Mass. students join nationwide walkout over gun violence
These kids have found their cause.
On what would normally be a snow day spent at home, hundreds of students marched to the State House to call for stricter gun laws on Wednesday, part of a nationwide day of walkouts and demonstrations marking one month since 17 people were killed at a Florida high school.
The students — from Weston and Wellesley, Malden and Somerville, Roxbury and Dorchester — held handmade signs and chanted “What do we want? Gun control now!” and “Not in our schools! Not in our streets!”
The students were among tens of thousands across the country who walked out of their classrooms and massed on state capitols, angry and frustrated at the lack of federal action to stem gun violence, despite mass shooting after shooting.
In New York, hundreds of students marched in the streets, while in Washington, sign-clutching students gathered outside the White House and on Capitol Hill.
One of those marching to the Massachusetts State House was JQ Welch, an eighth-grader from Somerville, who was wearing a bulletproof backpack that his mother bought him a week after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“I have to be careful when I walk the halls because someone could just walk into school with a weapon concealed in their backpack, take it out, and start firing wildly, and I don’t want to die,” said Welch, 13. “That’s the main point. And if I die, then my blood will be on the conservatives’ hands, the GOP’s hands, the NRA’s hands.”
Nationwide, the demonstrations unfolded in different ways from city to city and school to school. In some schools, students chanted and held signs. At others, they stood in silence. In Atlanta, some students took a knee.
In Newtown, Conn., where 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, hundreds of students filed out of Newtown High School just moments before 10 a.m. and gathered in a parking lot near the football field.
In Massachusetts, many students had also planned to walk out of classes at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim in the Florida shooting.
But with many schools closed because of Tuesday’s blizzard, students here postponed their walkouts and instead converged on the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, across Boston Common from the State House.
From there, they marched up a snowy path into the State House — cheering and chanting — and gathered in a large auditorium, where a panel of legislators listened to them speak.
Addressing the student assembly, Vikiana Petit-Homme, 16, a junior at Boston Latin Academy, acknowledged Massachusetts has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation and the nation’s lowest gun-death rate. But she said more can be done.
“The fight is not over,” she said, as students snapped their fingers in approval. “The fight is ongoing in Mattapan, in Dorchester, in Roxbury, and other communities of color. As long as people are being killed with guns, then we are not doing enough. Massachusetts is not doing enough.”
After the speeches, the students, using paper maps to navigate the State House’s maze-like hallways, visited legislators’ offices to press their concerns further.
Many were advocating for a federal assault weapons ban, stronger federal background checks, and the passage of state legislation that would allow family and household members to petition courts to temporarily remove guns from individuals who pose risks to the public or themselves.
As the students were lobbying, the Gun Owners’ Action League of Massachusetts, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, sent an e-mail to its members asking them to videotape their children’s walkouts.
The e-mail asked parents to document “what’s being said, what the signs say, and what teachers/faculty/guests are saying.”
“If you see anything indicating that these walkouts are pushing an anti-civil rights agenda, please e-mail us information,” the group stated.
Jim Wallace, the league’s executive director, said the request to record the walkouts came from several members of his group who have expressed concern that school officials and teachers are backing the protests and pushing a biased agenda.
“We’re very concerned that children were being bullied into participating in these events, and there are public resources being used to push these events,” Wallace said. “Are these students actually being educated on this issue, or are they being indoctrinated?”
Administrators in many districts have sought to inoculate themselves from such criticism. In e-mails to parents, they have said they want students to express their views but will not endorse their calls for gun control.
The walkouts have been organized by Empower, the youth wing of the Women’s March, which took place last year. Another series of anti-gun-violence marches is scheduled in Washington, Boston, and dozens of other cities on March 24.
Wednesday’s march to the State House was student-led but supported by the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence and Stop Handgun Violence.
Many of the students said they found out about the march on social media and organized their friends and classmates to show up at the State House.
Remi Jacob, 20, a sophomore at Emerson College, said she was inspired by the survivors at Stoneman Douglas, who have been outspoken in calling for tougher gun laws.
“If these people can do it, why aren’t we on their team, too?” said Jacob, who was wielding a bullhorn. “If we’re not going to accept this responsibility to change, who is?”