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March diaries: Local students’ view of the protest

On Saturday, March 24, over 800,000 protesters turned out to demonstrate against gun violence in the mall in Washington D.C. for the March for Our Lives protest, with approximately 800 similar rallies across the country. Believed to be the largest single-day protest in Washington's history, what further marks March for Our Lives as a historical and unique event is that it was primarily organized and populated by high school students who are frightened, angry and motivated to demand change in our nation's gun laws following the massacre at Margory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018.

Contrary to some information, student demonstrators and their adult supporters are not seeking to repeal the Second Amendment, nor prevent legal gun ownership, but to provide safe gun ownership, some gun control and protection, including universal background checks, to ban bump stocks, to add red flag laws, and increase mental health funding.

Civil disobedience has a long history in this country, going back to our nation's very beginning with the Revolutionary War and our Declaration of Independence, as does leadership from youth seeking change. Many of the Founding Fathers – writers and signers of the Declaration of Independence – were under 40, and a majority younger than 35 at the time. Alexander Hamilton was 20 when he became George Washington's senior aide, and just 32 when he created our monetary system. Closer to our time, college students fought against racial injustice in the civil rights era, including some Freedom Fighters, and college students throughout the United States helped to galvanize momentum to turn the tide against the Vietnam War.

Downtown newsmagazine asked two local high school students who attended March for Our Lives in Washington D.C., Debra Moraitis, a junior at Bloomfield Hills High School, and Isabella Said of Birmingham, a senior at Seaholm High School, to take us with them on their journey to provide a first-hand look at the experience.

Isabella Said

When I first heard about the official March For Our Lives rally, I was all too familiar with the uproar by the students of Parkland. I was in New York on vacation at the time, definitely not the time to ask my dad to go on yet another trip in less than a month. When he told me that if I paid my way he would agree to it, I knew I was set on going to D.C. to participate in the rally.

In the airport at the terminal it was a little hard to tell who was going to the march. In the airport I was starting to get a little nervous, I didn’t know what to expect at all. I knew that it was history in the making but the only history I had been a part of was the Women’s March the past two years. I felt great to be surrounded by all those people, empowered by the movement. It was a new feeling – to be surrounded by people that wanted to same positive change as me, and I greatly enjoyed being a part of it. I hoped that this would be similar to what I felt in the rally the next day. They predicted about 500,000 people to come to the rally the next day, so I knew it would be more amazing than I hoped. I was excited to be in a rally where I would be standing with my fellow students, fighting for our rights to be safe in our school. While I always had faith in my generation, seeing what progress these Parkland students have made, and then seeing adults behind us and supporting us, makes me even more proud of my generation. I’m filled with pride knowing that we’ve already come so far.

The first day in D.C. was the day before the march, so once my dad and I arrived to Baltimore we were able to take the train to D.C. and explore for the day. We ate lunch at Union Station and then went to the museum that houses all the presidential portraits (National Portrait Gallery). We both wanted to stop by the March For Our Lives pop-up shop and get some merchandise to wear to the rally the next day. The pop-up shop was very cool – there was a lot to choose from and it was nice to see a store supporting the cause in a way that is directing money into the movement. I got a March For Our Lives sweatshirt, two shirts, and a hat that said “resist” on it for my dad.

The next morning we woke up at 8 a.m. and got ready to leave for the train station by 8:30. Once we got to the station I started seeing a lot of other people with shirts and signs getting ready to go to the march. My dad and I decided we’d forgo the coffee and breakfast and just eat bars that we packed with us. We took the train and once we ended up in Union Station, we headed straight for the Metro. Thankfully we got ahead of some of the line since we had already used the Metro the day before and had cards. We also luckily were in the same place the day before so we were familiar with the area. We got to the Metro and took the correct train to get to Gallery-Place. Once we got to Gallery-Place it was clear this was not any normal Saturday. As soon as we took the extra long escalator up to the street, we were bombarded with people from every side, those trying to sell souvenirs such as pins, shirts, sweatshirts, etc.

