Survivors of the deadly shooting rampage at a Parkland, Florida, high school are leading thousands Saturday in a March for Our Lives on Washington, delivering their impassioned pleas for stricter gun control law to the nation.
Building on the momentum of last week’s National School Walkout, these members of a generation raised on gun violence have rallied Americans around their cause while honoring the 17 students and faculty members killed on February 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The march was to start at noon, with participants gathering on Pennsylvania Avenue near the US Capitol. As they began showing up Saturday morning, the turnout seemed to portend a massive standing-room-only rally.
Hundreds of sister marches also are planned across the country and around the world as students, teachers, parents and survivors of school shootings take their defiant message against gun violence to the seats of power.
Here in Oklahoma, the March for Our Lives started at the Oklahoma County Election Board at noon. Participants then marched to the Oklahoma State Capitol.
"Not one more. We cannot allow one more child to be shot at school. We cannot allow one more teacher to make a choice to jump in front of a firing assault rifle to save the lives of students. We cannot allow one more family to wait for a call or text that never comes. Our schools are unsafe. Our children and teachers are dying. We must make it our top priority to save these lives.
March For Our Lives is created by, inspired by, and led by students across the country who will no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action to stop the epidemic of mass school shootings that has become all too familiar. In the tragic wake of the seventeen lives brutally cut short in Florida, politicians are telling us that now is not the time to talk about guns. March For Our Lives believes the time is now.
On March 24, the kids and families of March For Our Lives OKC will take to the streets of Oklahoma City to demand that their lives and safety become a priority. The collective voices of the March For Our Lives movement will be heard.
School safety is not a political issue. There cannot be two sides to doing everything in our power to ensure the lives and futures of children who are at risk of dying when they should be learning, playing, and growing. The mission and focus of March For Our Lives is to demand that a comprehensive and effective bill be immediately brought before Congress to address these gun issues. No special interest group, no political agenda is more critical than timely passage of legislation to effectively address the gun violence issues that are rampant in our country.
Every kid in this country now goes to school wondering if this day might be their last. We live in fear.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Change is coming. And it starts now, inspired by and led by the kids who are our hope for the future. Their young voices will be heard."
The Oklahoma City Facebook group has nearly 3,500 members.
“Stricter background checks, banning bump stocks, and raising the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21," said organizer James Limbaugh, a student at Sallisaw High School. "Basically, our entire inspiration with this was from the Parkland and their march.”
But not everyone at the Oklahoma march was for tighter gun laws.
“We’re here for the same reason they are," said Trevor Jackson. "We’re against gun violence, especially with school or it’s any other kind of violence with firearms. But, the answer, gun reform is not the answer.”
He says it has to do with people.
“It’s a moral problem and it’s gotten worse. Since Columbine, it’s been rolling downhill," said Jackson.
In New York, a normally bustling swath of Manhattan went quiet during a moment of silence as the names of the Parkland victims were read.
In Washington, a teenager drew parallels with the civil rights marches of the past, relishing that he was literally following in the footsteps of icons such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In Boston, march organizers asked participants over age 21 to take their places behind students spearheading the struggle.
Even as far away as Spain, young people such as Lucia Smith, 6, received an early introduction to political activism. She marched with her mother, Aiko Smith, near the US Embassy in Madrid. The girl carried a sign saying: "Your right to rifles. My right to life. Choose."
On a bus with about 250 students bound for Washington from Pittsburgh, chaperone Justin Cooper said he grew up in a region known for hunting but realizes America's gun culture needs to change.
"Our youth are being confronted with these shootings and all the violence, and I think they're looking at it and saying most people support some kind of change ... but yet our laws don't quite seems to be working with the people," Cooper said. "So the youth of this country said, 'Enough is enough.' The kids are running all this."
Carol Speaks sat on the bus next to her grandson, whose brother was gunned down in Pittsburgh in 2013. Three years earlier, she had lost her son to gun violence, she said. Both cases remain unsolved.
"It happens so often in our neighborhoods," she said of gun violence. "These guns are so easy to get. ... A lot of times people don't act on things until it touches your doorstep and then it's kind of late."
In Washington, Leslie Gunn, a teacher who survived the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, said her heart pounded with emotion as she prepared to march. Her mind was on the young students and six adults who died at her school.
"We lost 20 children and 6 adults, 154 bullets in five minutes and nothing was done," she said.
"We had voices and we advocated ... but if these kids now can make the voice that makes the change, we have to do this. Adults need to get on board with them and follow them because they're speaking the truth."
The White House, with President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida for the weekend, released a statement in support of the youth-led marchers: "We applaud the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today. Keeping our children safe is a top priority" of the President.
One of Saturday's marches will be in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where 20 years ago Saturday two boys, 11 and 13, ambushed fellow students and teachers in a yard after setting off a fire alarm at Westside Middle School, killing five people.
February's mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas, then the eighth school shooting of the year, moved the young survivors-turned-activists to push lawmakers to address gun violence in American schools with comprehensive gun control legislation, including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
"They don't know what it's like to be 20 feet from an AR-15," Parkland survivor Alfonso Calderon, 16, told students at a Washington charter school this week, referring to US lawmakers.
Calderon and other Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivors attended a #NeverAgain -- as their movement is known -- rally this week at Washington's Thurgood Marshall Academy, where two students were killed in separate neighborhood shootings during the last year.
"Every single day you wake up and it might be a thought in your head, 'I might die today,'" Calderon told the students.
"I only had to go through it once. You guys go through it every single day. This isn't a discussion anymore. This is action because that's what we need."
Some Parkland students also met congressional leaders this week at the US Capitol.
"No student should ever have to cover themselves with a deceased classmate to survive, but I was that student," shooting survivor Aalayah Eastmond said.
"And we can't only focus on school shootings though. Urban communities and low-income communities have always been hit with gun violence. I lost my uncle due to gun violence in Brooklyn 15 years ago, and nothing has changed. Columbine happened. Nothing changed. Sandy Hook happened. Nothing changed. Parkland happened. Nothing changed."
Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Common and Lin-Manuel Miranda are expected to attend the march in Washington, according to the event's website.
And celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney and Steven Spielberg each donated $500,000 last month to the march's fund.
More than 800 other events are planned across the United States and in cities overseas Saturday, including London, Madrid, Paris, Tokyo and Seoul, according to the march website.
On April 20, activists are calling for another national school walkout on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.
"In all honesty, they do not care if we do not get out and vote," Parkland student David Hogg said at Thurgood Marshall Academy, referring to politicians.
"If we do not stand up and make our voices heard as Americans, they will not take action."