‘Kids don’t feel safe at school’: The walkout for gun control

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‘Kids don’t feel safe at school’: The walkout for gun control

by Joel Lev-Tov

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It’s 7:45 on Thursday, March 14. Michael Solomon,  president of MoCo For Change, and Simon Debesai, vice president of MoCo For Change, are frantically trying to organize the walkout at Springbrook —  coordinating with a security guard to get kids to the right place. It’s ironic, considering the marked lack of endorsement from MCPS and Dr. Williams.

By around 8:00, the waiting was over. The bus  finally arrived. Approximately two or three dozen students got on the bus — enough to fill it completely. Solomon and Debesai ended up standing.

photo by Joel Lev-Tov

The students were handed a half sheet of paper, advising them on best practices, courtesy of, at least in part, Dr. Williams. The irony is striking: Despite clear disapproval of the walkout from MCPS and Dr. Williams, the latter still seemingly wanted to exercise control over the walkout. The paper advised against using profanity, instructed students to stay on sidewalks and respect law enforcement, and suggested some chants, including “We want change!” The chants heard at the protest would prove to be much more creative.

 

The students are let off at a Metro station after a fairly long ride. Soon a train comes to take them to DC. They fill up at least one car, and make themselves comfortable for the 40 minute trip to the nation’s capital. Midway on the trip, the students see fellow protesters from Northwood High School waiting at the platform to join them. A big cheer goes through the crowd as the Northwood students enter the car.

 

A few minutes later, the students arrive in DC. They go through the streets chanting, in a call-and-response fashion, “What do we want?” “Gun control!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”, and “Can you all show me what democracy looks like?” “This is what democracy looks like!”, as well as “No more silence; end gun violence!” But at 10:05, the students become eerily quiet. They’re within spitting distance of the White House, where students are commemorating the Parkland victims with 17 minutes of silence —  one for each victim. The only sound that can be heard as the students arrive at the White House is that of feet hitting the ground, as well as the occasional police siren in the distance. Several students have their hands up, many with the words “Don’t Shoot” inscribed on their hands.

photo by Joel Lev-Tov
Students sit in silence, commemorating the victims of the Parkland massacre.

Eventually, the students file out of the White House grounds and onto Constitution Avenue towards the Capitol, where several thousand of them march and hold signs calling for action on gun control. The signs range from asking “Am I next?” to one stating “I should be writing my college essay, not my will.” to one warning that “Our blood will be on your hands!” Several of these students came from Montgomery County, where they, in difference to other countries, were punished with unexcused absences for their activism.

 

When asked to respond to criticism that the students were disrupting the school learning environment, Simon Debesai argued: “Kids are walking out of school because they don’t think it’s safe enough for them to be there. Every day they go to school, there’s a possibility of them getting shot or killed. I think that a walkout is one of the things that gains the most attention and as a student it’s one of the ways you can have the loudest voice because education is priceless and something that we’re willing to sacrifice in order to push for something we’re passionate about.”

The rally took place in front of the Capitol and boasted 16 speakers, including Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who represents part of Montgomery County and Frederick County, Congressman Ted Deutch of Florida, who represents the area where the Parkland school shooting occurred, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Havana Chapman-Edwards, an 8-year-old activist, and Kate Ranta, a survivor of gun violence.

 

Dani Miller, the co-president of MoCo for Change, announced the places that Congress had failed. “Congress failed the victims of the Parkland massacre. Their thoughts and prayers did not stop any bullets, did not wipe away the tears of weeping parents, did not wash away the blood-stained love letters. Six years before, Congress failed Trayvon [Martin], then Philando [Castile], then Santa Barbara, then Pulse [Nightclub], then DC, then Las Vegas, then Charleston. Since Parkland, Congress has failed Great Mills [High School], and Santa Fe [High School], and DC some more, and Thousand Oaks, and Aurora, and all of America.” She went on to say, “We are here today because we have to be. Because we have been failed by every single institution that’s supposed to protect us. By the people in that building right behind us [Congress]. By previous generations. By anyone who ignores our pleas to survive. Our friends are dying, so we march.

photo by Joel Lev-Tov
Dani Miller speaks at the rally.

The turnout ended up being much bigger than the previous year. At the beginning of the day, before the students boarded the bus, Simon Debesai told The Blueprint that he expected turnout to be close to that of the previous year. “Last time we had a very, very large amount of people, but one thing we need to remember is that this walkout was at a time when there was so much emotion involved and there were so many people that felt like they were being attacked in their own classrooms and that there was the possibility of this happening. I think we’re definitely going to get over 1,000 people and I definitely think that any amount is a good amount because we’re raising awareness.”

 

Reacting to the sheer size of the crowd, Michael Solomon expressed his amazement. “This is surreal: I mean, we did this last year. This is way more than last year! We surpassed I think all the prior expectations. I’m excited to see where it goes from here. This is definitely worth all of the hard work we’ve been doing over the last months.”

 

Nate Tinbite, a candidate for Student Member of the Board of Education and a part of MoCo for Change, commented that the fact that national leaders spoke was very important. “Many of these people are younger than 18. If they see leaders — national leaders — they might say, ‘Well,I can be one of them. I can champion the same issues. Let me make my cause greater.’ It’s inspiring. It’s great! And we just want to make sure that [the adults] serve as the inspiration and also hold their colleagues to a level where they should listen to their constituents.”

 

Debesai stated that the walkout was a way to bring attention back to the issue of gun control. “I think it’s going to bring this argument back into the news cycle. … We’re trying to create a movement so that people actually start talking about this. A lot of people stopped talking about this after Parkland happened. This was supposed to be a movement that brought gun violence to the table but I think mainstream media is just so focused in that new scoop and getting that new story that they forget about some of the things that really, really matter.”

 

At one point in the rally, Rep. Ted Deutch asked the crowd to raise their hands if they are under 18. Almost the entire crowd raised their hands. Deutch told those students “Every one of you with your hands up is about to become a voter.”

photo by Joel Lev-Tov
“How many of you are under 18?” Ted Deutch asked the crowd.

Simon Debesai expressed optimism for the fate of gun control from a political standpoint, despite the Republican Senate: “Within the next four years, a lot is going to change. … There’s another midterm election. There’s going to be another presidential election. There are some candidates I definitely know I can get behind. I’ll be voting in the 2020 election. And if I had any say in the issue, then I’m definitely going to try to do everything in my power to make sure that we have a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate.”

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