Throngs of protesters gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue Saturday afternoon to demand stricter gun control laws in a rally led by survivors of a recent school shooting in Florida.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters crammed the streets of the District for the protest, dubbed the “March For Our Lives,” which called for policy changes like stronger background checks for gun purchases and a ban on assault rifles. The D.C. rally was the most prominent of gun control demonstrations planned in more than 800 cities nationwide Saturday.
A group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed in a shooting last month, organized the much-anticipated event. Since the shooting, a group of students from Parkland have become among the most high-profile supporters of tougher gun laws.
In the crowd, students and teachers talked about their own motivations for joining the call for gun control.
Zion Kelly, a senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy in D.C., told the crowd about his twin brother Zaire, who was shot and killed last September while walking home from an after school program.
“He was energetic and full of dreams. He was our team captain of the track team, the student body president and was accepted to Fordham University for their undergrad. He was a person, a leader and an inspirer,” Kelly said. “I’m here to represent the hundreds of thousands of students who live every day in fear as they walk to and from school.”
Holding signs with phrases like “No more silence: End gun violence,” and “Schools, not warzones,” the crowd began gathering as early as 8 a.m. By the time the rally began at noon, the mass of protesters extended for blocks between the Capitol and the White House.
Hanna Oakes, a high school student from the Philadelphia area, said she was marching because she didn’t want to be afraid to go to school anymore.
“I don’t want my peers to be shot up, bleeding out on the floor. I don’t want legally purchased weapons to be put right between my eyes and I don’t want teachers to be our body guards,” she said.
Emilia Petrillo, another activist from Maryland, said students needed to organize the march because adults have failed to stop gun violence.
“We have failed to protect our children, not only the government, but we as adults have failed,” she said. “Now it’s time to follow the children because they’re clear about what they want and we’re not.”
Nathan Dudley, a teacher from New York City, said gun violence in his school district had become an unfortunate and everyday reality.
“I’m here to support the kids because social change only ever happens when the next generation refuses to accept what the previous generation has accepted,” Dudley said.
Dudley added that gun violence wasn’t just an issue in suburban schools like Parkland, Fla., but a frightening reality for urban and inner city students walking to and from school every day in dangerous neighborhoods.
Students who had been directly affected by gun violence made up a large portion of the speakers at the rally. Interspersed between performers like Demi Lovato, Ben Platt and Lin Manuel Miranda, student activists called for systemic change through new and impactful gun legislation.
David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland High School shooting, who has become a renowned gun control activist, addressed the crowd, saying it was the voice of youth that made the day’s protest possible.
“To those who say that teenagers can’t do anything, I say that we were the only people who could have made this movement possible,” he said.
He added that for legislators on Capitol Hill, the choice of whether or not to support laws designed to reduce gun violence should be clear.
“It’s not about your race or sexual orientation or gender or how much money you make and it almost certainly isn’t about your political party. It’s about life or death,” Hogg said. “If you’ve taken money from the NRA [National Rifle Association], you have chosen death. If you do not stand with us by saying we need to pass gun violence legislation, you have chosen death. We choose life.”
High school students affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, presented a banner to Parkland High School students as a symbol of support and solidarity.
Tommy Morry, now a high school junior who survived the Sandy Hook shooting, said the promises that members of Congress had made to him and his community following the tragedy had amounted to nothing.
“They didn’t ban assault weapons or enforce stronger background checks and now another community is shattered. We are here to support these students. We want to tell you to keep fighting as hard as you can. Your stories are so important and together our stories will create the change that we need,” Morry said. “We will march with you and we will end gun violence in our country. We will honor with action.”
Liz Konneker contributed reporting.