Washington – Hundreds of thousands of students from across the country, including scores from Minnesota, marched Saturday in the nation’s capital to demand that lawmakers act to end gun violence in their schools and communities.
The massive demonstration — its permit was for 500,000 people, but organizers claimed 800,000 showed up — anchored some 800 local marches across the country, one of the largest moments of youth activism since the Vietnam War, with companion rallies taking place in Boston, New York, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Paul. The D.C. crowd overflowed Pennsylvania Avenue, from Capitol Hill — where lawmakers had just left town for their spring recess — to the White House, where the president had also left town for the weekend.
For hours Saturday, teenagers told other teenagers about the shootings that had scarred their bodies, killed their friends and families and deprived them of their peace of mind.
“It feels like we’re in a broken world,” said Kendarius Williams, a senior at St. Paul’s High School for Recording Arts, who lost his cousin to gun violence. That trauma “kind of left me a broken person,” he said. “I’m always thinking, ‘Am I going to be shot?’ ”
Antiquita Flint, a 10th-grader at Minneapolis South High School, also talked of fear becoming a regular companion. “I’m afraid to go to school,’’ Flint said. “I feel like any day, our school could get shot up.”
The young people came from Minnesota on planes and in buses, crowding into hotel rooms or the homes of D.C. residents who opened their doors to out-of-towners. They used money they’d raised and travel funds donated to school GoFundMe sites. They came from a multitude of schools, with a single message: Enough.
More than 100 students from half a dozen Twin Cities schools crossed the National Mall Saturday morning chanting, “Minne! Sota! Is in the house!”
Even students from the suburbs said they didn’t feel safe. Several dozen from Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights waved posters that said, “Arm us with knowledge, not guns” and “Our lives are worth more than your guns.”
“Hey, hey, NRA, how many kids did you kill today?” the students shouted. “What do we want? Gun control! When do we want it? Now!”
In interviews, they described mass shooting drills at school as a routine part of their upbringing.
Lauren Youness, a 15-year-old freshman at Sibley, said it was upsetting when her band class talked about what to do if the school was attacked. “I never had to think about gun violence; it’s never been part of my life,” she said.
Youness said she thinks once politicians see the march crowds, they’ll start listening — or at least, be scared. Her mother, chaperone Annette Youness, said she felt ashamed that it took so many people to die to get to a point where changes in gun laws are being seriously discussed, and that it took young people to do it.
“Clearly, something has inspired these young people beyond what I’ve experienced in my life, and I think politicians who aren’t listening do so at their own peril,” said Sen. Matt Klein, the only Minnesota state legislator to attend. He came with his teenage daughter, a Sibley student.
Students from nine Twin Cities synagogues made the trip to D.C. by bus. Venture Academy student Lincoln Bacal, came away from the march inspired.
“Being in a crowd with so many people who care about this, it gives me hope,” she said. “Otherwise, I might think, ‘Maybe it’s just my friends, maybe it’s just a few kids here and there,’ but no. It was children, it was adults. I saw a bunch of signs — ‘Grandmas for Gun Control.’ ”
The crowd listened to speeches by survivors of the shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and also by kids who lost loved ones to shootings in other cities.
Sibley senior Gabriel Miller, 17, said one of the most moving speeches was by Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez. At first, he was confused when she stopped speaking for a long period. Then she said she’d paused for 6 minutes, 20 seconds, the time it took the gunman at her school to kill 17 people.
Gonzalez concluded by urging students to vote, a message that Miller and his soon-to-be voting age classmates are taking to heart. Several said they would pay attention to candidates’ records on gun issues.
Senior Liam Hickey said it felt good to be on the right side of history, though he didn’t totally agree with posters criticizing Republican politicians; like many other attendees, he said he doesn’t view gun restrictions as a partisan issue.
A Sibley junior, Joanna Santoyo, added that students of both parties have put aside their differences. “We need to come together to stop this [issue] that’s killing a generation,” she said.
“Let’s make some history,” said Azhae’la Hanson, a senior at Minneapolis North. “No one should be scared to get their education. Night is scary, but to be scared during the daytime? When can we catch a break? Fear has just become so common in this country.
“This isn’t the march that ends it all,” she said. “But it’s the beginning of something much bigger than ourselves.”