Between the T-shirt and food vendors lining the streets, the loudspeakers and giant screens, and a musical performance by Demi Lovato, one could forget that the March for Our Lives was not a summer concert festival but one of the largest single-day protests in the history of Washington, D.C.
But almost always present were the rhythmic chants demanding change: “No more silence, end gun violence,” “Vote them out,” “Hey hey, ho ho, the NRA has got to go” and the classic “This is what democracy looks like.”
The crowd, which march organizers estimated was about 800,000 people, descended on the nation’s capital for a protest that called for America’s lawmakers to pass gun control legislation in response to the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Companion marches were held in cities around the world, including Baltimore.
The crowd in Washington marched to Pennsylvania Avenue from every direction possible. The bottlenecking left many attendees standing in surrounding cross streets, which were just as packed as Pennsylvania Avenue itself.
Pikesville High School senior Josie Shaffer was hopeful that the hundreds of thousands of students like herself who marched in Washington, D.C., would spur action. “Adults need to see that this is something kids want,” she said. “This is something that needs to change.”
Shaffer was among more than 150 Baltimore-area students, parents and teachers who gathered at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute on Saturday morning to board buses bound for Washington.
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin met the group in the parking lot before they departed to give a proper sendoff. Above all else, he said, Congress must take action to provide the country with common-sense gun safety legislation.
“When you go to school, you have the right to feel safe. We cannot tolerate our children going to school in fear,” Cardin said to loud applause. “We’re going to change the system because of you.”
The march left Shaffer with a sense of optimism that students who are of age to vote will be able to show their support for politicians who are committed to making a change. “The Maryland primary is June 26,” she said. “I think the 18-to-22 turnout is going to go way up.”
In a moment of levity, Shaffer and her friends were interviewed by “Daily Show” correspondent Desi Lydic for a segment that aired Monday. In the sketch, Lydic tasks Shaffer and her friends with enacting legislative changes on issues like North Korea, the Middle East, immigration and the U.S. tax code.
When Shaffer reminds Lydic that these issues are actually the responsibility of Congress, Lydic laughs, “You really are young. That’s hilarious.”
In reality, few in attendance saw the young activists — and their adult counterparts — as powerless.
“I can’t sit still,” said Roland Park resident Susan Silesky, the mother of a high school junior who organized buses with Ruth Goldstein. “It’s never been more important than now to make our voices heard.”
Silesky was confident that the voices of students would be heard. “They will vote. This will give them a reason to,” she said. “I think this group is different.”
Silesky’s son, Alex Stengel, 17, a student at Boys’ Latin in Baltimore, is more active in politics than many adults. He has lobbied before senators in Washington twice, most recently with a political club he started at Boys’ Latin called Action Above Apathy, which he describes as a collection of about 10 to 15 students from across the political spectrum who are committed to finding bipartisan compromise.
While Stengel is optimistic about the role his generation will play in changing the future, his knowledge and experience has made him a realist. “You can have marches like this and you can be optimistic, but it comes down to whether or not the politicians making those changes listen,” he said. “This has been going on for so long that they understand what’s happening, but I think there’s a certain amount of stubbornness in Congress. I don’t think this will be the tipping point, I think it’s a starting point.”
Del. Shelly Hettleman (D-District 11) was one of the politicians on the three buses from Baltimore to Washington. While the marches were aimed at federal legislation, Hettleman said this is an issue that state governments need to be involved in as well.
“It’s getting me to think in a more detailed way about the loopholes and gaps we still have in our laws here and what we can do to close them,” she said. “There are a couple bills pending in the legislature, and it drove home to me the importance of getting those across the finish line before we adjourn.”
Hettleman was enthused by the fact that the march was organized and led by youth. She pointed to the speakers’ disparate backgrounds as reason to recognize this is an issue that impacts everyone.
Ilanit Abraham, a sophomore at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School who attended the march, was pleased that the march broadened its focus beyond gun violence in schools.
“So many different aspects of gun violence were brought up,” she said, citing the frequent references to the statistic that 96 people per day die from gunshot wounds, and the prevalence of gun violence in underprivileged communities.
“My family is from South Florida.When the news about Parkland broke, it kind of tackled my family in a way that’s different from your average American who doesn’t have any connection to this,” she said.
That connection moved Abraham to not only organize the Beth Tfiloh student walkout with classmates — a demonstration supported by the school’s administration — but also join a new organization called National Association of Students Against Gun Violence, co-founded by Florida high school senior Adin Segal. After the group contacted Abraham’s classmate, she decided to spearhead the first NASAGV chapter in the Baltimore/Washington-metro area.
The goal of the organization is to have a club on every high school and college campus, as a way to discuss policies regarding gun control and even provide voter registration services. “My personal goal,” Abraham said, “is to get this spread around Baltimore and D.C.”
