Hundreds of thousands of people from across the country descended on Washington Saturday to demand action on gun control in a mass demonstration that could rival the annual women’s marches sparked by President Donald Trump’s election.
Spurred by the school shooting in Parkland, Florida last month, the “March for Our Lives” has the backing of well-funded gun control groups like Everytown for Gun Safety. They are organizing youth voter registration drives and running crash courses on activism and public policy.
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More than 800 “sibling” marches are planned across the United States and in other countries on Saturday.
The demonstration is the culmination of years of inaction by lawmakers as mass shootings have continued unabated in America. Left-leaning activists, feeling stymied by the National Rifle Association’s lobbying, are wielding one of the few tools they have left: taking to the streets to demand change.
“The adults haven’t been able to make these changes so the kids are going to show us how it’s done,” Parkland student Alex Wind said.
Emotions ran high during some of the speeches Saturday.
Samantha Fuentes, a Parkland student who was shot in both legs, recited a poem she wrote about the assault. “I was crying tears and blood at the same time,” Fuentes told the crowd. She then paused, doubled over and vomited behind the podium.
When she recovered after a few moments, Fuentes straightened up and said proudly: “I just threw up on international television and it feels awesome!”
Shortly after, Emma Gonzalez, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas student who has become one of the most recognizable faces of the youth movement demanding gun control reform, took the stage.
Crying, Gonzalez read the Parkland victims’ names and took a long pause. Pennsylvania Avenue was completely silent, save for the shutter of cameras and distant sirens.
Students on stage and in the crowd began chanting, “Never again.”
Gonzalez then paused for 6 minutes and 20 seconds, to represent how long Nikolas Cruz was shooting in the school.
“This is what democracy — looks like!” protesters chanted throughout the rally.
Ridership numbers public transportation confirmed a large turnout, though perhaps not as large as the women’s march in January 2017. As of 1 p.m., Washington Metrorail had given 207,000 rides, officials said, compared to about 230,000 for an entire normal Saturday. The women’s march drew 1 million rides for the whole day, according to news reports at the time — the second-busiest day ever behind Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
People began streaming toward Pennsylvania Avenue hours before the march began. Police were everywhere, stationed at Metro stations and every few feet along the route. Signs were posted along the route notifying marchers that firearms aren’t allowed in the area, even with a license to carry.
At 9 a.m., the area in front of the stage, erected near the base of the U.S. Capitol, had already filled up. A number of signs knocked the Trump administration’s support for training and arming school personnel.
“This future teacher will never carry a gun,” one sign read. “My job is to teach, not return fire,” another said.
The demonstration comes days after a shooting at Great Mills High School in southern Maryland, which killed two students, one of whom was taken off life support on Thursday.
“What better place to demand that Congress take action than their home?” said Anna Sophie Tinneny, a 17-year old senior at Pennridge High School, 30 miles north of Philadelphia.
Tinneny said this week that she and a dozen or more of her peers planned to leave for Washington before dawn on Saturday. Tinneny recently made headlines when she and her classmates received detention for participating in a nationwide school walkout calling for gun control. They protested during detention, sitting in a circle on the floor and wearing the names of the Parkland victims on their shirts.
“The Parkland kids aren’t going away,” she said. “They’re inspiring so many kids in Generation Z,” the demographic cohort after Millennials.
Seventeen people — to honor the number of people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas — spoke. Several celebrities, like Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, performed.
The route for the march stretches down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Trump International Hotel and stopping short of the White House. The march will be followed by mass school walkouts across the country on April 20.
Preparation was in full swing on Thursday and Friday, with D.C. officials erecting barricades, portable toilets and temporary cell phone towers. Temporary cement barriers stood in front of the Trump International Hotel on Friday, in addition to two layers of metal barricades. Inside, bartenders nervously chit-chatted with guests about the impending crush of protesters.
On Saturday, military trucks blocked off downtown streets nearly the Trump hotel as demonstrators flooded onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
The city’s public transportation system was bracing for long lines and crowds. Restaurants offered discounted meals to marchers and the ride-sharing app Lyft offered free rides to the march. Local families have been offering up their homes to students with nowhere to stay.
The marches in Washington and across the country will be accompanied by what’s expected to be an extensive youth voter registration push. Organizers have been pushing state-specific voter registration toolkits, and the Parkland students have talked up the importance of voting in media appearances. One volunteer said roughly 250 people were working to register new voters at the rally.
The Parkland students and teenagers nationwide, many of whom just turned 18 or are about to turn 18, have vowed to remove from office state and federal lawmakers who refuse to act on gun control.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, said the protesters need to make politicians who oppose gun control pay a price.
“Who here is voting in the 2018 midterm elections?” he said at the rally.
Organizers of the marches are pushing a petition that calls on Congress to ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and background checks for the purchases of all guns — a nearly impossible political ask.
Congress has only mustered support for modest measures since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Mass shootings that killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and 58 in Las Vegas last year yielded nothing.
A $1.3 trillion government spending bill signed by Trump on Friday includes measures to improve records and information-sharing in the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System and federal grants to improve school safety. The White House has also launched a new commission, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to consider school safety measures.
Trump also tweeted Friday about his administration’s move to ban bump stocks, the devices that are used to turn semi-automatic weapons into machines guns.
“We applaud the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today,” the White House said in a statement Saturday. “Keeping our children safe is a top priority of the President’s, which is why [Trump] urged Congress to pass the Fix NICS and STOP School Violence Acts, and signed them into law.“
Many adults took to the streets, too, saying they were inspired by personal experiences with gun violence. Danny Robb, a 64-year-old retired Air Force colonel, traveled from than 7,000 miles from Okinawa, Japan to Washington. On March 24, 1998 — 20 years ago today— two gunmen shot up his daughter’s middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, killing five people. She happened to stay home that day, but a friend she sat next to in class was killed.
Now, Robb said he hopes young people will succeed where his generation fell short.
“In the military, you’re taught that to be a good leader you have to be a good follower,” Robb said. “And the kids need to take the lead on this.”