Youth lead the way in the March for Our Lives

March 30, 2018

Alan Maass rounds up reports from SW contributors about the March for Our Lives.

MORE THAN 1.25 million people were in the streets on March 24 for the March for Our Lives protests around the U.S., demanding an end to gun violence and accountability from the gun manufacturers and the politicians who enable them.

The huge turnout for a nationwide day of action was only surpassed recently by the Women's Marches this year and last. Coming 10 days after as many as 1 million students participated in walkouts at schools around the country, the March for Our Lives was further evidence of the depth of the outrage that has erupted in continuing protest.

Survivors of the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, continued to play a prominent role at the main demonstration in Washington, D.C., and a big sister protest held in Parkland.

Though the diverse crowds consisted of people of all ages, students and youth were the main speakers everywhere, adding weight to the Associated Press assessment that the March for Our Lives was "one of the biggest youth protests since the era of the Vietnam War."

Students pour into the streets of Milwaukee to protest gun violence
Students pour into the streets of Milwaukee to protest gun violence (Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association | flickr)

Organizing and planning for the March 24 demonstrations came from mainstream organizations with direct connections to the Democratic Party. For these organizations, the main priority is turning out voters for the Democrats, especially as the November elections get closer. Voter registration initiatives were prominent at most of the demonstrations.

In most cases, though, everything from the speeches at the front to the signs in the crowd and comments of demonstrators showed that the March for Our Lives mobilized people whose concerns go further than elections.

PARTICULARLY IMPORTANT was the prominence of racial justice issues, often brought to the demonstrations by people experienced in the struggle against racist police violence.

Edna Chavez, a 17-year-old student from Los Angeles, electrified the crowd in Washington, D.C., with her testimony to the impact of violence beyond the schools:

For decades, my community of South Los Angeles has become accustomed to this violence. It is normal to see candles, it is normal to see posters, it is normal to see balloons, it is normal to see flowers honoring the lives of Black and Brown youth who have lost their lives to a bullet.

How can we cope with it, when our school district has its own police department? Instead of making Black and Brown students feel safe, they continue to profile and criminalize us. Instead, we should have a department specializing in restorative justice. We need to tackle the root causes of the issues we face, and come to an understanding of how we resolve them.

Eleven-year-old Naomi Wadler spoke about leading a walkout of her Alexandria, Virginia, elementary school--and the need to represent African American girls who suffer from gun violence and are ignored by the media:

For far too long, these names, these Black girls and women have been just numbers. I'm here to say 'Never Again!' for those girls, too. I'm here to say that everyone should value those girls, too.

People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own. People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult. It's not true. My friends and I might be still be 11, and we might still be in elementary school, but we know life isn't equal for everyone, and we know what's right and wrong.

According to Dana Fisher, a sociology professor who has overseen surveys of protesters at large-scale demonstrations during the Trump era, more than one-quarter of the March for Our Lives crowd in Washington, D.C., had never attended a single demonstration before.

Significantly, only 12 percent of those who were new to protesting said they were motivated to turn out that day because of the gun control issue. Many more said they were motivated by issues of peace (56 percent) and opposition to Donald Trump (42 percent).

The young activists leading the charge for change against gun violence and the gun lobby aren't finished.

Another national high school walkout, #NationalSchoolWalkout, is being planned by a Connecticut student who lives near Sandy Hook Elementary School where students and staff were killed in a mass shooting in 2012. The date for this action is April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine massacre in 1999.

THE MAIN national March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., drew between 400,000 and 500,000 people, according to one often-cited estimate.

The event wasn't so much a march as a big demonstration centered on a main stage in front of the U.S. Capitol building. However, the crowd sprawled far beyond the main area, with masses of people up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. Downtown D.C. was vibrant and packed with people.

People traveled from all over the country, by bus, car and plane, to get to the centerpiece demonstration of the weekend.

In conversations, the majority of people agreed that gun violence was the product of more general causes and that addressing it would require a comprehensive solution. Besides the many denouncing the National Rifle Association, other imaginative signs, like "Your guns have more rights than immigrants do" and "Our dress code is stricter than our gun laws," showed the diversity of political concerns.