Sister Marches Show Solidarity Across the Country
Although hundreds of thousands came from across the nation to protest in Washington, close to 800 sister marches were held in other cities and towns. In Baltimore, students and teachers from schools all over Baltimore city spoke at an hour-long rally in front of City Hall, decrying gun violence in schools and the city.
The mood of the crowd vacillated between enthusiastic support and sobriety, as students described their personal experiences with violence.
The rally began with one minute of silence to remember those slain in school massacres. Anna Hilger, a student at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and an organizer of the march, asked the group of politicians and candidates present to take a pledge to support stricter gun laws and measures to enhance student safety. The legislators present included U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and several city council members.
After Hilger read the list of demands, a voice from the crowd called out: “Make them pledge to not take any money from the NRA!” The man seeded a chant in the crowd: “No NRA money! No NRA money!” As the voices grew to include a few dozen in the crowd, the chant was cut short as Hilger finished her speech.
After the program, the crowd marched from City Hall to Light Street, past the Inner Harbor and down Key Highway, finishing the protest in the parking lot of Little Havana restaurant. Along the way, cars and trucks honked their horns in support of the crowd, which chanted slogans such as “Go away NRA.”
Protesters carried Students Demand Action signs and made their own. Signs read “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” and “PROTECT KIDS, NOT GUNS.” A group of teachers carried signs that read: “TRIGONOMETRY NOT TERROR” and “BIOLOGY NOT BULLETS.” Another teacher carried a sign that said: “FEWER GUNS — OR MY CLASSROOM NEEDS A BIGGER CLOSET.”
Pikesville resident Alicia Danyali and her 12-year-old son Reuben arrived late to the march, sporting their Students Demand Action T-shirts.
“I don’t support military-style weapons to be sold to civilians. I don’t support the process in this country used to attain a gun. The rules should be more stringent,” said Danyali, a native of Toronto. “I do know in Canada when someone applies for a gun license, there’s a waiting period, and the person needs three written references attesting to their mental state. That’s one way to change it. I’m not saying we get rid of the right to carry firearms, just that there should be boundaries.”
Danyali, who is principal of the New Century School in Fells Point, said she attended the march as both an educator and a parent.
“It’s an education issue,” she said, adding that she disagrees with the Florida legislature’s recent vote to channel funds to teachers who want to become marshals in their schools. “You can get a lot more ‘bang for your buck’ for things like after-school programs, supporting families, mental health services. We don’t need to be armed. I’ve never met a teacher who hasn’t used their own money for supplies. We should not allow politicians to take money from the NRA.”
The march Saturday made her hopeful. “The fact that people are gathering and speaking their minds, it makes me hope for change. When Sandy Hook happened with those innocent kindergarteners and their teachers, I felt that if that didn’t wake us up to the need for change, nothing would,” she said. But her hope is tempered by fear for the safety of those leading the nationwide marches. “I love that the kids are leading the way, but people shouldn’t have to live in fear for speaking their minds.”
The Next Generation
Leia Gewirtz, 15, made the trip to Washington with her father, Louis Gewirtz, from Plantation, Florida, about a half-hour from Parkland. She proudly held an orange sign that said “REFORM JEWISH STUDENTS SAY ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.” She was still nursing the pain of losing one of her friends in the shooting.
“I’m still getting through it,” she said.
Prior to the march, inside Washington’s Marriott Marquis, more than 2,000 teens and adults gathered for an event sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism. One by one in the main ballroom, teens spoke passionately about their frustration with the inaction of lawmakers to move on what they feel are “common sense” gun control measures such as universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons. And they warned lawmakers that they will soon be of voting age.
“If you’re not with us, you’re against us, and if you’re against us you will be voted out,” declared Zoe Fox-Snider, who survived the Parkland shooting.
Audience members applauded enthusiastically throughout the event, including the moment when Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-Fla.) took to the stage and proudly raised a sign over her head that said “PROUD OF MY F NRA RATING.”
“You are here to question the culture of guns,” she said to the teens. “This is not about the adults. This is about the next generation.”
The mix of emotions pulsing throughout the Marriott and the march could be felt within William Saltzburg, the membership vice president of NFTY, the URJ’s youth movement. Saltzburg, an 18-year-old student at American University, said the shooting is personal to many in NFTY who either live in Parkland or have friends there.
“This is a horrible moment and it’s an incredible moment,” he said. “It’s a horrible moment because we’re gathered here because 17 people died. It’s an incredible moment because there’s between 2,000 and 3,000 people here that are demanding change.”
But after last weekend, will the teenage activism continue? Winston Churchill High School senior Isabel Namath, 17, answered in the affirmative.
“I don’t think it’s going to die off,” she said. “It’s something that affects every single person. Everyone knows someone who goes to school or is a teen or is related to someone who is a teen. No one wants to see more kids getting hurt because of gun violence.”
Standing next to her, Washington Hebrew Congregation Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig agreed.
“Now the kids are becoming our teachers,” he said. “Remember, these kids in a short time are going to be voters.”
Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.