“Vote them out.”
“Vote them out.”
“Vote them out.”
A chant like a reflex, kicking in after speeches, before performances, as people pressed and packed together on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Vote them out” may end up being the loudest, most consequential message of March for Our Lives. Tens of thousands of people, many of them students, flooded Washington, DC, a little more than a month after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 people. Survivors of gun violence spoke at the rally, telling their stories of hiding in classrooms, of hearing the pop-pop of gunfire in their neighborhoods. They honored those killed. All of it came attached to a message for the people in power: Inaction is unacceptable, and it ends now.
“Politicians either represent the people or get out,” Cameron Kasky, the outspoken Parkland survivor who helped spearhead the march, shouted from the podium. “The people demand a law banning the sale of assault weapons. The people demand that we prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines. The people demand universal background checks. Stand for us or beware. The voters are coming.”
The voters coming are the 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old students who arrived in DC with packs of friends, the ones carrying crinkled poster board that read “Am I Next?” These are the voters, or soon-to-be voters, who said they were ready to vote out the politicians who cozied up to the National Rifle Association or didn’t support gun control laws.
“The NRA,” Pamela Flores, a 17-year-old student from Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia, outside DC, said, when asked whom she blames for why a March for Our Lives has to exist. Little by little, she said, her generation will change that. She’s registered to vote already. She’ll turn 18 in July.
Chester Frye, 17 from Jacksonville, North Carolina, said the same: Get “the NRA out of politics.” Frye came with two high school friends, Elise Campbell and Diana Williams, both also 17.
They are students who grew up with lockdowns. Campbell said they’re tired of having to look both ways in the hallways, of having to expect the worst when an alarm goes off. They may be the “mass shooting generation,” but it ends with them.
Lauren Spar, Madison Evans, and Katie Becker, all seniors from Reston, Virginia, agreed that it didn’t have to be this way: the lockdowns, the shootings, the fear. They didn’t blame one politician or party — just inaction all around.
They recently had a lockdown at their school, not long after Parkland. It lasted one hour, and they said students were texting their parents, “I love you.” They still don’t know what happened exactly — a false alarm? A student who brought a gun to school? (There was a report of a student with a gun on March 9, but police said it was false.)
That is what Feidra Zeldin-Almanza, a 16-year-old from Tampa, Florida, fears. She’s enrolled in Florida’s virtual school program, taking lessons online, but her brother, who has special needs, goes to a public school. “I feel like I have to protect him,” she said.
Zeldin-Almanza, who wore an orange hat and has turquoise braces, said she plans to meet with Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) soon to talk about gun reform. She has a speech prepared for the meeting; it includes “facts about the lives we lose in just one day” from gun violence. She’s relying on statistics to make her case, though she also made a more straightforward case on Saturday — fewer guns, less violence.
She thinks the “mass shooting generation” ends with her and her fellow activists, but she’s also wary — these shootings keep happening. Sandy Hook stands out. “In fifth grade,” Zeldin-Almanza said, “I noticed this world is not perfect.”
The students marching didn’t expect a perfect world either, but they spoke about what they described as commonsense gun reform — universal background checks, assault weapons bans, waiting periods.
“It’s about the inability of Congress,” said Brid Freiberg, a 17-year-old senior from Erie, Pennsylvania, of why it hadn’t happened before.
Freiberg traveled down with her friend Josie Barclay, 18, who said the country as a whole wasn’t doing enough to act. But now, with the march and the walkouts, it felt like something was happening.
Chloe Andresol, a 16-year-old from McLean, Virginia, didn’t limit her anger to politicians. “I think it’s partially voters who say one thing and act differently,” she said. “It really is us.”
Which is why students said they’re now paying attention to candidates and why they’re excited to vote in November. The march was political, and though many said it wasn’t a partisan issue, more ire was directed at Republicans than at Democrats. A signed warned “GOP retirement date: November 6, 2018.” Another suggested that “the only thing easier to buy than a GUN is a GOP CANDIDATE.”
No politicians spoke at the event, but they weren’t entirely absent. Parkland activists brandished orange tags with $1.05, the amount of money Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has accepted from the NRA divided by every student in Florida — the price of each student’s life, activists said. Politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” bromides appeared in montage videos, which earned boos from rallygoers. Discarded poster boards blanketed the sidewalk outside of Trump International Hotel.
“We’re serious, and we are the future,” said Giovanna Yeun, a 20-year-old alumnus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She picked up her sister from the school the day of the shooting. If lawmakers don’t change the laws, she said, they’re going to vote them out.
Teen activists are sending the message that they’re unwilling to just defer to adults in power. They’re done, in a way, with the blame game. They are ready to take responsibility.
“It starts here,” said Krista Vanderpuye, a 17-year-old student at Lake Braddock High School in Virginia. “But it doesn’t end here.”
Which is why, a few times, the crowd tweaked the chant, to “vote her in.” When Yolanda King, the 9-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, led a call and response that ended with “we are going to be a ... great generation.” When Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez appeared, before she stood in silence for part of her 6 minute and 20-second speech, the time it took for a gunman to murder 17 people at her high school. The crowd stood silently with her in solidarity, raising their fists as if to say: “We’re ready.”