A Black Lives Matter contingent that had set out earlier from Southeast D.C. led people in chants of "Black Lives Matter" and "When Black lives are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!"

The coming elections came up again and again from speakers. People going through to crowd to register voters or urge participation in the November elections got a good reception from an audience that was overwhelmingly anti-Trump.

The highlighted speakers were mainly students. David Hogg, a survivor of the killings at Parkland, wrapped a price tag around his microphone, which he said represented how "much money Marco Rubio took for every student's life in Florida." Mya Middleton, a 16-year-old student from Chicago, described the trauma of being held up gunpoint and brought the perspective of a city where gun violence is at epidemic levels.

The final speaker was another Parkland survivor, Emma Gonzalez, who led people in a powerful six minutes and 20 seconds of silence--the same amount of time it took for Nikolas Cruz to kill 17 people and injure 15 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

In Parkland, Florida, while the orange-haired menace played yet another round of golf about 40 minutes away, at least 20,000 people came together for a March for Our Lives at Pine Trails Park, a brief walk from where 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas students lost their lives on February 14.

For a small community in South Florida, the crowd looked immense. There was an endless stream of school buses transporting demonstrators from one meet-up location in Fort Lauderdale to the event in Parkland.

As thousands and thousands of people arrived at the park, they were greeted by a sea of placards demanding genuine school safety and warning the NRA that its time is up. One powerful sign showed Wayne LaPierre, the notorious executive vice president of the NRA, with the label "TERRORIST."

In one of the many shows of solidarity, the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward County mobilized for the march.

As in Washington, one of the most inspiring aspects of the day was the confidence and leadership of the thousands of students and young people at the demonstration, including survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas who spoke with passion, anger and urgency.

Elijah Manley, a 19-year-old African American and Green Party candidate for Broward County School Board, made the concrete connection between school shootings and the violence and racism of U.S. society.

"We can't just focus on school violence and shootings, but also racist police brutality and U.S. violence throughout the world," Manley said. "Any discussion on gun control must include dismantling and disarming the police and the U.S. military."

The demonstration continued with a march to the high school, where the tributes, cards, flowers and letters in memory of the 17 victims, moved everyone in the crowd.

In New York City, a crowd estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000 descended on the new preferred gathering point for political demonstrations in Manhattan: Trump International Hotel and Tower at the southwest corner of Central Park.

Among the demonstrators were people with a direct connection to a mass school shooting close to home: the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 26 students and staff were killed.

Organizers made the effort to broaden the scope beyond school shootings, including a featured speaker from Harlem Mothers Against Gun Violence, for example.

As expected, the city's Democratic Party establishment, led by Mayor Bill de Blasio, celebrated the march. By contrast, the police played a distinctly hostile role, penning off blocks once they became half full and forcing large numbers of protesters to walk more than a mile just to enter the demonstration.

Hearing reports from other marches around the country, New York City participants said that their event had seemed more contained to traditional liberal sentiments around the gun control issue, compared to the more wide-ranging concerns voiced elsewhere, especially by youth.

In Chicago, at least 25,000 people gathered in the cold in Union Park west of downtown to show their opposition to gun violence.

The crowd was a mix of ages, but there were many groups of high school and middle school students in attendance. One teacher said that at her school, students had organized to promote the march, making plans to attend in groups and encouraging each other and teachers to take part.

There was a strong emphasis on voting in the Democrats as a solution to the issue of gun violence. Booths where attendees could register to vote were crowded, and people with voter registration forms could be seen throughout Union Park. Speakers highlighted the need to become active in the political system through voting for progressive candidates.

Many of the student speakers voiced more radical opinions, going beyond gun control legislation to discuss the other issues tied to gun violence, such as police brutality and unceasing war. Students from the West and South Sides of Chicago spoke about their own personal experiences with gun violence, as well as the ways racist policies and policing affect them.

"The term 'invisible hand,' coined by Adam Smith, claims society will experience unintended social benefits if we pursue our own interests," said one speaker. "But this couldn't be further from reality. In fact, when we engage in collective action, the strength of knowledge in all of us will help us to create a more just democracy."

