‘A Sea of People Everywhere’: Generation Shaped by Gun Violence Stages Nationwide Walkouts to Make Itself Heard

In an unprecedented show of unity and political solidarity, waves of students marched out of class Wednesday to demand stricter gun laws and an end to school massacres.

The National School Walkout started at 10 a.m. ET and will continue across the country at 10 a.m. in each time zone. The protest was sparked by last month’s school massacre in Florida and fueled by years of anger about what many say are inadequate gun laws.

“This is not a matter of left versus right. This is a matter of public safety,” said Cate Whitman, a junior at LaGuardia High School in New York. “We’re all working together, which is something we haven’t seen from the adults in a very long time.”

Students participate in a rally on Capitol Hill with other students from DC, Maryland and Virginia in their Solidarity Walk-Out to urge Republican leaders in Congress "to allow votes on gun violence prevention legislation," March 14, 2018. (Credit: Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images)

Students participate in a rally on Capitol Hill with other students from DC, Maryland and Virginia in their Solidarity Walk-Out to urge Republican leaders in Congress “to allow votes on gun violence prevention legislation,” March 14, 2018. (Credit: Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images)

Those participating have three main demands for Congress:

— Ban assault weapons;

— Require universal background checks before gun sales;

— Pass a gun violence restraining order law that would allow courts to disarm people who display warning signs of violent behavior.

Students planned to stay outside for at least 17 minutes — one minute for each of the 17 people killed at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School exactly one month ago.

Students at Stoneman Douglas said they were overwhelmed by the nationwide support.

There’s a “sea of people everywhere. You can barely see the ground,” Stoneman Douglas student Sam Zeif said. “It really shows us we’re not alone.”

In Hoboken, New Jersey, students chanted, “I am a bullet-free zone,” and some held signs that read, “Chalk not Glocks!”

Escorted by slow-moving police cars, students from Maryland’s Montgomery Blair High School marched to a Metro station, where they boarded a train to the White House.

By 10 a.m., students covered the area in front of the White House, chanting, “We want change!”

“History has its EYES on you,” one student’s sign read, though President Donald Trump wasn’t scheduled to be at the White House at that time.

In New York, students warned lawmakers that they are the future — and will soon be old enough to vote officials out of office if they don’t pass tougher laws.

“We are the change!” they chanted.

Walkout goes global

From Israel to Tanzania, students across the globe also left their classrooms Wednesday in solidarity with the American students’ movement. In some places, students talked with teachers about “how lucky they are” that guns aren’t a part of their everyday lives.

Eduard Štrébl, a senior at Walworth Barbour American International School in Israel, organized the walkout on his campus.

“I’m from Prague, Czech (Republic), and I’m not American,” he said. “But to see an epidemic of school shootings in a developed country when it’s so easy to limit such things, to see that there is nothing being done against that, that inspired me to organize the walkout here.”

Why some students disagree

Some students chose not to walk out with their classmates — and for different reasons.

Austin Roth, a senior at Lapeer High School in Michigan, said he’s “100% supportive of those who choose to be in the national walkout to show they care about the lives lost in Florida and every other school shooting.”

“However, I am not supportive of those who use a tragic event to push their political agendas, such as gun control,” he said.

Instead of walking out, Austin and other young Republicans from his school gathered in the cafeteria to voice their opinions.

Austin, 17, says he’s a “staunch Republican” who carries a copy of the Constitution in his pocket.

“I do support federal background checks, (and) I’m not completely against raising the age to 21” to buy firearms, Austin said.

A student shouts during a rally on Capitol Hill with other students from DC, Maryland and Virginia in their Solidarity Walk-Out to urge Republican leaders in Congress "to allow votes on gun violence prevention legislation," March 14, 2018. (Credit: Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images)

A student shouts during a rally on Capitol Hill with other students from DC, Maryland and Virginia in their Solidarity Walk-Out to urge Republican leaders in Congress “to allow votes on gun violence prevention legislation,” March 14, 2018. (Credit: Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images)

But he said he strongly disagrees with the notion of banning assault rifles, saying they can be useful when confronted with multiple burglars or other criminals.

“Guns are not the problem. The people are the problem,” Austin said.

In Minnesota, 16-year-old Noah Borba said he didn’t walk out because he doesn’t fully support the movement.

