Charlottesville students make their voices heard at national march

Students from Monticello, Albemarle and Charlottesville high schools marched alongside UVA teachers-in-training at the march last Saturday in Washington, D.C. (Credit Image: © Caorl Guzy via ZUMA Wire) Students from Monticello, Albemarle and Charlottesville high schools marched alongside UVA teachers-in-training at the march last Saturday in Washington, D.C. (Credit Image: © Caorl Guzy via ZUMA Wire)

Photos and story by Natalie Jacobsen

Bandanna or beads?” asks Cynthia Neff, walking up and down the center aisle of the bus. Hands reach for the bright orange options that will be used to distinguish Charlottesvillians in a sea of hundreds of thousands at the March for Our Lives rally held March 24 in Washington, D.C. Students from area high schools chose the color to represent UVA, but it’s fitting that orange is also the official color of National Gun Violence Awareness Day.

Neff is one of the organizers who helped coordinate buses and logistics for the trip to D.C.; she says she learned many lessons from her participation in the Women’s March in January 2017. “What a bitch to plan that was,” says Neff. “Thank god the youth took control of this one.”

The youth Neff speaks of are local students, many of whom helped plan their school’s participation in the nationwide walkout on March 14, including Fré Halvorson-Taylor, from Charlottesville High.

“Turnout was better than expected [at the walkout], so we knew we had to capitalize on this momentum today—especially in registering people to vote,” Halvorson-Taylor says. “We need to unseat the NRA and NRA-funded politicians. We are going to the march for everyday victims of gun violence, not just those of mass or school shootings.”

Halvorson-Taylor says that, despite the recent spike in school shootings, schools are still safer than “our own backyards, parks, our city streets.”

Albemarle, Monticello, Charlottesville and Western high schools planned their walkouts together, including writing a joint statement. More than half the student body at each school left class for 17 minutes for speeches, moments of silence, postcard-writing and singing, in honor of the 17 victims of the February 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. After the success of the events, the push to send students to D.C. began, led by Parkland students. “We are here to show that even though we are young, we have the ability to organize, vote and make a difference—maybe even more of a difference—like an adult,” says Ashley Clark from CHS. “We are directly impacting the world today.”

“Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough,” says Helen Gehle of CHS. “We aren’t just showing solidarity by going, we are saying we need comprehensive policies on gun control.” Gehle hopes to continue a life in social justice and activism, saying she and her classmates “woke up” after the Parkland shooting.

Zyahna Bryant and other outspoken students sought Neff for help. She obliged, as did countless other volunteers in the community, including Kristin Clarens, a leader for Families in Action. Locally, several social justice and community groups (Moms Demand Action, Charlottesville Clergy Collection, UVA Student Council and Indivisible Charlottesville, among others) organized a satellite March for Our Lives rally on the Downtown Mall.

Clarens invited those who couldn’t attend the D.C. march to contribute in other ways—by donating signs, food and their time. On the eve of the event, she rallied families together at Champion Brewery for preparations, which included corralling elementary-aged kids into making sandwiches for the older marchers.

Elliott Gewirtz, 6, said she doesn’t like peanut butter sandwiches, but enjoyed making them for the marchers. She and others her age were cognizant of the reason they were there. “People have to stop selling guns—the community can make the changes,” Elliott said.

She isn’t alone in already thinking about these concepts. Neff says, “I have heard students say they want longer recess or better food at lunch, but I have also heard 7-year-olds ask for bulletproof windows.” A recurring sentiment among older students was the constant feeling of needing to look over their shoulders and be aware of potential shooters, something they say was never on their parents’ minds when they were in school.

Echoes of the words “gun” and “safety” were heard scattered throughout the evening as the kids worked in an assembly line to wrap the lunches.

“It’s amazing to have the support of the city and see our students use this moment for these issues,” says Clarens.

The time is now

At sunrise on the morning of the march, City Councilor Wes Bellamy boards bus No. 1 to give a few words of encouragement.

“Please have fun and please be loud,” he says. “Let them know Charlottesville is there. The whole city is behind you.”

