Young people of color have been trying to tell us the story of their trauma caused by gun violence for years. We have just chosen not to listen to them.
But on the fourth Saturday in March, on the morning before hundreds of thousands gathered outside the U.S. Capitol to protest gun violence in America under the banner of March For Our Lives, a handful of D.C. students got to tell their own story. At a pre-rally at 9 a.m. in a park southeast of the Capitol, the students spoke about the discrimination, gentrification, and lack of resources that contribute to gun violence in their lives.
“There are many forms of violence and death. Each has a different root that must be dug up,” said Nehemiah Amari Sellers, a student from Southeast D.C. “When youth experience racism, poverty, low self-value, and police brutality, we don’t have basic security, and we do not feel safe. This kills the mind. This kills the spirit.”
Lauryn Renford, a student at Thurgood Marshall Academy, spoke about the death of her boyfriend, Zaire Kelly, last September. The previous day, David Hogg and other Parkland students had joined Renford and Kelly’s twin brother, Zion, to talk about the lack of attention paid to students of color affected by gun violence.
Aside from increasing public resources, these students saw another solution to the epidemic of gun violence: granting statehood to the District of Columbia, where 700,000 residents do not have a vote in Congress.
“I want to talk to you, red white and blue, about making sure that the people who march on Washington know that the footsteps don’t disappear when they leave our nation’s capital and return home,” a student named Ryan Battle said.
D.C. residents then marched to the National Mall to meet up with the rest of the protesters who had started to gather. Jahmes Hamilton, a student at Benjamin Banneker High School, was friends with Zaire Kelly. He said he was heartened to see Parkland students using their media platform and white privilege to highlight the gun violence that students of color face.
“It’s not always a school shooting. Sometimes, for us in D.C., it happens on the street,” he said. “We’re safe in school, but when we step outside, we are afraid for our lives.”
The march itself was massive, but the crowd was subdued compared to the student walkout the previous week. Protesters milled about and stood on top of concrete blockades; a group of students lip synced to the Kesha song being piped out of loudspeakers; a mom danced with her son to The Killers; a detached butterfly-shaped balloon floated above the crowd and lodged itself in a tree.
And then, a little after 12 pm, the main event began. It was an astounding feat for a group of high schoolers to have pulled together in a matter of weeks. In some ways, the event felt less like a protest and more like an impeccably orchestrated pep rally. But most pep rallies don’t feature performances by Demi Lovato and Lin Manuel Miranda.
What would come out of 800-plus marches held on Saturday across the country and the world? Would they change the conversation around gun violence in America? Did this represent a breaking point? Nothing was definitive, but one thing seemed certain: The election of Donald Trump, combined with a gun violence epidemic, had catalyzed these young people’s political activism, in the same way the Vietnam War or the Iraq War had for generations before them.
Like those wars, this one feels personal. Angie Ruiz is a senior at South Broward High School, 30 miles south of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were shot and killed by Nikolas Cruz last month. Ruiz said she knew Carmen Schentrup, one of the Parkland victims, in middle school, before Schentrup transferred to Douglas.
Ruiz and her friends wore faux price tags around their wrists: $1.05, to represent the amount of money Senator Marco Rubio has received from the NRA, divided by the number of students in Florida.
“This is how much we each mean to him,” Ruiz said.
Two of Ruiz’s classmates, Ellie Branson and Amy Campbell-Oates, have been learning how to pre-register their classmates, and organizing voter drives at school ahead of the midterm elections.
“If they’re not going to do anything, then they’re going to get out,” Campbell-Oates said. “We’re going to get them out of office.”
A few blocks from the main march, a different and comparatively miniscule counter-protest was happening. A group of about 30 people, almost entirely men, stood in front of Shake Shack, at 9th Street and F Street, though not for long: A man who appeared to be leading the group told his troops to cross the street because the sun was shining there and it was too cold in the shade.
They came prepared with Gadsden flags and various homemade signs: “My Body My Choice” held by a woman (an ineffectual parody of pro-choice language), “Good Guys with Guns Stand By You,” “Liberty Is Not A Loophole.” Some were wearing military-style tactical vests—no visible guns, but one man had what looked like a knife, and an iPhone charging cable, stashed in his—and huge khaki backpacks. At one point, one member passed a large Ziploc bag of small candy bars to his friend.