“Because I have yet to have heard many good ideas, the movement seems too vague for my liking, and I would not like to associate myself with something I could end up disagreeing with in the future,” said the Buffalo High School sophomore.

While it would be “pretty cool” if the country banned assault rifles, “I don’t think logistically it’s realistic” to get rid of all the assault rifles already out there, Noah said.

Not just about school massacres

Organizers from the Women’s March youth branch called for students across the US to walk out of class on March 14, to pressure lawmakers to act on gun control. In addition to walkouts, students across the country planned rallies, marches and sit-ins — some in open defiance of their school districts.

Participants said they want to make sure calls for change in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, take into account the full context of gun violence in the United States.

For D’Angelo McDade, a senior at North Lawndale College Prep High School in Chicago, gun violence is personal — but not because of a shooting at school.

He was shot in the thigh as he sat on his front porch last summer, leaving bullet fragments in his body, he said. So, D’Angelo took the lead in organizing his school’s walkout Wednesday.

“Many of our community members and young adults have established a sense of hopelessness and normalized the suffering that comes with gun violence,” he said. “But they’re ready to see a change.”

Penalties for walking out

Some school districts have said they will discipline students who participate in the walkouts.

Students who leave classes in New Richmond, Ohio, for instance, will receive an “unexcused tardy,” the district said. For students in Montgomery County, Maryland, walking out will count as an unexcused absence.

In the Atlanta suburb of Cobb County, Georgia, the school district said it will take disciplinary action — ranging from Saturday school to five days’ suspension, per district guidelines — against students who walk out, citing safety concerns.

The prospect deterred some students, but not all of them, Pope High School senior Kara Litwin said.

“Change never happens without backlash,” she said Tuesday. “This is a movement, this is not simply a moment, and this is only the first step in our long process.”

Outside Walton High School in Cobb County, some parents stood Wednesday morning with signs reading, “Children Over Guns” and “We Demand Action!”

Demonstrators lie on the ground a "lie-in" demonstration supporting gun control reform near the White House on Feb. 19, 2018. (Credit: Zach Gibson / Getty Images)

Demonstrators lie on the ground a “lie-in” demonstration supporting gun control reform near the White House on Feb. 19, 2018. (Credit: Zach Gibson / Getty Images)

Growing up in the shadow of gun violence

Students who planned to participate in the walkouts said they feel their generation has been profoundly shaped by the specter of gun violence. By raising their voices, they hoped they will be the last kids to grow up with metal detectors and active shooter drills.

Sam Craig of Littleton, Colorado, was born after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting that put his hometown on the map. But the tragedy shaped his life.

He grew up with school lockdown drills undertaken in the name of Columbine. His internship at the Denver Zoo includes live shooter drills and references to Columbine. He knows a teacher who was at Columbine during the shooting and openly shares his view that school staff should not be armed, Sam said.

But the Chatfield High School junior said the community is stronger because of the shooting. People look out for each other because they don’t want anyone to feel “pushed to the point of no return” like the Columbine shooters, he said.

Each year, the town comes together on the anniversary for a day of service, he said.

“We try to find that balance to make our community more connected and loving,” said Sam, who is organizing the walkout at his school.

Abigail Orton, a junior at Columbine High School, said she was inspired to take action on Wednesday by the quick progress of the Parkland students.

“I am absolutely amazed at the amount that they’ve already accomplished, getting their voices out there and being able to speak on this so recently after the event, and to be able to use their status to start bringing about change,” she said.

“I’m honored to be able to call this my generation and to be part of this movement.”

Scenes too familiar

Jackson Mittleman was 11 and in sixth grade when a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary, two miles from his school. The tragedy changed the course of his life.

Now 16, he’s a gun control advocate who supported Wednesday’s school walkout.

“A message we’re trying to send to Parkland is we stand behind them,” said Jackson, co-chair of the Jr. Newtown Action Alliance, who organized the walkout at Newtown High School. “We are motivated, and we are fired up to push as hard as they push and fight as long as they fight.”

When Mittleman opened a news alert on his phone on Valentine’s Day and saw students with their hands raised, fleeing a shooting, his heart ached for the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

He saw yet another community joining what he calls a family “no one wants to be a part of.”

He asked himself, “Is it ever going to stop?”