While trying to bypass those selling things, and with our cameras in hand, we proceeded straight ahead for the next three blocks. As we continued and snapped shots as we went the crowd seemed to condense and soon enough, we were packed like sardines. I’m pretty sure that we were like that for about an hour or so, just filtering into the blocked off area at a snail's pace. Once we came to a full stop my dad suggested that this was as good as it was going to get. We rushed off to the side and got away from the main block. We continued going up and up until we found the closest we could reach on the left side of the stage. We couldn’t see the stage but we could make out the Jumbotron video screens they used to show everyone’s speeches, and waited for two hours for the speeches to start. During that time we spoke with a couple MSD alumni, took many pictures, and tried to stay warm. At 12:15 pm, after hours of waiting, it finally began.

First there was a singer and since I was pretty far away, I couldn’t tell who it was. Then, suddenly a space opened up and my dad told me to go. I walked until I magically found the gate. There was a tiny sliver of space next to a woman. She noticed me, and moved over and let me in. I was so thankful because although the paparazzi section blocked the sight of the stage, through the trees we could make out the screens showcasing the speeches. Artist after artist, speech after speech, there was a common theme. Each and every speaker was a young adult who had had gun violence reach them personally in life. Students from Parkland, Newtown, D.C., Baltimore, and Chicago spoke. An 11-year-old who had organized a march at her elementary school spoke as well as Jaclyn Corin, who brought out Martin Luther King’s granddaughter. I was in awe. As one student said, “When I look out I see brothers and sisters.” Those couple of hours, we were all connected, all united under one cause.

Before that day, I don’t believe I had seen people more concentrated in one space before. Finally it was Emma’s (Gonzalez) turn to speak. The portion of her speech where she spoke was probably one minute and 30 seconds. Then, she was silent. At first, probably the first 30 seconds, it was completely silent. I was shocked that this 18-year-old girl yielded so much power. She managed to bring over half a million people to silence.

I was wondering how long it was going to last. Seven minutes for each life lost? Then I realized; six minutes and 22 seconds. The time it took the shooter to take 17 lives. That was something that shook everyone to their core. Before we could even process it, the speech was over and the rally was done. I was so proud to be there with everyone else, united.

I went home that night, and was so exhausted from standing for seven hours straight that I slept until mid-afternoon the next day. I am still in shock of the fact that we managed to bring out 800,000 people for a rally and show everyone that we mean business. I do hope this reflects in the polls this coming elections, and while I won’t be 18 yet to vote, I hope this brings in a new age where young voters are excited to get out and fight for their lives and what they believe in.

Debra Moraitis

I remember having a lot of questions throughout my childhood that only adults could answer for me. Like many others, growing up, I’d become accustomed to the light-hearted response, “Aw, honey. It’s a grown-up thing. I’ll tell you about it when you’re older.” So, silent and passive, my curiosity grew, until I realized that if there’s something I’m eager to learn or accomplish, my age should not be a limiting factor. The knowledge I seek isn’t unattainable just because I don’t have a 401k or a mortgage. At 17-years-old, I never imagined that I would be capable of planning, financing and leading a group of over 50 people halfway across the country to fight for a cause we believe in, or that I would personally gain the support of my district congressman, the Oakland County treasurer, local businesses, or news outlets along the way. However, I’ve come to learn that you are as capable as you let yourself become, and that your age shouldn’t discredit your ability to change the world.

I became involved in the March For Our Lives movement through taking on a leadership role in the national school walkout on March 14th, only ten days earlier, where students across the nation were encouraged to get up and leave their classrooms in order to protest against gun-violence in schools. With the consensus of our student-activist-planning group at Bloomfield Hills High School, I was chosen to be a speaker for our walkout, leading chants and explaining our purpose of gathering in the courtyard that day. “When I walk into a classroom, I should be worried about my homework, not my life.” I concluded my speech.

