Editors note: This story was updated to reflect the commentary of Rep. Tony Cárdenas.
Mixed into the diverse and expansive crowd were 15 CSUN students who have been living near Capitol Hill as part of the CSUN in DC program. Jordan Dixon-Hamilton, a graduating political science senior, donned his Trump shirt, “Make America Great Again” headband and a sign that called to arm teachers with books, not guns.
“I don’t agree with everything [the protesters] have to say, but it doesn’t take away from my appreciation of the message,” Dixon-Hamilton said. “This is one of those historical moments I can tell my children about.”
Hundreds of thousands of protesters from around the country descended on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. on Saturday, March 24, as part of an incisive and growing response to the threat of gun violence in the United States.
The March on Washington for Gun Control, otherwise known as the March For Our Lives, was organized by the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The rally marked the cumulative effort to honor the 14 students and three faculty members killed on Feb. 14.
The city’s streets were engulfed with people by noon. Hordes of students and teenagers marched through the capital to the rallying point, snapping photos of their signs and leading chants along the way. Christian Roberts, a 15-year-old high school student from Maryland, was flanked by her parents and grandparents as she held a sign asking “Am I next?”
“People in my school are scared,” Roberts said. “I knew I needed to be a part of this.”
Police and volunteers ushered the crowds through barricades and fences and into the cordoned off streets. A large stage and an elaborate broadcasting system commandeered the audience’s attention, as a gospel choir-backed performance by Common echoed through the neighborhood. Although largely financed and attended by celebrities like George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Kanye West and Jennifer Hudson, it was clear the youth were in charge.
“But what gives me hope is all the young people who are leading this movement. They’re not waiting to be led. They’re not asking permission. They are standing up in the schools and in the streets and they are saying that enough is enough,” a statement from Rep. Tony Cárdenas said. “Now our critics will say that it’s all too complicated. That change will never happen. But with our young people leading the way, I believe we can, and we will, change things. We simply don’t have a choice.”
Edna Chavez, a South Los Angeles high school student, discussed the normalcy of gun violence in her neighborhood. She teared up as she recounted her brother Ricardo’s death, saying she learned how to duck from bullets before she learned how to read. The audience somberly chanted Ricardo’s name, followed by shouts of “never again.”
Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old from Virginia, spoke about how she organized an 18-minute walk-out at her elementary school to honor the Parkland victims and Courtlin Arrington, a high school senior who was shot and killed at her school in Alabama. She wore an orange price tag for $1.05 on her wrist, a statement about how much the 3.1 million students in Florida are worth to their representatives who accepted money from the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Yolanda Renee King, the 9-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr., was accompanied on stage by one of the Parkland survivors and organizers of the rally.
“My grandfather had a dream that his four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” King said. “I have a dream that enough is enough.”
The atmosphere in the audience swayed between solemnity and inspiration, as chants of “vote them out” and “change now” rippled for blocks. The screens flashed images of families sobbing and hugging: a distinct reminder of what they were here fighting for.
Thirty minutes before the end of the march, Emma Gonzalez took the stage. As one of the most notable survivors and activists to come out of the Parkland tragedy, the crowd went wild screaming her name. She named all 17 victims, her friends, and then went silent. Tears pouring down her face, chest heaving, as she looked firmly into the crowd.
One by one, the audience raised their fists in solidarity. All of the hundreds of thousands of protesters were silent, with only Gonzalez’s breath piercing the air. She was on stage for 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the same amount of time it took for her 17 classmates and teachers to be gunned down. A single tear streamed down Dixon-Hamilton’s face.
Sarah Greenblat, a 71-year-old from Collingswood, New Jersey, was visibly shaken by Gonzalez’s words.
“This has been a huge issue that this country has buried for so long and [the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students] have finally escalated it and brought passion and energy to it,” Greenblat said. “I feel hope for the first time in a long long time.”
The rally was over, but for the Parkland survivors and the others affected by gun violence, this was only the beginning. Over 800 sister March For Our Lives occurred that day, including one held at CSUN. The message robustly shared across each city was that of the power of the new generations, and the hope they can conjure.
“Where they embrace an extremism of complacency, we embrace the extremism of love,” said Matt Post, a high school senior. “Where they believe in the absolutism of an amendment, we believe in the absolutism of human life.”