The San Francisco Bay Area had three March For Our Lives rallies on March 24, with San Jose and Oakland drawing out a few thousand people each and San Francisco mobilizing as many as 30,000.

Speakers at the San Francisco rally ranged from students as young as the 6th grade to politicians such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and City Supervisor London Breed, a candidate for mayor.

The latter speakers focused on voter registration and pressuring legislators to pass "common-sense gun control." This raises a question: California already has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country. So are they effective in stopping violence?

Some of the most inspiring speeches came from young people who spoke about their power even though they aren't able to vote. Conversations in the crowd focused on the impact of gun violence, the right-wing politics of the NRA and gun industry, and the need to address the root causes of violence.

Far-right provocateurs with the groups Red Elephant and Berkeley College Republicans attempted to provoke confrontations with people in the crowd, including ISO members, so they could be filmed and streamed online.

As the crowd slowly made its way onto Market Street to march, a group of activists remained behind with drums and a sound system to raise awareness of the police killing of Shaleem Tindle on January 3 in Oakland. Yolanda Banks, the mother of the 28-year-old father of two, said: "I'm not here because I want to be here, but because I need to be here. Our children are dying every day, and nobody cares."

In Portland, Oregon, organizers who were expecting a turnout of 5,000 for the March for Our Lives were thrilled when more than four times that many people came out to rally and march.

Speakers at the rally that followed the march were mostly high school-age students. They called for a wide array of policy changes, like raising the minimum age to buy a gun and banning bump stocks, but others emphasized that they don't want "Band-Aids" like metal detectors or more security in schools.

Alexandria, a senior at Beaverton High School, had a message for right-wing politicians: "Remember when you told us we could do anything when we grow up? Well, we're all grown up...and we're coming for you!"

In the crowd, four young organizers talked about their experience organizing a walkout for March 14, in which around 500 of the school's 2,200 students participated. They said they had decided to start a "gun club," since it was one of a predetermined set of clubs students were allowed to form--and had used their anti-gun club to build the walkout.

Members of the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative, Young Democratic Socialists of America and others marched in a loud and visible socialist contingent.

In Austin, Texas, around 20,000 people rallied and marched from City Hall to the steps of the state Capitol building in the city's largest demonstration since the January 2017 Women's March.

If that march issued an indictment of Trump, this Saturday's protest sent another to the NRA, with demonstrators denouncing the NRA as a terrorist organization, with stooges in federal, state and local governments.

For marchers like Michael Katz, who wore a Palestine Solidarity Committee T-shirt, the problem is a state-sponsored and unregulated industry profiting off guns. "The only reason we don't have regulations," Katz said, "is because we have legal bribes by the weapons manufacturers to block regulations."

On the march, one of the loudest chants was "Black Lives Matter!" and one popular sign read, "When will you care about Black & Brown lives as much as your guns?"

In Atlanta, roughly 30,000 people turned out for a large, angry march.

Speakers at a rally beforehand included students, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. While some of the rhetoric from speakers was more conservative, the student speakers were very much angry and fed up with Congress' inaction.

Among the crowd were protesters wearing Black Lives Matter pins and shirts--popular signs included "Denounce domestic white terrorism" and "Hands up, don't shoot."

In San Diego, about 10,000 people, most of them high-schoolers, teachers and their families, gathered in front of the county administration building downtown.

Besides proposals for gun reform that have circulated nationally, speakers and the crowd focused their anger on the NRA and right-wing politicians--their was special bitterness toward nearby right-wing Republican congressman Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter.

In the crowd, Marilyn talked about how absurd it was that drivers' licenses are harder to get than guns, and Quia, the mother of a young child, said she was marching against the threat of proposals to arm teachers.

In Columbus, Ohio, an estimated 6,000 people gathered for a March for Our Lives event featuring speeches and musical performances.

One of the speakers was a survivor of the 2012 mass shooting at Chardon High School, east of Cleveland. He talked about the trauma of the experience, but also said: "Today, I am seeing a wave of support from the entire world that I could never have imagined then."

