Trying to keep post-Parkland momentum, students again protest gun violence in Philly

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For the second time in as many months, high school students around the country walked out of school to protest gun violence and call for more gun control.

Friday’s rallies commemorated the 19th anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado — perhaps still the most infamous school massacre — and came more than two months after slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School unleashed waves of youth protest.

For many local students, the protests served as a statement of endurance to those who thought their energy would fade.

“You’re going to hear us, and you’re going to make the changes we’re asking you to make,” said Eryn Banton, a student at Cheltenham High School in Montgomery County.

Banton and about 200 of her Cheltenham classmates gathered at Thomas Paine Plaza across from Philadelphia’s City Hall to protest police shootings and other gun violence they say disproportionately hurts minority communities.

Across the way at City Hall, several hundred students from across the city held a six-minute “die-in” to highlight the fact that a Philadelphian is shot, on average, every six hours. From there, the teenagers marched to Eakins Oval at the northern edge of Center City.

The rally was smaller than one held March 14 after the first major student walkout, which drew a thousand students or more. But many of the Friday protesters said it was important to demonstrate their continued interest in change.

“I feel like when we did the first protest, I feel like people took it as a joke,” said Jared McGill, a senior at Academy at Palumbo in South Philadelphia. “If we keep doing it, I feel like they’ll take us more seriously.”

Chants of “books not bullets” ricocheted off the courtyard walls at City Hall, and students held signs aloft with phrases like “#ENOUGH” and “miss me with that normalization of gun violence.”

The latter placard belonged to Connie Zhang, an eighth-grader at Masterman in Philadelphia, and is a play on “miss me wit that bulls–t,” a line from the rapper Kendrick Lamar.

“The last couple mass shootings, people cared about it for a couple weeks, but eventually it stopped,” she said. “But I think this Parkland shooting has really changed something.”

Several student survivors of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have emerged as potent voices in the gun-control movement, inspiring a string of rallies. Though the galvanizing issue has been gun violence, at Friday’s rally in Center City many student signs addressed presidential politics, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other top-of-mind social causes.

The unifying message was simple: We aren’t going to shut up.

“I don’t care if I get in trouble,” said Mariah Bey of Multicultural Academy Charter School in North Philadelphia. “I walked out here with confidence.”

The ninth-grader said her mom asked her not to participate in Friday’s rally, but she couldn’t oblige. The rally was an opportunity, she said, to counter those who say, “You have no voice because you’re a child.”

“I’ve been told all my life that I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said, fighting tears.

Perhaps the emotional climax of the Center City rally came from Cheltenham student Taylor Laing, who shared the devastating story of her father, in the grips of mental illness, buying a gun and shooting his mother before killing himself.

The murder, she said, illustrates how easy access to guns can exacerbate the consequences of erratic behavior.

“People will say that since me and my sister are just kids, we can’t talk about politics because we don’t know what we’re saying,” she said. “Would you say that a girl who held her dead mother in her arms while waiting for the authorities after being shot twice is too young to talk about gun violence?”

Laing concluded: “If you are to take anything from this, remember, we are not too young, too black, too illegal, too gay, too foreign, to fight for our own right to live.”

With that, Laing stepped away from the podium at Thomas Paine Plaza and collapsed in tears as her friends and fellow protesters enveloped her in a trembling group hug.

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