upon an entry or two about guns. I’ve written about how they seem to make us feel, how violence in the media and in embodied life intersect (and also here), and about how guns have impacted communities. I’ve referred to the quadruple homicide that robbed me of my sister in law and nieces and have offered ideas of how one might honor lives taken by gun violence. I’ve always tried to keep these pieces approachable for people on all sides of the gun debate. As a therapist, a speaker, and, some might say, a “leader,” as well as a mother and a lover of people, it is important for me to extend a hospitable welcome to everyone who might encounter me in whatever spaces they do. While I work diligently to meet all people with authentic respect, inviting them into a relationship with me must also include authenticity. I must be authentic about my feelings about gun violence. They are strong.

Last year, on the Sunday morning following the Pulse nightclub shooting, I sat in my church parking lot listening to an account of what had happened. Not one to tie myself to the news in times of crisis, I went in to the church service for a few moments, hoping to find space for comfort and prayer. Something new was happening in me, however, and my anger was rising to the level of my grief. Feeling sick to my stomach and unable to keep the tears at bay, I left the building and walked aimlessly until I could gather myself. All I could think about were the completely overturned lives of those present at the nightclub and their stunned families who were trying to understand an entirely new reality. Whether their loved ones were killed, injured, or emotionally traumatized, I knew, first hand, how the ripples of such violence would wash over them for the rest of their lives.

Every single time there is a shooting in the news I think of this. The waves of trauma for the victims and survivors. The waves of helplessness and grief for their families. The ripples of complexity that will carry out to generations to come. The complicated, tortured waves of every imaginable pain for the people related to the shooters. It’s all a bit much.

I have boxes in my garage that contain the entire all-too-short story of my sister-in-law and nieces. I have pictures drawn for us by Sarah and Rachel (aged 5 and 3 at the time of the murders) and the baby blanket that my mother in law had made for April. I have Laura’s (my sister in law) journals, her jewelry box, and a box of trinkets that she held dear. Her wedding dress shares space in a well-sealed box with a dress of each of the girls. I save all of this because they were important people to me and to this world and it is all that is left of them. That and the memories. Well, that and the memories, and the trauma of so many people who also share my loss of them. The neighbors who witnessed the entire event. The children in Sarah’s kindergarten class who met her that morning and learned of her death later that day. The many cousins and aunts and uncles who loved them all dearly. My own children whose bodies soaked up the grief and fear and rage and shock and stunned disorientation that lived in their parents and surrounded them in the months that followed. My mother in law who witnessed the murders and lived with courage and unfathomable trauma in the years that followed.

Well that, along with the memories, and the trauma, and the awareness of the breadth of the impact of this event on many many people, and my own determination to do something about this tragic way of losing. I must actively add my voice to the chorus of those across the country asking for a raised awareness of the shattering reality of gun violence in the United States and for common sense gun laws that could save lives.

In the United States an average of 93 people a day are killed by a gun. In an average month, 50 women are shot to death by intimate partners. Further, 62% of firearm deaths in the U.S. are suicides. All of these statistics point to the ending of lives before they are fully lived. This is a public health issue that impacts more Americans than is imaginable. To this end, I find that it’s difficult anymore to identify someone who has not been touched in some way by loss to gun violence. While it may be a political issue, it is first and foremost a human issue. Death by gun violence need not occur.

If you have been a victim of gun violence or have lost someone to it, you understand, first hand, the unique disorientation that results. If you have been the subject of violence of any kind you also understand the life changing way in which aggression seeps into your being, changing your very self and your community. While there is no “cure” for the permanent impact that violence and aggression have, I am learning that being quiet does not help with healing. Being silent is no longer an option for me. I must speak more directly about Laura, Rachel, Sarah, and April so that you can be invited to speak about those that you have lost or about the violence that you have suffered. Last month, mere days from what would have been April’s 22nd birthday (she was 5 months old when she was killed), I testified in support of common sense gun laws at my state capital. This weekend, I will Wear Orange in honor of those that I have lost and I’d like to invite you to join me.

This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, all across the United States, Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety will be partnering with local gun violence prevention groups to host and sponsor Wear Orange events to honor the life of Hadiya Pendleton who was killed shortly before her 16th birthday. Her parents sponsored the first Wear Orange event two years ago on her 18th birthday. I just got off a conference call with the Moms Demand Action Survivor Network where Hadiya’s mother spoke of her bubbly daughter’s beauty and strength and where laughing and crying were referenced as tools for bringing communities together to end gun violence. I am so inspired by this mother’s vision and determination in using her grief to bring about change. Through tears I picture huge groups in cities across our country, decked in orange clothing, coming together to honor and play, to raise awareness and build community, to love well and laugh hard, to cry tears and whisper prayers. I consider how much power we might harness to turn the tides of impulsivity and hatred by simply creating and populating spaces for laughing and crying, for honorring those that have been lost, for bearing communal witness to our frustration about gun violence, and to offer bright creative spaces of love and welcome to an aggression weary world.


You can learn about Hadiya and the Wear Orange movement here (please watch the video) and can find gatherings in your community here. Go to these sites to learn about the important work of Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action. For research on gun violence, click here.