By Taylor Ha
Even on tiptoe, I could barely see the survivors. But their grief was loud and clear.
“Six minutes and twenty seconds with an AR-15, and my friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice,” Emma González began, her voice trembling on the last word.
“Aaron Feis would never call Keira ‘Miss Sunshine.’”
“Alex Schachter would never walk into school with his brother Ryan.”
He would never. She would never. They, the 17 dead teenagers from the Parkland gun massacre and every other gun violence victim across the U.S., will never.
It was one of the most powerful moments of Saturday’s student-led march against gun violence in Washington, D.C. It was a reminder of why hundreds of thousands of people gathered in more than 800 places around the country. It was the “March for Our Lives” – a call to our nation’s conscience.
I’m here as a student journalist from Stony Brook University. There are eleven of us – nine journalism students, two professors. We had roused ourselves before dawn, congregated at Penn Station and departed from New York at 6:45am, just as the sun began to rise.
When we arrive in Washington D.C., we agree to rendezvous back at Union Station and split into teams of two to three. The photographer, Chris Cameron, and I decide to find the main stage – the place where the Parkland survivors will speak.
We pass Humvees and police cruisers and satellite trucks, coach buses that had shuttled hundreds of people towards the nation’s capital. There are street vendors hawking “March for Our Lives” buttons and baseball caps, colorfully clad protesters donning slogan-covered apparel and carrying hand-painted signs. “My UTERUS is more regulated than GUNS,” one sign says. “Would you trust this teacher w/a gun!?!” shouts another.
And then, in a café window a few feet above us, Chris spies a sign emblazoned in black and red letters – “MARCHING FOR MY MSD PARKLAND NIECES + NEPHEW” – and a middle-aged woman eating toast and scrambled eggs, a black cane beside her feet.
Chris and I enter the café. We don’t ask for coffee or speak with any servers; we make a beeline for her table. And we find ourselves with a protester from another generation – Judith Bullock, a 62-year-old retired attorney from North Carolina.
“I’m the aunt of three kids who graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas and one who’s currently there, and I’m the godmother of all these children,” Bullock tells us over her breakfast. “I felt like an old-time protestor like me needed to come here and stand up.”
A few streets away, we spot a small group with a woman wielding a sign and, more importantly, a drawstring bag with the words “Suffolk” on the back – a Long Islander, a person from our community.
I jog forward and catch her eye.
“Um, excuse me, are you guys from Long Island?” I ask.
My hunch is correct – we’ve found the Tvelia family and two students from Suffolk Community College.
“It means a lot more to be here in the center of all of this,” says one SCC student, Jillian LaChacz, who left Riverhead around 5:30 a.m. today. “And show them just how serious we are – that we’re going to take this argument to them.”
“Can you tell me about why you came to this march?” I ask Kai Tvelia, a fourth-grader at Peconic Community School.
He’s holding a sign that says, “Fewer Guns = Fewer Deaths. So elementary, even elementary school students understand!”
I wonder if he actually does. He’s wearing a red, long-sleeved shirt and gray sweatpants, the same kind of outfit my brother wore when he was Kai’s age. Kai is short, maybe four feet tall, and the sound of his voice is still closer to soprano than baritone. But last week, his mother says, Kai wrote an article for his school newspaper about gun violence. I wait for his answer.
“Because deaths from weapons that aren’t actually supposed to be for regular people is…just strange,” he says, pausing between words. “That somehow, they get assault weapons.”
“So if you were to go to the people in charge of making all these laws about guns, and if you were to tell them something, what would you say?” I ask. He hesitates.
“I don’t know what I would say, but it would have something to do with you couldn’t have automatic weapons.”
“So do you think guns should be allowed, but not necessarily the automatic ones?”
Chris and I struggle our way across Washington. The nearer we get to the stage, the thicker, more impenetrable, the throng becomes. We are now members of this crowd, a can of sardines, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder and barely able to take another step. There are people standing on concrete planters, sitting atop parents’ shoulders, pressed against thorny bushes, wedged against the base of statues. I envy the tiny figures perched on rooftops.
Chris squeezes past strangers’ shoulders and brushes aside their snappish comments, but it’s harder for me. I’m five feet tall and shouldering a bulky backpack. I consider climbing the cherry blossom trees so I can get a better view. But I’m neither agile nor tall enough.
