On Saturday, March 23, a reported 1.2 million people took part in the “March for Our Lives,” a nationwide demonstration demanding changes to existing gun laws. The demonstrations were spearheaded by the young survivors of last month’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 14 students and three staff members were killed by a former student wielding an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. In spite of rain and near-freezing temperatures, around 500 area supporters of varying ages, genders and ethnicities – along with about 15 somewhat less-diverse detractors – gathered in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Capitol in Springfield for a rally at noon Saturday. Several speakers, almost exclusively central Illinois teenagers, addressed the crowd with passion and defiance.
“It’s time to put your preconceived notions about what it means to be a teen in 2018 aside and listen to us scream at the top of our lungs,” said Claire Farnsworth, 18, a senior at Glenwood High School, speaking through an electric bullhorn. “We’re not self-absorbed, materialistic morons – we are smart and we are engaged and we are tired of being written off and treated as if our voices don’t matter because we’re young.” She went on to praise Emma Gonzalez and the other Parkland survivors who have braved ridicule and worse by taking to the media to get their message across, calling them her heroes for “turning pain into action and demanding policy change in the wake of trauma.”
As Farnsworth spoke, one of the small group of counter-protestors attempted to drown her out with repeated shouts of “I call BS,” a repurposed quote from a speech given by Parkland survivor Gonzalez in February. After Farnsworth completed her speech, the crowd responded with a chant of “Shame on the NRA.”
The next speaker was Amelia Cox, a freshman attending Glenwood High School, who was identified as being eligible to vote in 2021. “Truthfully, I have never been involved in activism before because I was scared,” she said. “I am no longer scared. I am appalled at how gun culture in America has become normalized and how no one is doing anything about it.” Cox also said that after the school shooting in Florida, her teachers expressed fear for their lives. “How am I expected to feel safe?” she asked.
Next, in response to continued attempted disruptions from the pro-gun faction gathered on the other side of Second Street, holding signs with slogans such as “Arm Our Teachers” and “Honest Government Does Not Fear Armed Citizens,” Farnsworth said, “We respect the right of all of you to protest but be respectful, please, during others’ speeches,” followed by enthusiastic cheering from the crowd and a brief chant of “Hey-hey, ho-ho, the NRA has got to go.”
“This is not a political issue and it never was,” said the next speaker, Lillian Stevens, a student at Springfield High School who said she voted for the first time this year. “This is an issue of humanity and we have waited too long for the grownups to make any decisions.” Stevens went on to decry apathy and desensitization to violence on both the national and local level. “Even in our hometown, with each passing high school bomb threat, the process became more and more mundane to us,” she said. “We will be the generation that makes sure that every single child won’t have to question the existence of their future.” Next, Elena Watt, 18, also of Springfield High School, read an essay addressing the glorification of gun violence in contemporary youth culture, particularly among people of color.
Samiya Hamid, 18, a Glenwood High senior who voted for the first time on March 20, said, “The politicians who accept money from the NRA let this happen and it makes me feel unsafe to live in this country, a place that is meant to embody freedom. We need to vote corrupt congressmen out. Everyone I love is in danger when the NRA is in power. Let this be the year of reform, of safety.” Hamid concluded her speech by listing the names of all 17 victims of the Parkland massacre.
The rally concluded with a short speech by Democratic 13th District congressional candidate Betsy Dirksen Londrigan. “The adults in the room have let you down,” she said. “I will be an adult who will stand up and help students, help our communities, help our schools and keep us safe.” Dirksen Londrigan referred to her anxiety as a parent with a child in public schools in the current climate, as well as her time as a middle school teacher. “In my very busy, very fun, very lively classroom, the last thing that would have kept my students safe was another loaded gun,” she said. “I vow to never, ever take a dime from the shadow-monster that is the NRA. Moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, legal gun owners, non-gun owners and students of all ages – we are joining forces, we are the rebellion.”
Scott Faingold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.