The following column ran on April 25, 2018. Here is an edited update:
A lovely day for a rally, blue skies, temps climbing into the 50s, the weather tipping, perhaps, finally, into spring itself, and our kids letting it be known they’re not going away, tipping us, perhaps, finally, into change itself. Rallying our flagging spirits.
Middle-school kids, 14 and under, organized this public plea to reduce gun violence, an event with style, substance, serious intent. Adults on hand to show support, but kids definitely running the show.
They chose the setting well, Scoville Park greening nicely after a cold, wet week. Instead of a march or a protest, they chose education and action, setting up stations circling the park’s gentle downslope, which forms a natural amphitheater.
At the park entry, Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, you could sign a “guest banner” and then a petition for state Sen. Don Harmon, on hand to receive it, some 500 signatures strong.
Orange was the color of the day, the color hunters use to signal “Don’t shoot” so they aren’t mistaken by fellow hunters for fair game. Now it’s the adopted color of the anti-gun violence movement. “Don’t shoot” is the message directed toward those who hunt people of color and school children, and to politicians who refuse to pass common-sense legislation regulating guns, no matter how many mass shootings take place.
Orange was also the official color of this village for many years, back when we had a handgun ban, noted former village clerk Terri Powell, who says not enough Oak Parkers know that voters resoundingly approved the prohibition in a referendum in 1984. For many years, the handgun ban was a source of village pride — until the Supreme Court’s conservative majority overturned it in 2008. So much for local control.
Students at one of the stations kneel to fill out postcards or write letters. Names and addresses of local representatives are provided, as is the mailing address of one Wayne LaPierre of NRA of America, 11250 Waples Road, Fairfax, Virginia 22030. Feel free to contact him.
“Be respectful,” cautions one of the parents, “so they take you seriously.”
Orange “We are with you” postcards are destined for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Columbine High School in Colorado, or Great Mills High School in Maryland, the latter being the site of the latest school shooting. In four years we won’t even remember it. Our attention and empathy spans are short.
Poster boards are loosely taped to trees, inviting responses on pastel Post-It notes. The prompt “I want …” elicits “the NRA to value kids more than guns,” “to feel safe in my school,” “to end gun violence,” and a host of similar sentiments. “I use my voice because …” engenders “to be silent is deadly” and “others don’t have that chance anymore.”
Statistic sheets with graphics line the table at the park entrance: On an average day, 96 Americans are killed with guns; on average, 13,000 gun homicides take place each year in the U.S.; on average each month, 50 women are shot to death by intimate partners in the U.S.; seven children and teens are killed with guns in the U.S. on an average day; Black men are 13 times more likely than white men to be shot and killed by guns.
These kids have been doing their homework.
The organizers, a group of 14-year-old girls, turn on the mic and call for 13 minutes of silence for the victims of the massacre at Columbine High School, which took place 19 years ago this day. “Since those 13 have been silenced forever,” says one girl, “the least we can do is be silent for 13 minutes.” All wear T-shirts that read “Protect People, Not Guns” and with each victim’s name read aloud, an orange balloon is released into the air. A light breeze blows several into the trees behind the stage but, defying the odds, they work their way through the dense mesh of budding branches and eventually find release. An apt metaphor, perhaps, for future gun legislation?
Speeches follow. The girls are eloquent beyond their years. It’s tough being endangered and then ignored by our leaders, says one, “when all we’ve ever wanted to do was matter.”
“Why do children have to be the adults?” ponders another.
Yet another says much has changed since Columbine in 1999, “but you can still walk up and buy an assault rifle.”
A helicopter from one of the Chicago news channels circles overhead.
Celine Woznica of Moms Demand Action praises the Julian principal who “let this happen.” She turns to a group of kids and says, “You guys have changed this whole movement. We’re so proud of you.”
They’ve certainly focused the conversation. They’re speaking out because adults stopped believing change was possible. Kids are helping us believe again. They’re not going away.
You couldn’t ask for a better educational experience for our kids than organizing an event like this.
A day well spent away from school.
Unfortunately, four years, and many more mass killings later — including the latest at Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York — nothing has changed. I wonder what these kids are thinking now?
To the protectors of the rights of mass murderers, our kids, or any of us really, still don’t matter.