WASHINGTON, D.C. — Thousands of students born under the specter of school shootings and worn down by the everyday gun violence of urban communities stood at the base of the nation’s Capitol with a clear message to their politicians:
Stop the gun violence or pack your bags and find a new job.
Standing near the front of a rally on Pennsylvania Avenue, a group of Schenectady students endured growling stomachs and sore legs as they took their place in the vanguard of a student anti-gun movement launched nationwide in the wake of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last month.
“I came here more in support,” Schenectady High School senior Kimberly Deonarine said Saturday before hitting the road back to New York. “I left feeling empowered.”
Deonarine was joined by about two dozen fellow Schenectady students and a handful of students from Niskayuna, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake and Albany on a bus organized by the League of Women Voters. The bus left Schenectady shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday. Hitting the ground in Washington around 8 a.m., the Schenectady students split into smaller groups and made their way into the heart of the demonstration – the March for Our Lives.
Meanwhile, a bus full of Saratoga Springs students and parents and one organized by Mohonasen Central School District students also made the early-morning voyage south from the Capital Region. Dozens of students from both schools experienced first hand the emerging student activism and vowed to press the cause upon returning home.
Matthew Taylor, a Saratoga Springs senior, when asked how the students planned to keep the momentum going, responded by text in two words: “Voter registration.”
Mohonasen student Anna Sherman said seeing and hearing from student speakers at the event inspired her and the classmates she joined in Washington to continue to speak up and walk out over the gun violence issue. She said she and fellow Mohonasen students plan to walk out of school on April 20 – a day slated for another round of walkouts across the country. Mohonasen students were largely stymied earlier this month when administrators raised safety concerns about students leaving the school building.
Sherman echoed the sharp rhetoric of the event organizers – the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas school.
“We won’t let the NRA and politicians who care about money more than our lives control whether or not we feel safe in schools,” Sherman said in a text after the event. “We all feel even more inspired after seeing so many people come out to support these changes.”
One group of Schenectady students snagged a spot near the front of the stage, waiting four hours before the rally started. As the official noon start of the rally neared, the crowds grew and students moved closer together. Moments of relative silence were punctuated with outbursts of chants and screams.
“NRA go away.” “More pizza less guns.” “More books less bullets.”
Signs ranged from the basic: “Thoughts and prayers are not enough;” to the more creative and pointed: “I should be writing my college essay not my will.”
“The reality is we need stricter gun control,” said Schenectady senior Elizabeth Canavan, who is a registered Republican and said she is torn over some of the rhetoric of her fellow students. “Here we are, something written into the constitution is killing us.”
A pair of physicians from Saratoga Springs, who happened across the Schenectady students after driving down for the march Friday, said gun violence should be treated as a “medical crisis.”
Carolyn Slatch and Martha Dexter and a handful of kids drove to Washington for the march, spending Friday and Saturday nights at a nearby campground.
“Guns are a big health issue when it comes to domestic violence; it’s a significant problem for suicide,” Slatch said. The event organizers rolled out a litany of statistics about higher rates of suicide and domestic violence correlated to gun ownership.
Slatch’s 8-year-old son James held a sign that said “Protect children not guns” in neat cursive sketched out on ruled lines. The Dorothy Nolan second-grader said he wanted to ban guns “since guns are bad and they can kill people.”
During more than two hours of fiery speeches and musical performances, student organizers made it clear they don’t plan to let go of their fight for stricter gun control any time soon. They called for a ban on assault rifles, universal background checks and a prohibition of high-capacity magazines.
But their rhetoric, still raw from the pain of school shootings and the loss of loved ones to everyday gun violence, signaled a full-frontal assault against the National Rifle Association and politicians who refuse to bow to their demands.
Parkland survivors and students from communities across the country — many painting their cause as a righteous battle against corrupt politicians in the pockets of the NRA and greedy gun makers — had a message: “Enough is enough. Never again.”
Students from communities threatened by daily gun violence joined Parkland students on the stage. Together, in speech after speech, they connected suburban school shootings to urban gun violence. All lost lives are a tragedy, they said.
“Today, we say no more,” said a Chicago student. “We are survivors of not only gun violence but of silence … we are the survivors of a lack of resources in our schools.”
“Our nation’s politics are sick with soullessness,” one student speaker said. “But make no mistake, we are the cure.”
Early in their own organizing efforts, Schenectady students made sure to highlight their on experiences with gun violence. At Schenectady’s High School’s walkout earlier this month, they commemorated 17 Schenectady victims of gun violence alongside the 17 people killed in Parkland.
“We have a lot of shootings in Schenectady,” Schenectady High sophomore Maram Ahmed said Saturday. “I feel like we can relate to the people of Parkland, and we should fight for our rights too.”
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