Peering out from the bleachers to the hundreds of students gathered to hear him speak, Riley Gordon raised the megaphone to his mouth.
“How many more deaths will it take before Congress decides that this is an issue?” he said. “When Sandy Hook happened, they said, ‘never again.’ But nothing has changed.”
Gordon was one of the leaders who organized a walkout last week on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, shooting, that claimed the lives of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. This particular gathering at Harris Field attracted some 1,000 students from the Bronx High School of Science, and Gordon’s alma mater, the High School of American Studies.
But Gordon and his schoolmates were not alone. At just around 10 a.m., on March 14, students from more than 50 schools in New York City marched out of their classrooms. Locally, schools like Riverdale Country School, SAR High School, Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy, Ethical Culture Fieldston School and IN-Tech Academy walked out of classes to demand gun control legislation in an effort to combat school shootings like the one in Parkland.
Unlike historical school protests against actions like the Vietnam War and school segregation, for the most part, teachers and administrators supported the walkout, which included speeches and even the reading of the names of those killed in Florida. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers union, said these students were done waiting for Washington to stand up to pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association.
“Our New York City students, and students across the country are very clear: they don’t want to live with fear,” he said. “I was proud to stand with some of the students today as they made their voices heard.”
At Harris Field, students chanted call and responses like “Tell me what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like,” as well as slogans like “never again” and “enough is enough.”
Democracy also looks like people going to the polls, voting to make a difference. So it’s no surprise that, at least at Harris Field, there was a booth available where students turning 18 could register to vote.
That booth is exactly what Coalition Z had in mind coordinating the city walkouts. It’s a progressive high school organization with a name inspired by “Generation Z” designed to make government and political leaders more accessible to youth.
“We are going to be voters in the next couple of years, and that’s the only way we can evoke real change,” said Zoe Davidson, Coalition Z’s co-founder and executive director. “We want mass shootings to stay in the headlines, but we want those headlines to be about change, not tragedy.”
Back at Harris Field, Gordon talked about how the NRA claims data is lacking to support gun control, but the dearth of studies supporting such claims is all thanks to the lobbying group. In 1996, the NRA convinced Congress to defund the Center of Disease Control and Prevention’s gun violence research.
Before his speech, students from Bronx Science embraced their counterparts at American Studies on the field. Just before a moment of silence, the teenagers huddled in the cold chatted and laughed, while others chased one other like it was recess.
While this might seem unusual for a protest at this level, it also demonstrated the very essence of what they all were fighting for: the right to live, and be young.
The fight is far from over. Coalition Z plans more marches and protests, as well as teaching students methods and skills that will help them create real waves of change. Through workshops and action packets, students will be taught how to speak to government leaders, and other valuable skills like crafting professional emails on complicated issues.
Each walk out was different, but most if not all lasted just 17 minutes, in honor of the 17 victims in Parkland. Some spent the time with a moment of silence. Others shared stories about the victims. And then even more sang or chanted.
However, all the students walked out of class for the same reason.
“I know people were friends with those students” at Parkland, said Leah Yoes, a Bronx Science senior.
“I just felt a connection there.”
And Yoes also witnessed a noticeable change in her peers. Students are conducting their own research, reaching out to senators and congressmen, thinking of new ways to raise awareness — and most importantly, registering to vote.
“The students of Parkland have been incredible and inspiring and they showed us how high school students can a make a change,” Davidson said. “You then realize that you have a capacity of change too.”