A Parkland survivor from Brooklyn, struck twice by gun violence

July 10, 2019 Noah Goldberg
Aalayah Eastmond survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in 2018. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
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Before she was a survivor of the 2018 Parkland shooting who testified at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, Aalayah Eastmond was a girl from Brooklyn who had already felt the ramifications of gun violence.

When she was just 2 years old, Eastmond’s uncle, Patrick Edwards, was shot and killed as he left his mother’s Brooklyn home. The bullet pierced his back and went straight through his heart, killing him instantly. Edwards was only 18, a year older than Eastmond was when she was nearly killed as a shooter sprayed bullets into her classroom on Valentine’s Day 2018.

Eastmond, who is spending the summer in Brooklyn interning for Gov. Andrew Cuomo before heading to Washington, D.C., to attend Trinity University, understands that her background, her blackness and her lifelong proximity to gun violence — both in the streets of Brooklyn and in the classroom at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — separate her from other Parkland students. She’s using her platform to raise awareness about the shootings that don’t necessarily make headlines, shootings like the one that killed her uncle.

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“I’m probably one of the only students that has been directly impacted by gun violence outside of the shooting at Douglas,” Eastmond told the Brooklyn Eagle. “Seeing that I already lost someone to gun violence, it’s a whole different perspective — and I didn’t lose my uncle to another mass shooting. It was literally just him walking down the street.”

Eastmond has spent the summer in Brooklyn since she was a child — staying with her father or her aunt.

“Even though we’re all in our own bubble in New York, I feel like we’re all still connected here through the city because it’s so small and we’re all so close together,” she said.

Last Saturday, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the 18-year-old joined marchers from Save Our Streets Brooklyn to mourn an 11-year-old struck and possibly paralyzed by a stray bullet. She told them she wanted to use her platform to raise awareness about shootings in Brooklyn.

In her role with the governor, Eastmond does community outreach and works with groups involved in gun violence prevention work in New York State.

Gov. Cuomo has done important work in fighting gun violence, Eastmond says, but the state still has a long way to go to protecting communities of color in cities. She lauded the passage of six gun bills in February that prohibit teachers from carrying guns in school and ban bump stocks. Specifically, she supported the “red-flag bill,” which would allow family members and authorities to get court orders to stop people from purchasing or possessing a firearm for a year if they exhibit signs of being a threat to themselves or others.

Aalayah Eastmond is working for Gov. Andrew Cuomo this summer before starting college in the fall. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Aalayah Eastmond is working for Gov. Andrew Cuomo this summer before starting college in the fall. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Eastmond is living in Brownsville at her aunt’s apartment this summer. The neighborhood, she says, is demographically very different from Parkland. Brownsville’s poverty rate in 2017 was around 40 percent, as opposed to the citywide average of 18 percent, according to NYU’s Furman Center. The neighborhood is 71.3 percent black and 4 percent white.

“Parkland is a very affluent neighborhood. It’s a majority white population. So I do think the media tends to care more when gun violence happens to white people,” Eastmond said. “Even after the shooting when the conversation of gun violence appeared, people didn’t realize there were students of color who attended Douglas. That was a huge issue, because you only saw the white kids getting attention.”

As for the shooting itself, it’s a story Eastmond has told many times, and she feels it’s her duty to continue telling it so that people remember. She told it to the House Judiciary Committee. She told it to the Senate Judiciary Committee. She doesn’t flinch as she speaks, though she says she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which made it hard to attend the Pride parade, and she was nervous about Fourth of July fireworks.

“It was on Valentine’s Day. Everybody knows that,” Eastmond said. “I was in my Holocaust history class. It was the fourth period of the day, last period.”

The class was working on computers on the history of segregation in the Olympics when they heard “really loud pops.”

“I’d never been that close to gunfire. So we all immediately paused. And then we heard it again. And then we all made eye contact and we ran into corners. Half of the class ran to a designated safe corner that we’re supposed to go to, which is out of view from the window that was in the classroom door,” Eastmond said.

Instead, reacting, she and some other classmates ran to the other corner they were closer to, which was in plain view of the window. Students, packed in the corners, were saying it might be a drill because earlier that week teachers said there would be an active shooter drill.

A classmate, Helena Ramsey, began passing books out to students to shield their heads. “And then I remember, as I grabbed the book and I looked down to call my mom, that’s when he started shooting into my classroom. And I still didn’t register that that’s what was happening. So I thought, okay, it’s just a senior prank because I saw red on the floor so I assumed it was just a paintball gun. Then I looked up and I saw Helena, slumped over, dead, and that’s when I immediately got into a fight or flight mindset. And right when I saw her, that’s when Nicholas Dworet was right in front of me and that’s when he fell over and I just matched his immediate body movements. So when he fell over I just fell over with him and I just lay,” Eastmond said.

The shooter only targeted her first-floor classroom for about 30 or 45 seconds, Eastmond said, and police evacuated them about 10 minutes later. She was not shot, but six of her classmates were. Dworet and Ramsey died.

Eastmond doesn’t want the shooting to define her life. “I don’t want to say it affects my day-to-day, but it does, because I think about it every day and there’s things I can’t do.”

Everything around her is a reminder, she said. As she walked through the park and saw orange cones on a field, she noted, “Seeing orange right there, that’s the color of gun violence awareness, so that reminds me, okay, February 14, or my uncle. So everything is just a constant reminder. Sometimes it just randomly pops in my head. I don’t want it to consume my life anymore.”

She already has her courses picked for her freshman fall at Trinity, where she will be majoring in criminal justice with a minor in political science and psychology.

“I want to be a defense attorney so that I can represent those who are underrepresented minorities,” Eastmond said, “because they are often negatively treated by the criminal justice system.”

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