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“The adults failed us and now seventeen people are dead,” said Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School junior Meghan Bonner from a podium on Central Park West on Saturday morning.
On February 14, Bonner had hidden in her classroom in Parkland, Florida, while shots rang out in the hallways outside. “Kids I saw every day from elementary school to high school are never going to live the life I have the privilege of living,” Bonner told the gathered crowd on Saturday. “This will never leave me.”
As part of a nationwide day of March for Our Lives actions organized in the wake of last month’s shootings in Parkland, close to 200,000 students and adults marched from Central Park West to midtown on Saturday to warn politicians that the nation’s youngest voters will not tolerate a pro-gun agenda. Protestors demanded universal background checks, raising the minimum age for gun purchases to 21, and banning assault weapons and bump stocks.
“Politicians first of all need to listen and not undercut us because of our age,” said 18-year-old Emma Brownstein, a senior at Bard High School Early College Queens in Long Island City.
“You don’t need to shoot thirty shots per second to kill a deer, if that’s the reason you have a gun,” added her friend and classmate Anais Fallait, 17. “There’s no reason to have a killing machine like that.”
Teachers also derided a GOP proposal endorsed by President Trump to arm teachers in classrooms. “From my perspective as a government teacher, a weapon is not civic engagement,” said Erik Branman, 46, who teaches at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts in Manhattan. “I feel very strongly that my job as an educator is to educate, not to shoot or kill anyone for any reason.”
High school students marched alongside adult survivors of other mass shootings, and their allies: Gays Against Guns, who fought for gun control in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016; survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012 and the Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting in Las Vegas last October. Since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, the Washington Post recently found, more than 187,000 U.S. students have directly experienced a shooting at their schools.
“I had hoped that the deaths of twenty six-year-old children and six of my co-workers would have been enough for my country to decide that something needed to change, but it wasn’t,” said Sandy Hook survivor and teacher Mary Ann Jacob. Now, though, she said, “the ripple effects of every mass shooting are becoming so widespread that those ripples are beginning to touch each other.”
Throughout the day, volunteers weaved through the crowd registering young people to vote. Among the new voters was Angelique Torres, an 18-year-old senior at the Bronx School of Government and Justice, who carried a sign that read “I Should Be Writing My College Essay, Not My Will!” She said the shooting in Parkland has turned her into an activist.
“My school made it their obligation to get involved and just to help other kids in the school understand the severity of what’s been going on,” Torres said. “We just need to voice our opinion a lot more. All of the incidents that have occurred brought everybody together to just, you know, make Congress understand that this is a problem.”
But some teenagers were more cautious with their optimism, even as aerial shots of hundreds of thousands of marchers flooded Twitter from across the country. An 18-year-old who gave his name as X marched down Fifth Avenue carrying a yellow sign with a picture of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man from Sacramento, California. “Black & Brown People Fight for Our Lives Against Racist Police Terror!” it read. “Disarm the Police!” Two police officers fatally shot Clark twenty times in his grandmother’s backyard on March 18. They later testified that they believed Clark was holding a gun; it was actually a white iPhone.
“Police is out here killing people,” X told the Voice. “Especially black lives. They need to chill with the guns and shit.” So far this year, 244 civilians have been fatally shot by police in the United States, twelve fewer than this time last year. X added that he’s not sure if the march will help his message reach politicians. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see at the end.”
A few hours earlier, Samirah Nizam-Poon had leaned on a barrier at Central Park West holding a sign with two bright-red dripping handprints and the words “Am I Next?” in block letters. She and her friend Donna Gobie, both 16-year-old juniors at Forest Hills High School in Queens, said their school went into lockdown for several hours on March 15, one day after their school-wide walkout in solidarity with Parkland students. Someone had written a note on a desk about shooting up the school.
“They basically told teachers to lock the doors but keep class going,” Nizam-Poon said. “It made me feel scared. I was like, should I text my mom? Should I tell her what’s going on?”
No one ultimately fired a gun, but the experience left Gobie feeling anxious. “You hear about these proposals from politicians but do you really see anything happening?” she said. “You don’t see anything happening.”
Nizam-Poon added that she was frustrated when the school held a meeting to debrief parents on the lockdown, but not students. “We want change,” she said. “And change starts with us.”