Parkland survivors, other student activists, barnstorm through Philly

As part of their summer barnstorm across the country, teenage gun control activists from the organization March for Our Lives held a town hall in South Philadelphia Tuesday evening.

The panel of eight spoke to an audience of a couple hundred at Universal Audenried High School, in an environment that felt more intimate than boisterous. Among them were advocates from Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles, as well as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the Parkland, Florida high school where a gunman killed 17 people in February.

Several survivors of that massacre emerged afterwards as gun violence prevention activists, quickly gaining massive social media followings. This summer some of those same activists have helped organize the Road to Change, a 16-city tour to call for gun law reforms and encourage youth voting.

The Tuesday event in Philadelphia revolved as much around youth voice as it did gun violence. Clipboard-toting volunteers canvassed the entryway encouraging people to register to vote, and panelists stressed the importance of political participation.

Toward the end of the 90-minute session, 11-year-old Ava Walsh, and her eight-year-old sister, Chloe, from South Jersey, stood to ask the panelists a question.

“How could kids my age and my sister’s age help out with what you guys are doing,” Ava Walsh asked.

Edna Chavez, a teenager from South Los Angeles who lost her brother to gun violence, replied quickly.

“Mama, you already doing something just being here,” she said. “So remember that.”

Though these kind of warm affirmations characterized much of the conversation, a couple of gun rights activists did ask pointed questions. One, who seemed to support classroom teachers having the option to carry weapons, went back and forth briefly with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School graduate Jammal Lemy. Someone eventually snatched the microphone from the man’s hand.

Lemy, 20, said the group has encountered gun rights proponents and just about every stop on their summer tour.

“What we’ve realized is the people who disagree with us have not seen or known gun violence,” he told the crowd. “They don’t know what it feels like to be a victim of gun violence.”

Lemy helped design merch for the Road to Change tour. One of the items is an American flag shirt where the blue section doubles as a QR code that navigates users to voter registration web page. It was a youthful twist on a night where the ascendance of youth rang as a repeating theme.

“There are gonna be those guys who are like, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about, you’re a kid, stay in school,’ ” said Ethan Block, a student activist from New Jersey. “Screw those guys.

On Wednesday, the Road to Change will travel through Perkasie in Bucks County, where 225 Pennridge High School students received detention for participating in a walkout over gun violence.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.