The event represented a range of politics, notably around the question of police, with one speaker being the wife of a police officer killed by gun violence in 1998.

On the other hand, a high school student talked about the meaning of the police presence in his school: "More guns, police and armed personnel do not bring safety to all. A place with security cameras, metal detectors or ankle monitors does not feel like a safe place to learn, especially for Black and Brown kids from low-income communities. Schools need to instead include more trauma-informed staff, nurses, social workers and counselors. "

He ended by leading the crowd in chanting "Counselors, not cuffs!"

In Madison, Wisconsin, 5,000 people gathered at the University of Wisconsin Library Mall before marching to the state Capitol to rally.

With March 24 marking the first day of the university's spring break, the demonstration lacked a strong college student presence, but that was made up for by families, faith groups, high school students, and a large and visible contingent of the Madison teachers' union.

Mike Jones, a teacher at Black Hawk Middle School, spoke to the rally about his upbringing as the son of a Black immigrant to focus attention on racism and anti-immigrant scapegoating.

"Black children in Madison's North Side and in Milwaukee know the issues of gun violence," Jones said, noting that three of his students had lost a parent to gun violence. It takes, Jones added, "a young person's BS detector to question and a young person's optimism to fight for something better."

In Portland, Maine, at one of 15 events held across the state, around 5,000 people joined the March for Our Lives.

The rally was preceded by an eight-block march to City Hall, where hundreds of students greeted the crowd with changes of "Hey hey, ho ho, the NRA has got to go" and "Save our kids, not your guns."

The energy on the march was palpable, with onlookers cheering and taking pictures. A small contingent of socialists raised chants that caught on quickly, like "Money for books and education, not for mass incarceration."

The rally began with an 11-year-old student who said, "Some people believe that police officers should be in schools, but that would just be too scary for students. They think that arming people in schools would be a solution. I say, 'Enough!'"

In Rochester, New York, around 5,000 people attended the rally and march in solidarity with the national call from Parkland, Florida, student activists.

All the speakers at the rally were students, with the exception of Rochester's mayor. Many speeches focused on getting out the vote to make change, though the exception was students involved in a local activist organization called Teen Outreach, who connected gun violence in inner-city neighborhoods with gun violence in schools, and demanded that the same attention be paid to all victims.

In Olympia, Washington, an estimated 4,500 people participated in a rally at the state Capitol building, followed by a march to Sylvester Park. in downtown Olympia.

Several students from Reeves Middle School wore orange T-shirts with the names and ages of the Parkland victims written on them. At Sylvester Park, they described the walkout they held on March 14. Olympia High School students also about their walkout, organized in defiance school administrators.

Kardel Arnold, a senior at Olympia, said. "March for out Lives is a human fight, not a student fight. We must do all that we can to protect the lives of our children today."

In Syracuse, New York, the March for Our Lives drew around 3,000 people. A socialist contingent projected its message with chants like "End gun violence, disarm the police. Black Lives Matter in these streets," which went down well with the crowd, though some marchers were slower to take up more radical chants.

In Montpelier, Vermont, a crowd of around 2,500 gathered at the State House to express their fears about gun violence and their hope for change.

One student carried a sign that read: "The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun...said the guy trying to sell 2 guns."

In Northampton, Massachusetts, the 2,000-strong March for Our Lives was organized mainly by students from Northampton High School.

One elementary school-aged girl held a sign that read, "My backpack shouldn't have to be bulletproof," while teachers carried placards with the slogans "Arm me with funds, not guns" and "Books not bullets." Students from Stoneleigh Burnham School led chants of "This ends today, disband the NRA" from the center of the march.

Jesse Zeldes, one of the high school students who helped organize the event, said: "We don't need individual heroes, we don't need individual senators, we need the masses and we need collective action."

Alex Buckingham, Nicole Colson, Tim Daly, Todd Dewey, Stu Edgecomb, Megan Ferreira, Brian Huseby, Jibreel Lakhdar, Elena Larios, Addison Phibbs, Rachel Reiser, Ben Riley, Jen Roesch, Michelle Sapere, Anna Shea, Caitrin Smith-Monahan, Seth Uzman and Alexander Wells contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives