The U.S. Capitol far in the background like an afterthought, Marjory Stoneman Douglas junior Cameron Kasky stood on a stage overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue and told a crowd stretching farther than he could see that the power to change America’s gun laws lay before him, not behind.
“Don’t worry. We got this,” he told the hundreds of thousands who joined the Washington March For Our Lives. “Welcome to the revolution.”
Students who just five weeks ago were cowering in classroom closets took command of the nation’s capital Saturday, relegating members of Congress to bystanders in an event that felt like a coming-out party for the country’s youngest generation. Propelled out of Parkland by the mass killing of 17 students and faculty, yhey promised to enlist an army of young voters to throw out lawmakers they see as unsympathetic, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whom they repeatedly torched.
And they brought reinforcements, sharing a massive stage with black and brown students from around the U.S. who’ve watched guns tear apart families and communities from Chicago to Los Angeles. Together, in a sign of the broadening scope of America’s student-led gun-control movement, they came to the U.S. Capitol not to seek permission from lawmakers for an assault-weapons ban but to demand it.
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“It’s time for our congressmen, time for our state legislators and time for American political leaders around the country to stop and listen to us,” Stoneman Douglas senior David Hogg told the Miami Herald in an interview.
Looking and sounding like new icons in a student-led movement to ban assault weapons and curb gun violence, the students were cheered on by a crowd that waved posters with their slogans and images. Though they stressed that their cause is nonpartisan — that bullets are indiscriminate — they brought a message that largely targeted the Republican members of Congress standing in the way of the change they’re pushing.
And no one received more of the brunt Saturday than Rubio, the Florida senator whose reluctance to swear off campaign money from the National Rifle Association has made him a primary target for the March For Our Lives movement. Parkland students wore orange $1.05 tags to the march, a number they said was derived by dividing the number of students enrolled in Florida’s schools by the money Rubio has received in support from the NRA.
“Is that all we’re worth to you?” Stoneman Douglas junior Sarah Chadwick shouted.
Rubio, who like the rest of South Florida’s Republican congressional delegation stayed away from Washington’s event, quickly issued a statement commending Saturday’s marchers but softly chiding their tone. “While protests are a legitimate way of making a point, in our system of government, making a change requires finding common ground with those who hold opposing viewpoints,” he said.
That a prominent Republican senator would feel the need to respond to the jeers of teenagers is a sign of the influence students have come to wield — aided in no small part by the millions donated by Hollywood celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and George and Amal Clooney. And it’s music to the ears of Democrats, who hung around the edges of Saturday’s rally, for which accurate size estimates were not immediately available.
Democratic Party Chairman Tom Perez gave an impassioned speech before the event, telling those on hand that if they wanted change, they needed to vote in November during the midterm election. Florida’s other U.S. senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, waded into the crowd near the stage after giving media interviews before the rally.
But this was not their event, or their movement. They were just along for the ride.
“If they [members of Congress] don’t get it, if they don’t understand ... then they’re going to be replaced,” said Wasserman Schultz. “I think you’re going to see a huge surge in voter registration and turnout from people who are going to say ‘I’m using the issue of gun violence as the issue that drives my vote.’ ”
Hogg, the Parkland senior and a leader of March For Our Lives, an organization with millions now stocked away in a 501c4 “dark money” nonprofit foundation, said the group intentionally left politicians off stage Saturday. Emma González, whose image was printed onto $5 posters sold by street vendors, told the crowd to “fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.”
On Pennsylvania Avenue, families walked together, and classmates gathered in clusters wearing school shirts. Speaking directly to that message, students at the event handed out “contracts” for parents to sign with their kids, promising to support politicians who “support children’s safety over guns.” Dennis Serrano, father to Parkland 15-year-old freshman Lea Serrano, said he wasn’t very politically active before the shooting but now he and his wife see gun reform as the pivotal issue on how they will vote in November.
Many of the thousands who attended — the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said 334,000 rode the metro as of 4 p.m. (more than double normal volume) — said that after years of legislative inaction on gun laws, they feel a rare sense of optimism. That is, if people can keep up the momentum through the midterm elections.
“Everything is targeted to the November elections,” said Aaron Overman, a 40-year-old resident of Washington. “If people don’t get out and vote in greater numbers than they ever have before, then things won’t change.”
But there was also a long view at play Saturday, with several of the rally’s speakers not yet out of elementary school. Yolanda Renee King, granddaughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., evoked his “I have a dream speech” but applied it to a “gun free” world. Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old who spoke on stage on behalf of “black women and girls” killed by guns, foreshadowed the effect of new voters registering in the years to come beyond November’s midterms.
“We know what is right and wrong. We also know that we stand in the shadow of the Capitol,” she said. “And we also know that we have only seven short years until we have the right to vote.”
McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Kate Irby and Miami Herald reporter Kyra Gurney contributed to this report.