Young people from across the greater Washington area joined forces with others who had traveled from all parts of the U.S., landing in the District on Saturday, March 24 — hell-bent on making sure both America and the world heard their pleas for change loud and clear.
They expressed their disgruntlement, dejection and disgust — taking aim at a president and a Republican-dominated Congress who have routinely refused to approve greater gun control legislation that might effectively stem the tide of mass shootings — murders that have tended to target the innocent to an extent that such heinous acts of violence have almost become “normal” within American society.
With passion, fury and fervor, hundreds of thousands of youth, some still in elementary school, rallied in the District, joined by nationally-recognized activists, school teachers, parents, older siblings — even grandparents. They also found support from youth who have survived previous shootings, including several hundred students from Parkland, Florida — the most recent example of gun violence — whose students have sparked this historic, student-led movement the likes of which have not been seen since the days of the Civil Rights Movement.
High school and college students have already walked out of classes and participated in protests in their home towns. They promise to engage in more walkouts in the coming weeks and months and tell those adults who refuse to take on the NRA or the so-called defenders of the Second Amendment that they will not stop.
As David Hogg, a student from Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said during the rally, “We are going to make this the voting issue.”
Still, it’s not going to be easy for these young advocates to translate the #NeverAgain movement into significant change. Even some members of Congress, including the controversial Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have indicated that they doubt that youth-led movements will bring about anything of real substance.
But then, perhaps Rubio, who said in a Twitter message, “students marching won’t prevent shootings,” as well as his GOP colleagues, may want to listen more closely.
The rally featured voices that have not been heard before, from the passionate words of the granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to an Alexandria, Virginia Black girl who said she marched not only for white children who have been killed and whose stories tend to dominate the news but for her Black brothers and sisters who die on the streets every day but whose deaths remain ignored.
D.C. Teens on the Move
One student, Lauryn Renford, 16, remembered her boyfriend, Zaire Kelly, 17, who was shot and killed in an attempted robbery in Northeast last fall. Choking back tears, she also remembered Jamahri Sydnor, the 17-year-old college-bound District student struck and killed by a stray bullet while driving her car through a Northeast neighborhood last year, and Anthony Smith, the 17-year-old Ballou Senior High School sophomore, shot and killed at a Southeast neighborhood basketball court for a pair of Nike Air Jordan sneakers.
“My city shines no more,” said Lauryn, a student at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Anacostia. “Too many sons are gone.”
Lauryn joined several other local students at Folgers Park in Southeast as part of the “Rally for D.C. Lives,” hours before Saturday’s national student-led rally for gun control. Organized by the D.C. chapter of Moms Demand Action and local lawmakers, it included: Mayor Muriel Bowser, District Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and others.
As the nation focused on gun control and student safety, District teens called for attention to the instances of neighborhood gun violence which many say they regularly face. Thurgood Marshall Academy has lost two students to neighborhood gun violence this school year including Zaire in September and Paris Brown, 19, in January.
“Jahmari died, and there was no legislation passed. Zaire died a few weeks later, and there was no legislation passed,” Lauryn said. “We’ve been trying to get national attention for months.”
Lauryn began circulating a petition to memorialize slain teens in the city following Zaire’s death.
Since she began the petition, she said has garnered more than 3,000 signatures and a recent visit to her school by student survivors of the Parkland shooting has helped boost signatures to more than 5,000 when one of the Florida students tweeted out her petition.
“[Parkland students] are not obligated to expand this conversation to us, but we can include ourselves,” Lauryn said.
At the rally, she noted that access to guns have been widely restricted by District law and called for thorough investigations into how perpetrators of shooting crimes in the city obtained their guns. She also called out gentrification as a factor for violent crime in the city and suggested a mentoring program for at-risk youth over punishment.
“Living in a part of the city where people don’t have equal access to resources makes them feel they need to steal things, even other lives,” she added.
Other students expressed similar sentiments.
“This issue, it’s no stranger to youth in D.C.,” said Aaron King, a senior at Woodrow Wilson High who was Master of Ceremonies of the Rally for D.C. Lives.
