MAIN STREET — What is it that decides our fate? Is it the people we meet? The choices we make? Or is it the things that happen to us, things beyond our control?
For resident Suzanne Verge, a decade of passionate work can be traced back to one person and one defining moment that arrived when she was 15 years old.
That moment came on Dec. 10, 1978, when a typical Sunday morning was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was an officer from the Santa Monica Police Department, who had come to tell Verge’s family that her brother, Peter, had been murdered at the age of 18, fatally shot a mile away from his home.
As she related the story of her brother’s murder, Verge paused to wipe eyes brimming with tears.
“For 20 years, I didn’t know what to do with it,” she said as she described her attempts to deal with her grief. “I mean, what can you do?”
It is a difficult question; one that Verge has spent years trying to answer. She has finally found her solution, it seems, in advocacy.
As the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Brady Campaign, a grassroots organization that aims to prevent gun violence, Verge has spent the last 10 years promoting the message of gun control through education, lawsuits and legislation.
Verge’s efforts have been many and varied. She has stood before senators and high school students alike to share the story of her family’s suffering, and spread the word about the dangers of uncontrolled gun ownership. She has lobbied in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., alone and with her children at her side. She has organized a “Lie-in” at UCLA to commemorate the recent Virginia Tech massacre. She has written letters and made phone calls by the hundreds.
Even after a decade of work, Verge still struggles with the painful memories it stirs.
“All of it is hard. It’s pushing me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “When I go lobbying, I’m a wreck. Even policy issues are very hard for me. None of it really comes easy.”
The Brady Campaign recently recognized Verge’s dedication, presenting her — along with her husband and partner, Jeffrey Peak — with the Sarah Brady Visionary Award. The award is just one of many that Verge has received in recognition of her volunteerism; others include the 2005 Woman of the Year award, presented to her by State Sen. Fran Pavley, and the David Hines Volunteer Award from St. Monica Catholic Church.
Though it is memories of her brother that inspire Verge’s work, it took 20 years and 750,000 other women to get her started as an activist. On Mother’s Day, 2000, Verge participated in the Million Mom March in Washington, D.C. — an event that would ultimately change her life, inspiring her to dedicate herself to the fight against gun violence.
“That was a really powerful day,” Verge said of the march. “Even just going to the airport to get on the plane, and seeing all these mothers with their pictures. … When I went to [the march], I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to do something.’”
After returning home from the capitol, Verge launched a campaign of activism that continues to this day. As the leader of the local chapter of the Brady Campaign, Verge works to combat violence through education and legislation.
The answer to the problem of gun violence, according to Verge and the Brady Campaign, isn’t banning firearms — it’s controlling them.
“We’re not about banning guns; we’re about responsible gun ownership,” Verge said. “Things like selling every gun with a child safety lock, storing your gun and your ammunition separately and keeping your guns locked up.”
Under the umbrella of “responsible gun ownership” falls a recent piece of legislature H.R. 2324 — more commonly known as the “Gun Show Loophole Closing Act.” The bill would require all vendors at gun shows around the country to run criminal background checks on anyone wishing to purchase a gun.
“You can walk into a gun show and buy a gun no questions asked,” Verge said. This provides a “loophole” for people wishing to buy guns quickly, as guns purchased at gun shows can be taken off the premises without a background check. Though this loophole has been “closed” in California, most states have yet to do the same — hence Verge’s dedication to helping pass H.R. 2324.
“People buy guns in a moment of passion,” Verge said. “I think if you’re going to kill someone, you’d better make sure you take the time and make sure you’re prepared to take someone’s life.”
Verge’s message is one that hits particularly close to home for many in Santa Monica after Richard Juarez, a young local man, was shot in Virginia Avenue Park earlier this month.
“People say that Richard Juarez was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I used to say that about my brother: wrong place, wrong time. But Richard Juarez was at the right place,” Verge said. “He was at an art class. He should be able to leave Virginia Park and not worry about it.”
The vestiges of her brother’s tragic death are as evident in Verge’s personal life as they are in her professional choices. Her family’s struggle to cope brought them closer together, Verge said. That closeness remains a powerful influence in her life.
“I think sometimes families are close out of tragedy. I don’t think we really appreciated each other until afterward,” Verge said.
Her family has remained close, not only emotionally, but geographically. All of Verge’s siblings continue to live in the area — though three have “defected,” settling in the Palisades and El Segundo instead of directly in Santa Monica. Verge herself continues to live in the house where she grew up, which her parents — who live in the house with Verge and her husband and children — have owned for 52 years.
“This is a different world, where everybody lives all over the country and all over the world,” she said. “To have everybody close by is great. That’s probably the most important thing.”
As someone who has always put family above everything else, Verge has formed a special love of and connection with Santa Monica: a city steeped in her family’s history and influence.
It is hard to find a part of the city that Verge does not have blood-ties with. Be it John Adams Middle School, where her father spent years as a teacher, St. Monica Catholic Church, where four generations of Verge’s family have been baptized, or Woodlawn Cemetery, where she recently found the grave of her great-grandmother.
Today, her family continues to be active in the community. Her brother Mark Verge owns local business Westside Rentals. Her father and brother, Arthur Verge, are active members of the Santa Monica Historical Society.
Verge and her husband are devoted volunteers at St. Monica — both the church, which Verge calls “my second family,” and the school, where their daughter, Riley, 13, is a student, and from which her son, Christopher, now a freshman at Yale, recently graduated.
Her many years in Santa Monica have given Verge a unique perspective on the city’s many changes. She has watched “the mom-and-pop stores go out, and the chain stores come in” and remembers a time when the businesses on Montana Avenue were limited to “gas stations and bars.”
Though the city continues to grow and become more urban, Verge said Santa Monica has retained the small-town atmosphere that it had in her youth.
“I think there’s so much that’s still good,” she said. “I still get that hometown feel … . You walk down the street and there are people walking their dogs and people who know you. I love it.”
The question of what defines our lives has a different answer for everyone. For Verge, one need look no further than the simple power of a sister’s love for her brother.
“I had to be a voice for my brother,” she said. “I’d just like to save somebody else from this tragedy. I don’t ever want anyone else to have happen to them what happened to us.”