During the planning process of the walkout, though, something in me was stirring, and I couldn’t get rid of this overwhelming feeling that I could do more. “What’s next? What happens after

the walkout?” I kept asking myself, and that was when I found the official website for the March For Our Lives – a national demonstration for gun control in Washington D.C. led by the student survivors from Parkland in collaboration with the non-profit organization Everytown for Gun Safety. It was scheduled for noon on March 24th on Pennsylvania Avenue between 3rd and 12th street and the more I read about it, the more I thought like, Debra….you HAVE to go. This is going to be HUGE.

The journey began at 10:30 p.m. on March 23rd where all of the participants – 55 total – and their parents met at Bloomfield Hills High School for a meeting run by my co-leaders Ava Singer, Sophie Sherbin and I, as well as our advisor and teacher, Karen Twomey.

Though supportive, I could tell some parents were kind of on edge about sending their kids halfway across the country to get involved in such a heavy political movement. In a crowd estimated to be anywhere from 200,000 to one million people, possible violence at this event was a concern across the nation, and rightfully so. Even my mother was hesitant to let me take on this project. I explained the itinerary very clearly, answering questions along the way. Of course they were nervous that this was planned by students and not the school board. That’s why it was important for me to explain that this wasn’t a field trip. It’s a movement, and with that, there are certain inherent risks. And while it may be scary for parents, this is something we, students, feel called to do, to protect ourselves and the generations after us. This was the ultimate opportunity to present our maturity, responsibility, passion, and knowledge about something that impacts us all – regardless of our race, political ideology, sexual orientation, religion, creed,

The bus ride was about 10 hours long, and we made two stops during the night on the way there. At 2:50 a.m., I was in the peak of my sleep as the bus screeched to a halt in the seemingly middle of nowhere. I sent out a text to the group to be back on the bus in 15 minutes sharp. Let me just say, you never know how truly hungry you are until you smell french fries at three in the morning.

Though uncomfortable and exhausting at times, our journey continued with a positive, high energy – everybody too inspired to complain – even when I woke them up at the crack of dawn for our second stop by shouting into my megaphone, “Good morning krusty crew!”

We arrived in Washington and packed our lunches for the day into our drawstring bags. All the chips, cookies, fruit, water bottles, and other snacks were donated by people at home and students’ families.

We took some quick group photos, and began our stride. As we passed the White House, we noticed the dozens and dozens of rally signs just sprawled over the walkway and green-area before it – each one crafted with passion and research and pain. The one that stuck out to me the most was painted, “Today I march for the 50 people killed in June 2016. We still hear your Pulse, Orlando #MarchForTHEIRLives" because it was a reminder that even though the national spotlight is on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school community, this movement is not just about Parkland, Florida. It’s about the hate crimes, accidents, and perpetuated violence that guns contribute to in our culture. But, don’t get me wrong. This movement is NOT anti-gun. It’s pro gun-control and regulation.

The group and I agreed that we were marching for B.A.B.Y. Steps: Ban bump stocks; Age minimum 21; Background checks universally; and Yes to funding mental health, counselors, social workers and smaller class sizes. Marching with us for these regulations was our district’s congressman, Sander Levin (D-Royal Oak, Bloomfield Township). Meeting him was such an honor. Once we arrived to D.C. around 10 a.m., he had a light breakfast spread made out for us in his office, and as we ate he introduced himself. He expressed how proud he was of, us, the students from his district, as well as those across the nation for “taking charge.” He shared some stories about his family and told us about a speech he gave, himself, advocating for gun-control, back when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. From there, he walked and chanted with us, two miles down, to the March For Our Lives rally on Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street.

Marching behind Rep. Sander Levin sent this overwhelming confidence through the group. We weren’t just “a bunch of kids” anymore – we were supported by our congressional representative. At a rest stop earlier in the morning, everyone was given a neon poster board and assigned a letter. Together, the 55 of us held up our signs to create the message: Stop Choosing Sides, Start Choosing Solutions. Random passersby on the street paused to take photos of our group with Levin – we were being cheered on by strangers everywhere we went, meeting people from all around the country. The entire city was filled with passion that day; the atmosphere was so positive and uplifting, despite the tragedies that gathered us together. I’d never experienced such an intense feeling of unity.

