Bearing witness is often painful, but it is essential if we are to understand how terrible things come to pass. Listening to survivors testifying about their loss sometimes gives us the strength to fight so that the kinds of tragedies they’ve suffered never happen again.
For a few hours on Wednesday night, the Democratic National Convention became a place for survivors to bear witness. The speakers included Jamie Dorff, whose husband was killed in action in Iraq; Erica Smegielski, the daughter of the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School who was murdered trying to protect her students from a gunman’s rampage; and Christine Leinonen, the mother of Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, who was killed in the June 12 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
On the morning after the attack on Pulse, Leinonen gave a devastating interview to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. At the time, she didn’t know that her son was dead, but through tears she spoke of his accomplishments and of her pride in his work as an advocate for LGBTQ people. She asked America to “do something with the assault weapons so that we can stop this.”
At the convention on Wednesday night, she again spoke about Christopher, her only child—once again, through tears—but this time with loving, physical support from his friends Brandon Wolf and Jose Arriagada, both of whom survived the June 12 attack. There was something extraordinarily powerful about the way she spoke of “my son Christopher, his boyfriend Juan, and 47 others”—connecting herself to Juan and the rest of Christopher’s gay family. As she had when speaking with Stephanopoulos on that terrible Sunday morning, she noted that Christopher had been an activist and a coalition-builder from an early age and that he always believed that “love trumped hate.”
The challenge of this kind of speech is causing listeners to take their outrage and sympathy and do something with it. Christine Leinonen stated that she was at the DNC not just because Christopher had been a “big Hillary supporter,” but also because Clinton supports “common-sense gun policy.” Leinonen told the audience that she was a Michigan state trooper when she went into labor with her son, at which time the hospital had stored her gun away in a safe—a common-sense policy if ever we’ve heard one.
Leinonen’s final words brought many in the hall—and even more watching at home on television—to tears:
I’m glad common-sense gun policy was in place the day Christopher was born, but where was that common sense the day he died? I never want you to ask that question about your child. That’s why I support Hillary Clinton.