Students, teachers, parents and survivors of mass shootings streamed into Washington Saturday for the March for Our Lives, a demonstration against gun violence that could draw hundreds of thousands of protesters to the nation’s capital.
The march is part of a surge of political activism that has transformed the nation’s entrenched debate over gun violence. It was organized by students who survived the mass shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who hope to succeed where many adults have failed: In forcing Congress to pass a comprehensive gun-control bill that will improve school safety.
Hundreds of sister protests are taking place in cities across the United States, including Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The main demonstration in Washington is scheduled to run from noon to 3 p.m. on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Many crowded into downtown early Saturday morning to stake out places at what promises to be less a march than a standing-room-only rally, with 20 speakers — all of them under 18 years old — and performances by celebrities including Ariana Grande, Common, Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Hudson, Vic Mensa, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt.
[Live blog: The latest from the March for Our Lives]
Authorities in the nation’s capital said they were taking extra security precautions, in part because many of the protesters are expected to be teenagers.
“To be honest, I’m scared to march,” Stoneman Douglas High senior Carly Novell said in a Saturday morning tweet, citing the risk that a shooter might terrorize those gathered to protest on Pennsylvania Avenue. “This is a march against gun violence, and I am scared there will be gun violence on the march. This is just my mindset living in this country now, but this is why we need to march.”
Callie Stone, 18, was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue wearing a denim jacket with “Nasty Woman” emblazoned on it, a term President Trump used against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election and that progressive women adopted as a moniker.
With Stone was her mother, whom she had told the previous day that she wasn’t sure she wanted to raise children in a world where students fear going to school. “But I said, ‘Look at you, at your generation — you all are bringing us hope,’” Kelly Stone, 54, said.
Kelly Stone was a middle-school student in Canada in 1975 when a gunman killed two people and himself at Brampton Centennial Secondary School, which she went on to attend. She said that incident has cast a long shadow over her life and that of her daughter.
Nearly 200 people have died in school shootings since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, which left 13 dead and inaugurated a relentless, two-decade stretch of campus gun violence. During that period, more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours, according to a Washington Post analysis.
“We’ve grown up knowing this could happen to us,” Callie Stone said.
As many as 500,000 people are expected to attend March for Our Lives in downtown D.C. on March 24.
[The extraordinary number of kids who have endured school shootings since Columbine]
Just five days ago, 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey was fatally shot at Great Mills High School in southern Maryland by a 17-year-old former boyfriend, who died as well. One other boy was injured in the gunfire. Willey was taken off life support two days ago.
For the roughly 100 students, alumni and parents from Great Mills High emerged from the escalator at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station on Saturday, the march had a raw immediacy.
“We are!” Emerson Schaeffer, 20, shouted into a megaphone.
“Great Mills!” cheered the crowd, decked out in their school colors, forest green and gold.
Schaeffer said he and friends had been thinking about attending the march even before the shooting. “Then this happened,” he said, “and we said ‘Yep, we’re going.’ ”
The White House issued a statement Saturday praising the participants in the marches, though they are calling for tougher gun-control measures than President Trump supports.
“We applaud the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today,” White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said in the statement, in which she added that “keeping our children safe is a stop priority of the President’s.”
The president himself was in Florida at Trump International Golf Club, located about 35 miles from Parkland.
The Department of Homeland Security, working with D.C. police and the mayor’s office, has set up a system to notify demonstrators of warnings or detours. (Text “March 24” to 888-777 to sign up.) Those entering the main march area have to pass through security check points.
[The March for Our Lives is today. Here’s what you need to know.]
Medical tents staffed by volunteers line the march route, doubling as gathering points where people can find each other if accidentally separated. Water is being made available to protesters and food trucks would be nearby, organizers said.
“As the young men and women from Parkland, Florida, have been preparing for Saturday’s event, the District has been preparing to keep them safe here in Washington,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said this week.
Bowser and other city officials held a pre-march rally at Folger Park Saturday morning, intended to highlight the effects of gun violence on children in the District.
Among the hundreds pouring into the park ahead of time were three students at National Collegiate Prep High School — a charter school in Southeast Washington — who lamented that gun violence in the poorest and mostly African American neighborhoods of the nation’s capital doesn’t command the same national publicity as that in Florida.
“As soon as stuff happened in Florida, everyone wanted to do something,” said Nevaeh Williams, a 16-year-old sophomore who lives in Anacostia. “But every week someone gets shot in D.C.” Williams’s cousin was shot four years ago. A classmate, Zoruan Harris, the quarterback for the football team, was fatally shot in 2016.
[Demonstration expected to pack streets in D.C. Here’s how to get around.]
Although America’s most famous school massacres have happened at mostly white schools in suburbs or small towns, children of color are at far greater risk of gun violence at school, the Post analysis found. Hispanic students are twice as likely as white students to experience a school shooting, and black students three times as likely.
“When it happens in a school in a nice neighborhood, it’s shown nationwide. But we don’t get that attention,” said Danielle Perkins, a 16-year-old junior whose stepbrother and friend’s older brother were shot in recent months.
More than 800 events were scheduled to take place around the world Saturday, according to March for Our Lives organizers. Beyond major cities, they will include demonstrations in Las Vegas, where a gunman killed 58 people at a country music festival last year; in Parkland, Fla., home to Stoneman Douglas High; and in Jonesboro, Ark., where the community is marking the 20th anniversary of a middle-school shooting that left four students and a teacher dead.
Survivors or relatives of those killed in other mass shootings are also expected to attend the march in Washington, including some from Columbine; Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 first-graders and six adults were shot dead in 2012; and Marysville Pilchuck High School in Washington state, where four were fatally shot in 2014.
Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, said he is attending the march as a representative of the Pulse victims, including his friend Christopher “Drew” Leinonen and Leinonen’s boyfriend, Juan Guerrero.
“I don’t think this conversation is just about schools,” Wolf said. “It’s about: The current generation is fed up with lawmakers who have done nothing on this issue regardless of which community has been affected. Students, LGBT people, people of color. This issue is intersectional.”
Marches and rallies that force survivors to relive those horrible moments can trigger strong emotional reactions, Wolf said. Several organizations will be available to assist survivors of violent crimes and rally participants who need support.
“It’s so important to remember that while these teenagers are giving us hope and inspiring us and we want to rest everything we have on their shoulders, they’re also kids who have been through something horrific,” Wolf said. “Something they will never forget.”
Counterprotests by gun rights supporters are also expected in cities including Boston, Boise, Salt Lake City and Valparaiso, Ind.