Five weeks after they cowered under desks and hid in closets as a gunman roamed the hallways of their school with an AR-15, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students overwhelmed the streets of the nation’s capital along with hundreds of thousands of supporters from across the country.
A sea of people stretched for blocks on Saturday afternoon, chanting and cheering as student activists and pop stars took the stage with the Capitol dome rising behind them. What had been advertised as a student-led march for gun control turned into a massive rally that was part pop concert, part call to action.
But for the hundreds of Stoneman Douglas students who had traveled to Washington, D.C., for the March For Our Lives, the emotion was still raw. When the giant screens flanking the stage flashed images of the 17 victims and news footage from the day of the shooting, some of the students flinched. Others started crying.
One teen who had been struck by bullets, 18-year-old Sam Fuentes, stopped mid-speech and doubled over as she vomited on stage. Then, with mascara smeared under her eyes, she led the crowd in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” for fallen classmate Nicholas Dworet, who would have turned 18 on Saturday.
Senior Emma González, 18, made the final speech. She started with brief remarks and then mentioned each of the 17 victims. Then she stopped and then stood silently as tears ran down her face until the timer she had set announced that 6 minutes and 20 seconds had passed since she walked to the microphone. That was the exact amount of time the deadly rampage lasted.
“I’ve not and they’ve not really healed,” said Greg Pittman, an American History teacher from Stoneman Douglas who was chaperoning a group of students near the stage. The activism, he said, is “masking what’s really inside but it’s enabled us to channel some of that negative energy into something that’s positive.”
“One minute you’re fine and the next you’re not,” he added. “They’re still there. The feelings are still there.”
Crowds at the march were at once supportive and overwhelming.
When a large group of Stoneman Douglas students and alumni marched to the front of the rally chanting “Who are we? MSD!” the crowd parted to let them through. Supporters tapped their shoulders or high-fived them as they passed, saying “thank you,” “change the world,” and “bless you.”
For 17-year-old Enzo Yara, the attention was a lot to process.
“It’s incredible and extremely overwhelming,” Yara said, taking deep breaths and looking around at the crowd as he held tightly to his younger sister’s shoulder. His sister’s hand, in turn, was resting on the shoulder of classmate Lea Serrano.
While students praised the march for giving them a sense of purpose through their grief, Serrano’s parents worried that the students, for all the hard work they’d done and the progress they’d made, weren’t getting enough time to process what had happened to them.
“They were at ground zero, and they were the ones stepping over friends and teachers, and I think they’re doing remarkably well. But I think it’s going to take a couple of years — maturity-wise and healing-wise — to be able to verbalize, vocalize everything,” said Dana Serrano. “But it will come.”
“They’re not ready yet, but it’s there,” her husband, Dennis, agreed.
In the weeks leading up to the march, sophomore Ashley Baez hadn’t even been sure she wanted to go.
It wasn’t that the 15-year-old didn’t believe in fighting for stricter gun control laws. It was that the thought of being in a crowd of strangers was terrifying. And standing for long periods of time wasn’t easy. Ashley walks with a cane after being shot in the leg in the school hallway.
“I genuinely was afraid to come,” she said. “It’s such a big group and you never know what’s going to happen.”
But in the end Ashley decided that she wanted her voice to be heard and that she wanted the country to listen.
“I’m hoping that the politicians realize what we’re going through and how this has affected our lives heavily,” she said, wearing an “Enough Is Enough” baseball cap as she ate breakfast at a hotel in Arlington, Virginia. “I just want our schools to be safer so we don’t have to be afraid every second.”
Mobilizing MSD Alumni, an alumni group created in the aftermath of the shooting, was prepared for some negative student reactions. Though a ballroom full of students, alumni and parents at the J.W. Marriott just a few blocks away from the White House was full of goodwill, they took time to announce to the room how to access counselors during the march in case it became overwhelming.
The counselors wore bright, reflective vests so the students could pick them out easily. One counselor gave students some tips in case they started to have a panic attack.
“Touch three different textures, like a rock, your clothing and a friend’s shoulder,” she said. “Any time you can engage your five senses is helpful.”
It seemed to be helpful advice, as the three-hour rally drew on. Security officers helped several shaken-looking teenagers out of the area where Stoneman Douglas students were packed in tightly. They came out in small groups, usually with one student supported by others.
Kyle Laman, 15, had an entourage to help him get through the anxiety of the march. The police officer who had helped save Kyle’s life, Jeff Heinrich, was pushing his wheelchair. And the two surgeons who had operated on Kyle’s foot at Broward Health Medical Center were standing by his side, along with Kyle’s parents.
“It’s kind of overwhelming,” Kyle said before the march as he waited for a ride to the rally. “I don’t really know what to expect.”
But Heinrich’s presence was reassuring. “That’s the whole reason I’m here,” Heinrich said.
Some Stoneman Douglas students and teachers were marching with one particular person in mind. History teacher Pittman rolled up his sleeve to expose a rubber bracelet — Scott Beigel, forever in our hearts. It was a tribute to the geography teacher who died in the doorway to his classroom after ushering fleeing students inside.
For seniors Garrett Knobel, 18, and Sammy Feuerman, 17, the person on their mind was their friend Joaquin Oliver. If Joaquin had survived the shooting, they said, they were sure he’d be up on the stage fighting for his classmates.
“He’s always been an activist,” Sammy said. “He’s always wanted to change the world.”
“We’re going to change the world for him,” he added.
Garrett agreed. “I want to make sure he died to change the world and that’s honestly why I’m here,” he said.
This story has been updated to clarify details of Emma González’s speech.