ALBANY — A few thousand people crowded around the state Capitol in Albany and a couple hundred squeezed onto a village green in Cobleskill for the local segments of the nationwide March For Our Lives movement Saturday.
The crowd size was very different at the two rallies but the message was the same, a call for better public safety through tougher gun control measures.
The Albany rally was held in the shadow of the legislative chambers where some of the nation’s toughest restrictions on assault rifles were enacted several years ago, after an earlier school massacre. The ire was directed squarely at the National Rifle Association for effectively lobbying against similar national restrictions, and at President Trump and members of Congress who have gone along with the NRA’s agenda.
One after another, students, parents, activists and three lawmakers — all Democrats — took the microphone to rev up the crowd with fact, opinion and emotion.
When the speeches were done, the marching and chanting began as the throng poured out of the park and into the streets to do a lap around the Capitol.
The region’s student population was well-represented, but there were at least as many parents, grandparents and younger siblings marching. (Or in a few instances, being pushed in wheelchairs or strollers.)
Niskayuna High School students Emily Baker and Nicole Overton were among the many teenagers speaking out.
“There are a lot more people here than I expected it to be, and I’m very pleased with the results,” Overton said. “I feel like everyone just wants to make a difference, and end gun violence in schools once and for all. I’ve seen people of every generation represented here today, and I’m really proud of the Capital Region for doing that.”
Baker said: “I’m amazed at the amount of young people here. I’m really, really proud of the changes we’re making.”
This last point is a matter of opinion, of course: Very few legal changes have been made since the school massacre in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14. But the mood has changed, at least for some people, and the mass demonstrations Saturday reflected that.
“I know it’s happening all over the entire country and I think with this amount of people we can look forward to something great,” Baker said.
Aylene Newman and Casey VanValkenburgh, both Johnstown High School graduates now attending college in the far corners of New York state, came to the rally to add their voices and some pointed visual cues: A poster of a bullet-riddled American flag and poster with a hand-drawn female reproductive system.
(A few other female demonstrators lofted signs alluding to the political divide over protecting unborn children in wombs from abortion and protecting children in schools from gunfire.)
“We’re just very sick of how our government is treating the situation, and we’re ready for change, and we’re here to make it,” VanValkenburgh said.
A demonstrator with snowy stubble on his cheeks stopped marching to offer Baker and VanValkenburgh encouragement.
“I’ve been in tears watching you kids, watching the young kids and their eloquence,” he said. “This is my first time that I’ve ever marched since Vietnam Veterans Against The War. So I’m pretty old, and I feel like crying.”
Watervliet Junior-Senior High School teacher Ashley Becker carried a sign noting her vocation and opinion. She explained:
“I’m out here marching because I’m a teacher, I’m in school every day, and I don’t think my students should be afraid to come to school, don’t think that myself and my fellow faculty members should be afraid to come to school.”
She added: “I think it’s ridiculous that semiautomatic weapons are still legal in this country. It’s about common sense, and it’s about keeping our kids safe.”
In Cobleskill, the heart of rural Schoharie County, the message was the same. But some of the words were a bit different.
While the NRA was a continual punching bag at the Albany rally, very little reference was made to it on the rally posters in Cobleskill.
There were no obvious counter-demonstrators at either rally, but a tiny Honda cruised down Main Street in Cobleskill with a large hand-drawn sign urging “Protect the 2nd” taped on its passenger side. (The 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting the right to own guns, also was picked apart in some detail at the Albany rally.)
One of the organizers of the Cobleskill event, Canajoharie High School student Emma Trahan, said there was a deliberate effort not to demonize legal gun owners in a region that is likely more conservative and where firearms are more common in homes.
“It’s harder in rural areas especially because [so many people] have that protection against animals and for hunting,” she said, “and I think for me it was important that nobody feels attacked, because we want everyone, whether you’re conservative or liberal, whether you’re a gun owner or not, to be united to protect citizens.
“And will that involve taking down the NRA? Maybe. But in an area especially rural, you have to be careful to get as many people to come and unify. And then once they’re there, then you can have that conversation.”
Trahan called the rally a success.
“I’m thrilled — I didn’t think this many people would come. We met like two weeks ago to start organizing it, so there was like no time to get a lot of public outreach, but it’s been great.”
Another attendee, Cooperstown High School student Mia Iversen, brought along Kendra Gross, a friend she’d met in Hungary while both were exchange students,
Gross is from Broward County, Florida, and attends high school 14 miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students were killed and 17 more wounded Feb. 14.
In a shaky voice, she told the crowd of the changes at her own school since then: The diminutive school security officer toting an AR-15 similar to the one used to kill her counterparts at the other school, the fire drills that now are treated as potential ambushes, the general mood of unease.
“Luckily I didn’t know anybody who goes there,” she said afterward, referring to the nearby school where a massacre became a flashpoint in the gun-control movement.
“One of my closest friends was friends with [shooting victim] Jaime Guttenberg. She can’t move on from this.”