Frosty, pale green fields beneath a soft blue sky rush by as students nap on one of the buses. Chaperones spread cream cheese on bagels, and Neff hands out stickers bearing the phrases #CvilleSaysEnough and #CvilleStrong. The latter was composed as a response to August 12. “The City of Charlottesville communications office had come up with #CvilleStandsForLove,” says Neff, “but Zyahna doesn’t feel that Charlottesville truly does stand for love right now. She wanted something else.”

One student tracks the Clark Brothers gun store and shooting range as the bus passes it in Warrenton. Sesame seeds from Bodo’s bagels scatter across the floor with every bump in the road. Two girls in the back giggle quietly as they take turns braiding each other’s hair and tying orange bananas around their heads. A father listens while his son reads the comic book Lumberjanes to him; others listen to music or read magazines to pass the time.

The bus is quiet, but not necessarily with apprehension.

“The only thing we are afraid of is not getting the message across or not being heard,” says Gehle.

Most of the students are experiencing their first protest; many say they look forward to participating in other causes and rallies in the future, whether for the environment, civil rights, equality or education.

“A lot of us were freaked out this past year from a blackout, a lockdown and all of the drills,” says Sarah Carter from CHS. She hopes to see stronger and more frequent employment of background checks as a result of the march, along with ammunition sales being restricted.

Carter and her peers commend CHS administration, faculty and their principal for having open and candid conversations about school safety. “It feels like they are really listening to us,” says Carter. The CHS students agree they all felt safe at the school, after being shown emergency plans and having drills, and having the support of some politically outspoken teachers on their side.

Other students feel their schools could do more. “Most people didn’t really talk about Parkland; my friends were outraged, and afraid it could happen to us,” says Anna Eldridge of Western. “We only do lockdowns once a year, and felt like we had no plan and don’t know what to do in an emergency.”

Murray High student Isabel Eldridge was born several years after the Columbine shooting, but she still cites it as her reason for marching. “Murray is a small school…some students didn’t care, but I wanted to go, and be a part of something today,” she says. “We should have changed laws after Columbine.”

As the bus crosses the Potomac River into D.C., the Washington Monument towers over the horizon. When it stops, students unfurl their signs, and organizers tie bright orange balloons to the front of the bus so it is easy to find later. Dozens of other buses fill the lot next to the Redskins stadium, where volunteers hand out free water, and vendors tout their merchandise for the marchers to wear.

Though chilly in temperature, the atmosphere is warm. Tragedy at schools and large venues and on the streets has brought hundreds of thousands of people together for what is believed to be one of the largest single-day protests in history.

Attendees step through mud puddles and remaining piles of snow, and walk beneath budding cherry and tulip trees. As they march through Capitol Heights, they pass windows bearing signs of support—some Washingtonians step outside to wave and cheer as they go by. Cars honk, prompting students to raise their fists and yell in return. Bicyclists shout “Yes, Charlottesville!” as they ride by. Some residents have set up tables with free water and snacks.

One parent chaperone following a few steps back from the students is Diane Beaudoin-Price. She is a mother to three daughters at CHS and Walker Elementary, who are all participating in the march.

“The Trump election woke us all up; before, we had been a little more easygoing with activism and issues,” says Beaudoin-Price. “It’s especially pertinent since I have three daughters—I see a lot of activism and care in them.” She says her husband has been sending them supportive messages all day. “There are so many common sense reforms that should happen, because nobody needs a gun beyond hunting or at a sporting place.”

Beaudoin-Price cites an oft-stated statistic—that even guns in the house intended for protection increase the chance of injury or death of household members by 11 times, especially for women and children. “Having kids makes you want to stand for something, and for their future,” says Beaudoin-Price.

The group strides by the Capitol with upbeat steps. As they pass down the slope toward the hub of the gathering on Third Street between Independence and Pennsylvania avenues, Senator Cory Booker stops to pose with them for a photo.

“We are just so excited to be here,” says Johanna Hall. Her friend and fellow AHS student, Ruby Schaeffer, echoes her statement: “It’s now or never,” she says.

The police presence on Constitution Avenue is strong, but non-confrontational. If there are any counterprotesters, they go unnoticed. The Charlottesville group squeezes through the crowd, making its way as far along as it can in the throng of people in puffy winter coats, ducking under signs and skirting around curbs and avoiding stepping on toes.

Once settled, everyone hushes and listens intently to the day’s speakers—including students from all over the country who have experienced gun violence—cheering and chanting when appropriate. Tears are wiped away, sunglasses unable to completely shield emotions.