The man who led the group across 9th Street, Jeff Hulbert, said they were part of a group called Patriot Picket, “a demonstration group for the Bill of Rights, civil rights specifically.” Hulbert said they “focus on Second Amendment issues, but we also go anywhere where the First Amendment is in peril.” In fact, “if for any reason these folks here, the 400,000 here, were being hushed in some manner, we would stand right up and say that’s not permissible.”
Those in favor of the Women’s March, he said, were trying to ban the NRA from the internet and “basically trying to gin up support for silencing an advocacy group.” Hulbert was arrested for obstructing a sidewalk a few weeks ago at a pro-gun protest in Maryland, though charges were dropped.
Another pro-gun protester brought up similar free speech concerns. Gary, who said he was with the People’s Militia of Maryland, explained he was actually more concerned about the First Amendment than the Second, “because when the First Amendment, freedom of speech, freedom to gather, crumbles and falls, everything else is going to go right down the line.” When asked who he felt was threatening his First Amendment rights, he said “anybody who doesn’t see the same points of view.”
Given the emotional nature of the day, it’s not surprising that some of the March For Our Lives attendees were angry at these pro-gun protesters. Hulbert said they’ve had people “curse” at them, and that they were concerned people might throw water bottles. One woman yelled to the group: “How many kids until it’s your kid, and then you go to the funeral,” her voice breaking with anger. “I reeled in another one,” said the pro-gun protester to his friend. But Greg, another member of Patriot Picket, said most of the march attendees they’d interacted with were “really cool” and “respectful,” though he added some women had given them the finger.
Greg had his own somewhat heated interaction with a march attendee, which he said he regretted. The woman he had sparred with called their presence at the rally “a slap in the face” to people who have lost children to gun violence. What did she think of their argument that they’re defending their First Amendment rights to speak? “Choose another time to do that,” she said. “Their presence is like a sore in the hearts of some of these children who have lost friends and have had to go to funerals.”
Closer to the Capitol, two counter-protesters were using sneakier messaging tactics. The two young men had both made signs, but appeared to be trying to hide them, holding the signs down by their legs. The first man’s hidden sign read, “Concealed carry saves lives.” He was talking to a young woman about how there are already more than 300 million guns in America, so trying to draw down the United States is a futile endeavor. “That just sounds like you’re giving up,” the young woman said. The man shrugged.
A second young man, Daniel, was holding a sign that said “Need $$$$ for an AR-15? Venmo me.” When asked what his sign was supposed to mean, he got defensive, saying it was “purely satirical,” and that he was just trying to “start a dialogue” with protesters. And when asked to elaborate, he grew visibly uncomfortable and declined to be interviewed further, saying he worried an interview, even on a first-name basis, would put his future career in jeopardy. He added that he wanted to make sure he had “a nice house with a pool” someday.
Back at the main march, some of the protesters’ signs were personalized to the point of being unsettling—which seemed to be the intended effect. “I should leave school in a cap and gown, not a body bag,” one student’s sign read. “I should be writing my English essay, not my will,” read another. Or simply: “Am I next?”
After the march ended, Bruce Johnson walked back toward the Mall with his wife and daughter, holding his sign: “Survivor of school shooting 43 years ago.” When Johnson was a 28-year-old graduate student, one of his fellow students came into his classroom, shot his professor, and then shot Johnson in the right shoulder.
Forty-three years later, Johnson still only has 50 percent range of motion in his right arm. Have gun laws improved since he was shot? “No, they’ve deteriorated,” he said.
“I saw an X-ray the other day of what happens when a bullet goes through your right shoulder, which it did with me,” Johnson said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I looked like.’ Because it hit the bone directly, and blew it all apart.”
Every march ends. The music, chants, arguments, and conversations eventually faded into silence. Megaphones and video cameras clicked off. The reporters packed up their belongings and left. Homemade signs were discarded on a nearby fence, left behind as artifacts of the day. The streets that held hundreds of thousands of people hours ago were mostly vacant once again.
After the march is over, what remains are photos and videos shared with friends on Instagram. For the thousands of young people who turned out on Saturday, it’s the memory of attending their first protest, a memory they will likely keep with them, in some form, for the rest of their lives.
Today’s student activists may learn, as generations of hopeful young activists before them have had to learn, that the change they’re seeking often comes slower, and at a steeper cost, than they realize. But on Saturday, tens of thousands of young Americans made politics personal for the first time in their lives. That is why Saturday mattered.