Seattle’s march was one of hundreds worldwide held alongside the main event in Washington, D.C. Along with pressing for new laws, protesters worked to help people in the crowd register to vote. “We need to show our representatives that if they oppose us we will vote them out,” said one speaker in Seattle.
There have been two lockdowns at Nabrath Sheriff’s high school in Sammamish since last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Sheriff’s school has added security measures and begun enforcing ones that had lapsed — doors that used to be open at Eastlake High are now closed, classrooms are locked and all visitors need badges.
Going to school feels subtly different, the 15-year-old sophomore said. The shooting at Parkland has made her newly conscious of a threat that’s been there all along.
“Every time I walk in a classroom I’m looking for a place I could hide,” Sheriff said. “I deserve to go to school and feel safe.”
Sheriff was at Seattle’s Cal Anderson Park on Saturday for the local March For Our Lives, joining thousands of others to march through downtown in a student-led protest demanding stricter gun laws in Washington and across the country.
Seattle’s march was one of hundreds worldwide held alongside the main event in Washington, D.C., where hundreds of thousands of people packed into the nation’s capital to hear 20 children and teenagers speak about the effect of gun violence on their lives. Among them were survivors of the Parkland shooting, which left 17 people dead.
The Parkland massacre was by no means the first, nor was it the deadliest, school shooting in U.S. history. But the outcry this time is unmatched, students said, in part because of the voices of the Parkland student activists who have used social media to recount their experiences, call out lawmakers and plan events such as Saturday’s march.
Seeing those students on stage at rallies after the Feb. 14 shooting was impactful, said Rhiannon Rasaretnam, 17, a Tahoma High senior and march organizer. On Saturday, Rasaretnam was the one on stage.
“Now we are taking action to ensure that the next generation doesn’t have to grow up with active shooter drills and faced with the reality that they and their classmates could be killed,” she said.
While the energy of protest marches can sometimes fizzle into inaction, the student organizers have specific legislative goals in mind: universal background checks. Ending the effective ban on federally funded research into gun violence. Banning the sale of semi-automatic rifles. Raising the legal age to own a gun in Washington state, from 18 to 21.
Speakers and demonstrators emphasized that gun violence affects young people beyond school and that, while Parkland may be considered the tipping point for some, “others have been at that tipping point for years,” Rasaretnam said. Representatives from the group Youth 4 Peace read names of young people killed by guns in Washington state and placed flowers in a pile after each name was read.
Speaker Elijah Lewis, 18, a senior at Rainier Beach High, said in his South Seattle neighborhood, gun violence is a constant, but everyone’s focus always seems to be elsewhere.
“They always talk about school shootings but they never reflect on the thousands of people who have died in Chicago or Seattle or New York,” he said offstage. “They never tell our story. When a school shooting happens, and 17 people die, their lives are significant. But at the same time, why aren’t we significant?”
Onstage, he urged his fellow “ ’90s babies” – he joked that he’s the last one because he was born in 1999 – to vote because, he said, the next generation needs stricter gun laws.
“I have nieces and nephews, and if it’s this crazy now, how crazy is it going to be when they turn 18?” he said.
Emphasis on voting
Dozens of volunteers fanned out along the march route, armed with clipboards to register potential voters. The importance of voting was a focus of the speakers and the organizers. The eight members of the march planning team signed voter-registration forms on stage, then held them up as the crowd cheered. Ingraham High senior and march organizer Catherine Zhu called the ballots “symbols of youth power.”
“This is a youth-led effort and I want to be here to empower them,” said Patricia Murray, 23, who was signing up voters. “Voting is one of the best ways we’re able to make systematic change.”
And the youth, whether they can vote in this election or not, are coming.
“Some of us can vote in 2018, most of us can vote in 2020 and all of us can vote in 2022,” one speaker said. “We need to show our representatives that if they oppose us we will vote them out.”
While much of the focus was on congressional inaction, some demonstrators looked to the state level as well.
“We live in a time when anyone who is 18 is able to go into a store, buy a gun and shoot other people, which is completely ridiculous.” said Sabreen Tuku, a 15-year-old freshman at Issaquah High School. “Start in Washington and then have other states follow, that’s going to be the most effective way for it to happen.”
But even in reliably blue Washington, such changes have been few and far between.
The Washington state Legislature recently banned bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic guns to fire nearly as rapidly as a machine gun.
But efforts to pass more substantial gun laws — a ban on assault-style weapons, raising the age limit to buy such weapons and a ban on high-capacity magazines — stalled in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat who has been pushing since 2016 for a ban on assault-style weapons, noted that Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature recently raised the age for all gun purchases to 21.
“Our Legislature did nothing,” Ferguson said, impugning his own party. “It is outrageous, it is unacceptable that our elected officials, in our state, in our home, will not listen.”
He added: “I think they’re going to start listening now, because of each and every one of you.”
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, in an interview after his speech at Seattle Center, said, “This is the start of an awakening of this generation that can help this state realize a new vision.”
Protests around the region
Meanwhile, marches were held in cities throughout the Puget Sound region.
An estimated 4,500 people gathered outside the Legislative Building in Olympia for a march, which was organized by a North Thurston High School student who was a freshman at the school when a classmate fired a gun inside the building’s commons area. Organizer Madelyn Olson’s father, Brady Olson, tackled the student, The Olympian reported.
In Marysville, some of the marchers at Asbery Athletic Fields were students at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in 2014, when a classmate killed four of his friends and wounded another in the lunchroom before turning the gun on himself. Family and friends of the shooting victims went to Washington, D.C., for the main March For Our Lives, where they held up signs with their names, photos and ages when they died.
In Seattle, Lauren Andre, 32, marched with a picture of her friend’s fiancé, Scott Beigel, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas who was shot and killed when he unlocked his classroom door to let fleeing students in.
“I want Congress to act, I want states to act, I want people to continue talking about it,” said Andre, who works in Seattle for the U.S. Department of Labor.
Did she think that would happen?
“I mean,” she paused and wiped away a tear. “No. We can only hope. These types of protests have helped before. They can be really empowering.”