Thousands of students poured out of classrooms in the US on Wednesday in an unprecedented expression of mourning and a demand for action to stem the country’s epidemic of gun violence.
In a stunning visual riposte to the public inertia that has followed mass shootings in the US, crowds of students at an estimated 3,000 schools across the country marched on running tracks, through parking lots and around building perimeters, carrying signs that read “Enough” and chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, gun violence has got to go”.
The walkout fell one month after a student gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, in the deadliest high school shooting in the country’s history. Survivors of that massacre joined other student activists to organize Wednesday’s demonstration, which was promoted by the Women’s March movement that sprang up after the election of Donald Trump.
“There were lots of emotions, many people were crying. We were thinking of the 17 we lost,” said Florence Yared, a third-year student at Stoneman Douglas, who joined 3,000 of her schoolmates on the school’s football pitch, where exactly one month ago many were running for their lives.
Students elsewhere filled sidewalks in Brooklyn, kneeled in hallways in a Georgia high school, stood silently in a row in Virginia, and sat in a group with backs turned on the White House. Most demonstrations were planned to last 17 minutes, one for each of the Parkland victims.
In some school districts, students gathered against the warnings of administrators. At Booker T Washington high school in Atlanta, Georgia – once attended by Martin Luther King – a public announcement warned that any protester who left school hallways would incur “swift and severe consequences”.
“Dr King carries a legacy even in death,” said Markail Brooks, a senior. “So I feel as if it’s an obligation to carry on what he wanted and what he was trying to fight for and that’s why this day is very important.”
At an elementary school in Alexandria, Virginia, children synchronized their watches and a captain in each room led students outside two minutes before the planned 10am protest start time.
“Some parents have felt that we’re not old enough to know about it,” said one student, Carter, 11, about school shootings. “They think because we’re fifth graders we don’t know anything about what’s happening.”
Another student, Henry Gibbs, 10, said: “Just the sensation that we are going to make a difference makes me feel proud.”
In Chicago, public schools changed class schedules to accommodate the walkouts, while the archdiocese announced that about 80,000 students at 200 Catholic schools would participate in assemblies to discuss gun violence.
The protesters called for new gun safety legislation, including a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and the introduction of universal background checks. They also opposed the additional fortification of schools with fences and armed guards, policies endorsed by the NRA, America’s powerful gun lobby group.
The NRA’s “national school shield” proposal to prevent school shootings calls for the “hardening” of school sites with not only armed guards and armed teachers but also the elimination of trees, parking lots and some windows, and the construction of fences.
“Let’s work together to secure our schools and stop school violence,” the NRA said as the walkouts began. Neither Trump nor the White House offered a statement.
At the Academy for Young Writers high school in Spring Creek, Brooklyn, New York, students used the walkout to also bring attention to discrimination against people of color, women, and other groups.
“Our protest brings together many things and I do empathize with those in Parkland in Florida, but this is Brooklyn, East New York, and we have our own separate struggles and I wanted to advocate for that as well,” said Nathaniel Swanson, 16.
“We have policing [issues]. Discrimination in housing [and the] workforce. Gentrification is really getting bad in Brooklyn. Gun violence … these are the things that happen in our community.”
The youthful protesters seemed to be the latest indicator that a carapace of resistance to gun policy changes in the United States could be cracking. Recent polling has indicated that as many as seven in 10 Americans want stricter gun laws, the highest such figure in 20 years.
A recent Monmouth University poll found that 83% of Americans support requiring comprehensive background checks for all gun purchasers, including private sales between two individuals. Among NRA members, 69% support comprehensive background checks, the poll found.
The gun policy reform group Everytown for Gun Safety reported a 25% leap in members in the two weeks after the Parkland shooting, and at least 20 corporations changed age limits for buying guns or stopped selling some semi-automatic rifles altogether after the shooting, according to activists.
“While Congress sits on its hands, students like my son will stand and walk out of school this morning to demand action on gun violence,” tweeted Shannon Watts, the founder of the gun safety group Moms Demand Action, on Wednesday morning. “Next we march. Then we vote to #ThrowThemOut.”
Gun safety activists are focused on the midterm elections in November as an opportunity to expunge pro-gun legislators, whose ranks are increasingly out of proportion with the national mood.
As protesters filled the streets, the Senate judiciary committee convened a hearing on school safety in light of the Parkland massacre. Republican chairman Chuck Grassley gave voice to “the imminence and necessity of passing some legislation quickly” but he hewed in his questioning to minor proposals that even the NRA supports, such as the banning of certain gun accessories.
Multiple gun control bills are currently pending in the US Congress, including bills that fit with the student protesters’ demands relating to assault weapons and background checks. But Congress in the past has repeatedly taken up such legislation only to shelve it, year after year, including in the wake of the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
In Connecticut, Washington and New York, the signs were hoisted by growing hands: “Disarm hate”, Protect kids not guns” and “We call BS.”
On the football pitch in Parkland, Florida, the students listened to a recording of the song Shine – “heaven let your light shine down” – as sympathy banners sent from around the world draped an adjacent building.
Then, 17 minutes later, the students filed back inside.