“Today is proving that this conversation is popularizing how intersectional this topic is. We have a systematic problem,” says Halvorson-Taylor. Parkland survivor and activist David Hogg affirms that notion when he says “bullets don’t discriminate” in his speech.

It wasn’t the breeze that day that brought chills down spines, but rather, the dozens of youth who took the stage, holding hands, all bearing the message of “enough.” Gun violence survivors and those affected by gun violence, people who have lost siblings and friends to bullets, call the audience to action for three hours. Each story is full of pain, details such as “I watched my brother’s face turn gray as he died,” but also of hope: “We see you, we hear you, and we will change the future.”

One little girl walks on the stage holding a Parkland student’s hand. “My grandfather had a dream that his four little children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” she says. A collective gasp rings across the crowd as the connection is made: It’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s granddaughter, 9-year-old Yolanda Renee King.

“I have a dream that enough is enough,” Yolanda says. “That this should be a gun-free world. Period.” Three Monticello High School students put their hands to their mouths, their eyes watering.

One Parkland student asks the marchers to sing happy birthday to victim Nick Dworet (March 24 would have been his 18th birthday), and everyone sings in unison.

Toward the end of the event, three students take the stage, and state their names and ages. Audience members crane their necks and wait for more. “We are from Newtown, Connecticut.”

That’s when a UVA Curry School teacher-in-training hides her face behind her sign, which reads “Training to be a teacher, not a sharp shooter,” consumed with emotion. Four hundred Sandy Hook survivors, family members and faculty are among the day’s marchers.

Parkland shooting survivor Emma González lists the names of each of the school shooting victims, then stares across the vast sea of faces for more than four minutes, tears streaming down her face. Her gaze never wavers. The crowd falls silent, later learning that González’s six minutes and 20 seconds on stage was the exact length of time the Parkland shooting lasted. Chants of “Vote her in!” follow her off stage.

Alethia Laughon-Worrell of CHS and Halvorson-Taylor found González’s speech to be the most emotional and moving.

“Our safety is something we think about every day when we enter the school,” says Halvorson-Taylor. “Being in Charlottesville, it is compounded by the fact we faced white supremacists last year. We are all aware we need to do something.”

Laughon-Worrell agrees, saying, “Doing these kinds of marches is one of the most important things we can do after August 12.”

But what needs to be done varies for each attendee. Some believe in changes directly at schools, be it installing metal detectors or adding more security in the hallways. Others are keen on larger policies, or banning semi-automatic weapons and bump stocks. More still believe the answer is voting in November.

One CHS student, Hamada Al-Doori, has been affected by gun violence for a large portion of his life. He showed up to the “amazing and successful march” to make a stand and prevent his past from happening at his school. He grew up in Iraq, near Baghdad, and his immediate family came to the U.S. to escape ISIS and the everyday violence. “It sounds sad, but hearing automatic weapons and bombs every day is normal there,” Al-Doori says. “My dad was close to being kidnapped. We had to hide for months, trapped in cities. Here, I thought we were supposed to be safe.”

He admitted he was nervous before the march, but afterward, he had a huge smile on his face. “It was so emotional,” Al-Doori says. “I’m so excited to be here and be part of something. What is happening in Iraq cannot happen here; it cannot become normal.”

After the march concludes, the students and chaperones, tired from an emotional and physical day, make their way through the streets, calm and confident in the event’s ringing message. People cheer, high-five and hug.

Some Charlottesville students lounge on the slopes of Senate Park, laughing and playing games, in between snapping a few final pictures with their signs. They may have been sitting in the shadow of the Capitol all day, but now the sun shines high overhead, with rays of light streaming through tree branches. Their smiles reflect relief and gratitude as they look toward the sun passing over the Hill, basking in its glow.

“The next generation is coming,” says Zoe Weatherford from AHS. “We are willing to put in the work. We are making rallying possible for all to attend. We are ready to talk about the issues and get uncomfortable.”

Her friend, Carmen Day, also from AHS, says, “It’s just as important for individuals to show up and take responsibility to make it happen. It never will if you don’t share your opinion.”

Both Weatherford and Day are 18 and they are looking forward to voting this November.

“We and so many other people are paying attention,” Day says.

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