At least 8,000 students, parents, allies, and activists gathered on the lawn in front of the State House Saturday for the March for Our Lives RI, the local instance of a gun safety movement that brought millions to the streets with more than 800 marches across the country.
They came from all corners of the state, to stand in solidarity with the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and to call on local and national legislators for action.
The crowd filled the plaza in front of the State House and stretched out across the lawn and walkways, and they carried signs, wore buttons and t-shirts with gun safety messages, and cheered and applauded throughout the two-hour program, organized by Rhode Island students.
Event organizer Sophia Capalbo, a senior at Johnson & Wales, served as the host, introducing the speakers. She kicked off the event by providing some context.
“People seem to underestimate the power of a young voice,” said Capalbo. “Today, we are here to tell you that we will not give up. We will act as adults when our government is acting like children, and we will pave a way to introduce stricter gun laws. School is not a place meant to make you feel paranoid. It is not the place where you’re supposed to be gunned down. It is not the place where you are supposed to die. Enough is enough. Today is the beginning of change.”
Tyler Alexander, a junior at Coventry High School, recalled living through a lockdown drill at his school, amid confusion about whether it was the real thing. “Nothing could prepare anyone for this and no one, I mean no one, should even have to experience it,” said Alexander. “I may not know the horror or feeling of utter helplessness associated with being involved in a mass shooting, but I do know what it is like to be terrified and concerned in a school setting. I do know what it is like living in a country where greed takes priority over the lives of the the youth. My peers, our community, and all of us as a country have had enough. We are done living in fear.”
Sophomore Halima Ibrahim, from the Islamic School of Rhode Island, issued a “wake up call to our country.” “Kids spend more of their time in school than at their own home so why is it so hard for you to keep us safe,” said Ibrahim. “Teachers [having] guns in schools just normalizes the idea of school shootings. It makes this is something we need to worry about. Makes it more common than it should be. Makes it something you’re supposed to expect. Instead of stopping it altogether. Wake up. Do not let this become normal.”
Governor Gina Raimondo spoke briefly, “This time it feels different. And why does it feel different? Because of you. So enough is enough,” said Raimondo. She pointed to a sign a young woman was holding in the crowd. “Look at this sign: ‘I want to worry about my GPA, not my life.’ That’s exactly right. When you go to school, we want you to be free of fear of guns. We’re going to keep going because we owe it to you. So thank you for being here. Count me in, and keep pushing us so we can do the right thing.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was also brief. “I’m only going to ask you two things. One, remember why you are here today. And remember how you feel here today through November. No forgetting between now and November. And also remember that the NRA would not have the power that it has in Congress if it weren’t for the power of money in Congress. These things are related and one election away from being able to make a very big change.”
Westerly High School junior Devyn Hetu recalled being 11 years old and hearing about the Sandy Hook massacre. “I remember asking myself, ‘why?'” said Hetu. “Why would a man come into a school with a gun intending to kill children only a couple years younger than I. I also asked myself, ‘how?’ How can someone shoot 26 people to death. How did this person obtain a high powered weapon?” She questioned the wisdom of permitting the sale of semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 and called for action. “Why should a common person ever need to fire that many rounds in a minute? This is not a suggestion. This is a demand by the people of my generation and yours are dying.”
There was a musical interlude where the Extraordinary Rendition Band played for the crowd, and led attendees in a chant of “Show me what democracy looks like — this is what democracy looks like.”
Rep. David Cicilline talked about introducing bills to ban assault weapons and bump stocks with hundreds of cosponsors. “But the truth is until we change Congress we’re not going to change the gun laws in this country,” said Cicilline. “Every time there’s another one of these shootings — Sandy Hook, San Bernadino, Las Vegas, Parkland — we do the same thing. We have one minute of silence where we say nothing and do nothing. And enough is enough. And the voices of young people and your staying in this fight is going to make the difference. Because it has to be clear to folks that if you don’t do the responsible thing and enact common sense proposals to reduce gun violence in this country you don’t deserve to be in office.”
