Flurries of snow blew across Riverfront Park on Saturday as thousands of people, many of them middle- and high-school students, rallied for school safety and against gun violence.
Coinciding with marches across the country – including in Coeur d’Alene, Boise, Seattle and Olympia – Spokane’s March For Our Lives drew about 5,000 people, according to organizers, the largest crowd seen in the city since the Women’s March earlier this year. As has been the case throughout this year’s protests against school violence, it was student led and student organized.
Ellary Lockwood, a Lewis and Clark High School student and one of the march’s leaders, said she was thrilled with the turnout. “Honestly, when we started planning this we were expecting a couple hundred,” she said during a rally before the march, as new marchers continued to pour into the park.
The rally is part of a larger movement that began last month, after a former student wielding a semi-automatic rifle killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. In the aftermath of the killings, students from the school began to speak out, condemning the federal government’s seeming inability to stem the recent tide of shootings and calling for stricter gun laws.
That was followed by nationwide demonstrations on March 14, as students from around the country, including Spokane, staged walkouts to bring attention to the issues of school safety and gun violence. In Boise, a crowd of several thousand marched on the capital building.
The crowd marching through downtown echoed that anger Saturday.
“No more thoughts and prayers. Take action, show you care,” read one sign. “Am I next?” asked another.
A message to
After speeches by students – some of whom had traveled from Canada by bus to show support – and a few teachers, the marchers exited the park near the Clocktower around 1 p.m. to the sound of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” performed by the band P-Jammersand, and took to Spokane Falls Boulevard. The march was long enough that, half an hour later, the students at the head of the protest were almost back to the park by the time the last of the marchers were leaving.
“The people just kept coming and coming in spite of this horrible weather,” said Brad Read, a Shadle Park High School English teacher. “That speaks to what is true about this issue and resonates with so many people. It’s students, children leading the way for adults, and it’s absolutely profound.”
Some cited last year’s shooting at Freeman High School as their motivation for taking to the streets. Jessica Newton, who came to the rally with her 9-year-old son, said the shooting brought the issue of school safety home.
“It felt very, very close,” she said. “It’s very saddening to explain to your child what happened in the neighboring school.”
Much of the marchers’ anger was directed towards the National Rifle Association, which continues to oppose tougher gun laws and instead advocates arming teachers as a countermeasure to school violence.
That seemed like the wrong solution to Mt. Spokane High School sophomore Heather Cihal, who marched carrying a sign that read “If you’re old enough to get shot, you’re old enough to have an opinion!”
She said she’s already heard of one shooting involving a teacher in a school and she also worries that a student might take a gun from a teacher and use it.
“That would make me feel even worse,” she said. “That just scares me more. I don’t think it’s going to help the situation.”
“I hope (the march) draws attention to what we need from our representatives and makes our movement much more serious than it is perceived to be,” said Audrey Bellmer, a Cheney High student and student council member.
Indeed, many legislators seemed to have gotten the message, and issued statements Saturday supporting the many actions around the country.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called student activists the “future” of the country. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., pointed to legislation she has supported to provide schools with more resources and to fix the federal background check system “so criminals, those with mental illness, or others who shouldn’t have guns don’t gain access,” according to a statement.
Speaking at the sizable March For Our Lives rally in Seattle, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., urged attendees to take their anger to the ballot box, saying “If you can’t change the laws, then change the people who change the laws,” according to KOMO News.
rally at the capital
In Olympia, thousands filled the steps of the domed Legislative Building and spilled over into the grassy areas around the flag circle and onto the steps of the Temple of Justice before marching down Capitol Boulevard to the historic Sylvester Park in front of the old Capitol Building.
As in Spokane, it was students who organized and led the march that stretched 30 abreast down the main street of downtown Olympia.
For the most part it was also students who took to the microphones. They quoted Gandhi, Tupac and the Preamble to the Constitution, urged people to register, vote and contact their legislators. Those who don’t support tougher gun control laws should be voted out, they said.
Madelyn Olson, a student at North Thurston High School in Lacey, Washington, and one of the organizers, recalled an incident three years ago when she called her mother to tell her that she loved her and there was someone shooting a gun in the school.
“No student should ever go through that,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to worry about that. Our biggest fear should be whether we pass our biology test.”
One of the few adults to take the microphone was her father, Brady Olson, a history and civics teacher at North Thurston who tackled the shooter that day. American history is filled with brave young people, he told the crowd.
“I’m putting my faith in you young people to lead us down the path,” he said. “When you want something, you go for it with all your heart.”
Orange was the color of the day, including the T-shirts worn by 17 students of Reeves Middle School in Olympia, who had written the name and age of a victim of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting on the front, along with a large red circle to signify a bullet hole. Each student had taken the name of a victim, and said something about him or her at the school’s walkout one month after the massacre.
Each day they take something from that victim’s life as a way to make sure the students are remembered in a positive way, said Karli Kooi, the middle schooler who had the idea for commemoration. On Saturday, they wore the shirts again and spoke to the crowd at the end of the march.
“This should not be normal for me,” Kooi said of school shootings. “This can’t go on any longer.”
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