Student activists in Wisconsin are building on momentum from this weekend’s March for Our Lives by embarking on a four-day, 50-mile march to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hometown to call for stricter gun control laws.
The group of 40 students set off from Madison in the direction of Janesville on Sunday in 37-degree weather, wearing their warmest winter clothes and best walking shoes. Some wore shirts that said “50 Miles More.”
The idea for “March for Our Lives: 50 Miles More” came to a group of students at Shorewood High School — in a suburb of Milwaukee — as they were discussing ways to continue raising their voices on the issue of gun reform after Saturday’s national march.
“I think we have a unique opportunity because the speaker of the House is the most important member of the House, and he’s from Wisconsin,” said 17-year-old Brendan Fardella, one of the march organizers. “This is a unique way to catch his attention and call him out for his constant burying of possible gun legislation that would save hundreds of lives every day in this country.”
AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman, said via email Sunday that “the speaker appreciates those making their voices heard today.”
The students were also inspired by civil rights leaders of the 1960s, who organized the multiday, 54-mile Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama.
“At that time, people said what they were marching for was impossible,” said 18-year-old Katie Eder, another march organizer. “They made the impossible possible. We’re picking up where the young people of that time left off.”
The students’ demands align with those of the #NeverAgain movement, which organized the March for Our Lives after the deadly school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
According to a list of demands on their website, they want lawmakers to ban military-style weapons and accessories that transform firearms from semi-automatic to automatic, impose a four-day waiting period for all gun sales, require background checks on all gun buyers, and raise the legal age to purchase to 21.
“What cheeses off kids in Wisconsin? BS Gun laws,” the 50 Mile More marchers wrote on social media earlier this month.
Students: ‘It’s a human rights issue’
The Shorewood students used social media to organize and spread word of their march in Wisconsin. Then, on Saturday night, they bussed students willing to march from other high schools from around the state to Madison.
“We don’t see this as a political issue,” Fardella said, noting the students marching fall across the political spectrum. “It’s a human rights issue.”
The group — made up of high school, middle school and some elementary school kids (who got parental permission to join) — spent Saturday evening bonding, making posters and fueling themselves with Mexican food.
“Our lives > your money from the NRA,” said one sign.
WISC-TV reporter Susan Siman also spoke to the students to give them tips on being authentic with media ahead of their march.
“50 Miles More is the modern-day ‘Breakfast Club,'” she told the students.
‘HEAR US ROAR, 50 MILES MORE’
The students are chaperoned by adults who have all undergone background checks, said Aileen Berquist, a march spokesperson. Eder described the chaperones as “adult allies.”
The group plans on trekking about 13 miles a day. They hope to arrive in Janesville on March 28 around noon.
The students will be taking a combination of side streets, back roads, trails and other low-traffic areas in a route that was planned out in coordination with their adult advisers, including the Shorewood superintendent and local sheriff. They will not be walking in the street, Berquist said.
50 Miles More have organized the trek along with the organizations Urban Underground, Wisconsin Anti Violence Effort and March On. This last group, March On, launched an email campaign to help the students secure funding, Berquist said. Food for participants was either donated by local organizations or bought using funds the students raised.
Still, Berquist noted, “The vast majority of the planning, organizing, and sweat that went into this march was put in by students who have been working nonstop since the Parkland shooting.”
At each mile, the marchers will honor a victim of gun violence. The students have also been tweeting out names and ages of victims.
To keep up morale, some students on Sunday carried speakers blasting music. At mile four, their song of choice was “The Story of Tonight” from the musical “Hamilton.”
“Thanks for the inspiration @Lin_Manuel,” the group tweeted at “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
They also chanted: “HEAR US ROAR! 50 MILES MORE!”
‘We know what we are talking about’
Despite contacting Ryan’s office, the student activists said they have not heard back from the Republican speaker of the House.
During a news conference in February, Ryan signaled he isn’t supportive of proposals to impose new restrictions on gun purchases, telling reporters, “We shouldn’t be banning guns for law-abiding citizens.”
“Of course we want to listen to these kids, but we also want to make sure that we protect people’s due process rights and legal constitutional rights while making sure that people who should not get guns don’t get them,” Ryan said of the demands made by survivors of the deadly school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The survivors met with high-profile congressional leaders — including Ryan — on February 27. During the meeting, Ryan expressed a willingness for “moving quickly” on proposals to address gun violence, according to Florida Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, who represents Parkland, Florida, and who attended the meeting.
Last week, lawmakers agreed on funding levels for every corner of the government with $700 billion budgeted for defense and $591 billion slated for non-defense spending, but the legislation also includes policy riders like a bill that incentivizes state and federal authorities to report more data to the country’s gun background check system called “Fix NICS.”
Fardella said the 50 Miles More organizers haven’t spoken to Ryan’s office, but they have tried to connect via social media. He hopes the march leads to a conversation with the speaker of the house about what they can do about passing legislation.
Upon reaching Janesville, the students will hold a gun reform rally at Traxler Park, where young people will share the stage to address attendees. Eder said they are inviting “everyone of any age to come out.”
“Young people are being looked down upon, people are saying what we are trying to accomplish is impossible,” she said. “We are here to prove we know what we are talking about. We care about each other, we care about our lives. Kids are stubborn, we aren’t going anywhere.”