Aaron said he’s lost several friends to neighborhood gun violence.
“Many of us know someone who has been a victim of gun violence,” he said.
A majority of the city’s 18 shooting homicides this year have been people under the age of the 30, according to analysis of a Washington Post homicide tracker.
“I had a friend ask me, ‘If this same shooting, this same situation happened in our school, would we get the same amount of press, a school of color,’” said Imani Romney, 16, a junior at Richard Wright Public Charter School.
Imani shared a poem at the rally exploring themes of racism and posed the question about national media coverage of shootings involving Black teenagers.
“I told her I don’t know. But that doesn’t mean we should stop fighting,” Imani said.
Other student speakers at the rally included Nehemiah Amari Sellers, 12; Devontae Gliss,14; Nevaeh Williams, 16, and Ryan Battle,14.
Prince George’s Youth Have Their Say
“Enough is Enough!” “Books not bullets!” “Keep my school safe!”
These were the chants led by Amanya Paige, 16, who walked with dozens of Prince George’s County students during last Saturday’s events. Some students who represented high schools such as Parkdale, Suitland and Eleanor Roosevelt hoisted homemade signs and raised their fists in solidarity.
Amanya and her fellow Prince George’s students said they couldn’t sit at home as tragedy continues to affect their lives.
“It is amazing and beautiful to see student activism standing up,” said Amanya who attends Parkdale and serves as the high school student on county school board.
“For so long, so many people have neglected the power of the student voice. We are going to show them we are more than just students that sit in the classroom every day,” she said.
Paige and her classmates experienced gun violence from afar after Parkdale chemistry teacher Gladys Tordil, 44, was shot and killed in May 2016 by her estranged husband Eulalio Tordil, 62, outside High Point High School’s parking lot in Beltsville as the teacher waited to pick up her daughter.
“We were sitting in the hallway crying next to her door,” Amanya said Saturday. “We don’t have AP chemistry because she was taken from us. This is how gun violence can affect more than just one person.”
It also indirectly touched Cameryn Coles, an 11th-grader at St. Mary’s Ryken High School located about 15 minutes away from Great Mills High School where a 17-year-old student shot a girl and boy inside the building March 20.
“A lot of people knew the boy who got shot in the leg,” said Cameryn, 16, a sprinter on her school’s track and field team. “That [shooting] was close. It shook me up a little bit. I came out [to the March] because something needs to change.”
The goal for these Maryland students they say, is to ensure state lawmakers not only pass school safety laws but also stronger gun legislation. The Maryland General Assembly will complete this year’s session April 9.
Although Alex Wilkins can’t vote for the next several years, he still wanted to participate in the march.
“I’m scared to go to school just because of everything that is happening,” said Alex, a 14-year-old eight-grader at Chesapeake Math and IT charter school, or CMIT South, in Upper Marlboro.
“I want to be safe in school. That’s where all your friends are. If you are scared to go to school, then that’s a problem,” he said.
Before the students, teachers and other supporters marched from Union Station in Northwest, former Rep. Donna Edwards applauded their courage to challenge elected officials who refused to change current gun laws.
“I think these young people are going to change what we couldn’t,” said Edwards, who’s running for Prince George’s County executive. “Our generation failed them. This is going to be the largest generation to become voters and they are not going to forget this moment.”
Out of the Mouth of Babes
What did youth have to say during as they walked through the streets of D.C. last Saturday? Here are a few examples:
Gabriella Mendoza, 19, DePaul University: “Enough is enough because it just hurts so much that our future generation is getting gunned down. We need to protect and watch out for every single person and it doesn’t matter what their sexual orientation or color may be. We all matter.”
Bairton Warburton-Brown, 17, DePaul University: “I think this could really be a decisive moment in our society. There’s no time to stay home. You’re really either present or you’re no. We need gun control and we need it now.”
Tatyana Hopkins, WI staff writer, and Ra-Jah Kelly, WI contributing writer, contributed to this report.