I cling onto Chris’s jacket and his camera bag strap for dear life.
“This is chaotic,” I mutter under my breath. Somewhere, a few feet away, a stranger replies.
“It’s a good thing,” the voice says. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
The speeches begin at noon. I try my best to see the speakers – the Parkland shooting survivors, the teenagers whose siblings were shot and killed. I jump a few times, peer around people’s heads and arch my feet as high as they can go, but to no avail. I stoop down on the stone floor when my legs grow weary and my abdomen aches from standing.
I have never felt more short in my life. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all sat down so the short people could see? I think. Midway into the speeches, a kind stranger makes room for me on a ledge, and I can finally see the speakers on the jumbo screen that seems a mile away. But the whole time, I am listening and reporting – with my iPod touch audio recorder, with my ears and with my pen and notepad.
One by one, they share their stories. They speak about gun violence in both classrooms and the streets of Chicago. They relive some of the scariest moments of their lives on an international stage. And they do so with moxie, tears and, in Samantha Fuentes’s case, vomit.
Six students from that day are seared into my memory.
The first one is Edna Chavez, a 17-year-old high school senior from South Los Angeles.
“My brother,” she began. “He was in high school when he passed away. It was a day like any other day – sunset going down on South Central. You hear pops, thinking they’re fireworks. They weren’t pops. You see the melanin on your brother’s skin turn gray.” She paused.
“Ricardo was his name,” she told us, her voice breaking on the last syllable. “Can y’all say it with me?”
There was Naomi Wilder, an 11-year-old from Virginia who gave a voice to the African-American women ignored by the media – the invisible victims of gun violence.
“People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own,” she said, her voice echoing across Pennsylvania Avenue.
“No, you’re not!” we yelled.
“People have said that I’m a tool of some nameless adult.
“No, you’re not!”
“My friends and I might still be 11, and we might still be in elementary school. But we know. We know life isn’t equal for everyone, and we know what is right and wrong.”
Then there was Mya Middleton, a 16-year-old black girl who came face-to-face with a gun in a Chicago grocery store.
“Freshman year in high school, I wanted to get some things from the store for my mom because she was sick. I remember pulling on all these clothes, and going out in 10 or so degree weather. It was so cold. I get to the store, grabbing all this stuff, thinking maybe she needs this, maybe she needs that, and finally getting into line. This guy in front of me, all of a sudden gets upset because he didn’t have enough money to pay for the things that he wanted to buy. He gets out of line and starts trashing the store and throwing everything over the floor, pushing carts, just – just making a fool out of himself. Finally when I check out, I walk to the door and I’m ready to go, and I hear a scream and a bang. I turn around and see he’s grabbing all this stuff, pushing it into every crevice of his body, trying to gather as much as he can…when he finally turns to me.”
From somewhere in the audience, there was a low “Oooh…”
“He comes towards me and I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t think. All I remember is seeing dark jeans coming towards me,” she says, her words starting to quiver.
I swallowed back my tears.
“He pulls out this silver pistol and points it in my face,” she continued, her voice shaking, but steadily rising. “And says these words that to this day haunt me and give me nightmares. He said, ‘If you said anything, I will find you.’ And yet I’m still saying something today.”
There was Yolanda Renee King, a surprise guest – the 9-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Spread the word,” she said, urging the crowd to chant after her. “Have you heard? Across the nation, we are going to be a great generation.”
“She sounds just like Martin Luther King,” a nearby stranger whispered.
There was Samantha Fuentes, the Parkland survivor who asked us to sing “Happy Birthday” to a boy who is no longer here – Nicholas Dworet, who died in last Valentine’s Day gun massacre, who would’ve celebrated his 18th birthday last Saturday.
And, finally, Emma González, perhaps the most forthright, prominent teen in the fight against gun violence. She spoke for six minutes and thirty seconds – just over the time it took for 17 kids, including Dworet, to die.
As we stood in silence, I closed my eyes. I heard many things: a siren blaring in the distance, the chirping of birds, the drone of a police helicopter overhead, the shifting of jackets and coats. I listened to cheers from the crowd, the ubiquitous chant “Never again.” A few sniffles.
And, hours after González’s timer broke the silence, I finally saw her face in those six minutes and twenty seconds. On the train ride back home, on my Instagram feed, I saw her tears.
“Fight for your lives,” she said. “Before it’s someone else’s job.”