For the full two miles down Pennsylvania Avenue, we were chanting, even with the wind freezing our throats. By the end of the day, our voices were cracking and the cold sweat from the morning clung to our skin. We were warriors. Our group arrived at the march around noon and stopped dead in our tracks at the sight of the neverending sea of protestors. I was expecting there to be a large turnout, but I was absolutely stunned at the set-up of the march. It was unlike anything I’d ever been apart of.

I’d never been to a public demonstration before and didn’t really know what to expect. My only experience with my right to peacefully assemble was in my school courtyard, which, compared to the rally in Washington, was miniscule. The bass drum in the music playing made my whole body perk up; I didn’t want to miss a beat. I wanted to see and absorb every inch of the scene because this was history.

There were march officials on every corner trying to register people to vote and there were giant screens and speakers set up all along the roads where people gathered to watch what was happening on the main stage. There were breathtaking performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, Andra Day, and more – even Malala Yousafzai sent a video message to show her support. It was so reassuring to have these artists and major public figures showing their support through performing and making a presence at the march.

I found myself breaking down into hot tears during 11-year-old Naomi Wadler’s speech, where she stated that, “this is for all the African American girls who’ve fallen victim to gun violence, whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper.” I thought about the missing white girls like Amelia Earhart, Jonbenet Ramsey, and Natalee Holloway who are still getting media coverage and follow-up reports, when there are hundreds of women of color who go missing and don’t garner as much national attention, if any at all. It made me wonder how long people would look for me if I went missing. It created such a salient moment of reflection for myself and my classmates to acknowledge our privileges and how we can use them to create positive change. I stood hugging my friend, Ava Singer, as we both wiped each others’ tears and continued listening to our brave peers from across the nation.

The hairs on my body stood upright as students like Jaclyn Corin, Alex Wind, Cameron Kasky, and David Hogg spoke, but the most impactful speech, for me, was Emma González’s. As she listed the things her dead classmates would never be able to do again, it was reiterated that these kids had lives as complex and intricate as my own, not be remembered as a number: "Six minutes and 20 seconds with an AR-15,” Emma explained, “and my friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice. Aaron Feis would never call Kira, 'Miss Sunshine.' Alex Schachter would never walk into school with his brother Ryan. Scott Beigel would never joke around with Cameron at camp…” The way she was able to silence the crowd made me audibly gasp. Never in my life did I ever think one person could silence 800,000 others with just one solemn expression. Now, that is power. We were motionless as the only sound on the loudspeakers was her muffled cries and steady breathing. People around us were sobbing with bowed heads, strangers were holding hands in solitude, and my group had our elbows linked with our eyes fixed on the stage – absolutely mesmerized by the intensity of her voice and confidence in her stance. The whole time I kept thinking about how we’re all the same age. Only a couple short years separate kids like me and these nationally acclaimed activists. You don’t need a law degree to fight for changing laws.

As the march died down, we began walking to our dinner reservation at the Old Ebbitt Grill, which was kind enough to give a us a “student activism” discount and the bus picked us up outside the restaurant. At the start of the ride home, we were buzzing with stories of excitement from the day. But, soon everyone let the exhaustion sink in, our adrenaline cooled down, and mostly everyone took a well-needed nap. However, I couldn’t sleep. I was restless with success because we’d actually done it!

It’s ethereal, especially when you know that your words and actions are contributing to the empowerment and improvement of your country. I am confident that if we keep this up, it will result in real legal change. While traveling to the march by myself would have been an experience of its own, what touches my heart is the fact that I was able to share this opportunity with 54 other people from my county. Overall, the March For Our Lives was a stunningly beautiful experience. I am so proud to have been one of the thousands there in D.C., and even though I wore my voice out, I’m honored to have used it for such an important cause. ­

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