URI sophomore Nathan Cornell recounted the list of school shootings going back to Columbine in 1999. “Through all these tragedies the U.S. government has not stepped forward once to try to deal with the situation. This is completely unacceptable,” said Cornell. “This isn’t a political or partisan issue. It is a moral issue. We need to get on board with trying to find a solution to this problem. That means Republicans. That means Democrats. That means older people. That means young people. I want to live in a world where I do not come home or wake up and find out there has been another school shooting.”
Rep. Jim Langevin, himself a survivor of a gun accident at 16 which left him paralyzed, “Enough is enough,” said Langevin. “School shootings are becoming all to common in America today, and that should never be the case. Children deserve to be children and grow up in a safe environment.” He sounded a hopeful note, citing recently passed legislation expanding background checks and allowing the CDC to research gun violence. “For the first time in decades, we’re finally seeing some movement. Make no mistake. This change is because of you.”
Nina Gregg, a sophomore at RISD and an alumna of Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School talked about her home town of Parkland, Florida. “The world now knows my little neighborhood. For that reason I’m devastated,” said Gregg. “It’s a small town. It’s a storybook place to live. Now it’s a place with a story. I want that story change from devastation to student organization. From intimidation to humanization. From demoralization to standing ovation. We can’t let these stories continue even one more day. Sacrificing yet another beloved student coach or teacher. We must write the next chapter ourselves.”
Rep. Aaron Regunberg, one of the founders of the Providence Student Union before he became a state rep — and now a candidate for Lieutenant Governor — talked about the practical realities of change. “I’ve seen the big money power of the gun lobby in this building behind us,” said Regunberg. “The only way that we can beat the gun lobby is to make sure that the politicians in this building are just as scared of all of us as they are of the NRA. That is possible. But only if we continue to stand together and support the leadership of our young people.”
Smithfield High School freshman Victoria Richard was tired of naysayers. “I have heard one too many times from my peers and from adults that I’m not going to change anything,” she said. “So I want to ask you all today just so I can record it to prove it to all the people that are doubting me. I am here saying: we will not stop until we see change. Can you repeat that please?” The crowd chanted back: “We will not stop until we see change.” Richard asked them to repeat it, “One more time for doubters,” and again, the crowd roared, “We will not stop until we see change.”
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza talked about the importance of banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and called arming teachers, “the dumbest thing I have ever heard in my life.” “The solution is simple,” said Elorza, “Let’s follow the lead of our children. Let’s show them that we value them more than we value the contributions from the NRA. And to all of the adults and all of the politicians who refuse to lead on this issue, you better get out of our way because the young generation will not be stopped and the young generation will see change. Enough is enough.”
Virginia Nault, a junior at St. Mary Academy – Bayview, recalled her feelings hearing about Sandy Hook. “It was evident to me even at 12 years old that what had happened had shocked and scared the nation,” said Nault. “That was over five years ago. That should have been enough. Those 20 children that we lost that day should have been enough to spark a change so that it never happened again.” She urged attendees to vote, contact representatives, and have tough conversations with friends, family, and colleagues. “It means the absolute world to know that there are so many of you willing to stand up and speak out on behalf of all students in America and especially those who are no longer able to speak for themselves.”
RISD freshman Silas Gibbins compared American gun laws with the UK, where he spent many years, and stressed that “rights must match reality.” The fear of not knowing which school will be next is too great a burden to place on our children,” Gibbins said. “Losing just one life is too high a price.” He went on, “The mass shooting generation, those who have grown up with Sandy Hook in their consciousness and were in elementary school and at the same age as those innocent first graders when that tragedy occurred, are still being gunned down today. That is not a reality that we will accept any longer.”
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea suggested that attendees take advantage of her department’s web site at Vote.RI.gov. “The power is right now in your hands,” said Gorbea. “Look up your voter registration. Make sure it’s accurate, see who your elected leaders are, and how you contact them. Get the word out on this because the power can be multiple ten-fold by the number of people here today.”
Sophia Capalbo closed out the march by thanking all the speakers and the thousands of people on the State House lawn. “Thank you, everyone for coming out on this chilly day stand with one another and to build up what has been broken down. Enough is enough. It is time our country takes advantage of our democracy and to demand action and change.”