Washington D.C., March 24: I am striding down Pennsylvania Avenue with my teammates. Ahead of us rises the Capitol and across our view unfurls the banner over the stage. In block letters it reads, “March For Our Lives”. On February 14 this year, 17 people were killed and more than a dozen injured in a [...]


I was just one among thousands and thousands

Shanela Ranaraja, a Lankan student at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, writes of her experience of being a part of the “March For Our Lives” protest

Washington D.C., March 24: I am striding down Pennsylvania Avenue with my teammates. Ahead of us rises the Capitol and across our view unfurls the banner over the stage. In block letters it reads, “March For Our Lives”.

On February 14 this year, 17 people were killed and more than a dozen injured in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The survivors decided to rally against the outbreak of mass shootings in the US. Just over a month later, those plans have become a reality.

There are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. They have come from every state. They are parents and teachers and neighbours and friends, but mostly they are students. Some have seen their friends and families gunned down beside them. All of them know that they could very well be next. All of them are here to do something about it.

My friends and I have another responsibility – we are working for the college newspaper, prepared to carry the stories back to those who could not be here in person.

Already we are each sprinting off in different directions, all scenting a different story to be told. Here, a group in matching yellow T-shirts, the logo of their support organization emblazoned across their chests. There, a group of volunteers in lime-green vests. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas troop through the crowd, which falls back to let them through. Everywhere signs are being held up to the people around them, to the cameras hovering overhead, to the world. The people holding them know this is their chance to be heard.

I am an international student in America. They ask me why I am here – why ‘American’ gun violence would matter so much to me that I travelled 14 hours to march against it. Now, in a crowd too diverse to begin describing, I look around and have my answer. A gun is a gun and death is death. Where I come from, where any of us come from, has very little to do with that.

By 10.30 a.m., we can no longer see our feet. There is no space to move. It is early spring, eight degrees Celsius, but we are warm. I brace my teammate as she balances on a parking block, her camera held overhead as she gets a shot of the stage. A woman with flyaway white hair leans against the orange barricade. Her sign reads “I am not a sharpshooter – do your job so I can do mine.” Not for her Trump’s plans to arm school teachers.

Marching for change: The huge crowds that thronged to the anti-gun rally in Washington last month

I propose that we move to a better spot and this is a mistake. There is nowhere left to go. It is noon, and the speeches are just beginning. I look at the people who have been standing in this space for the last few hours. They know that they cannot sit down, or leave in a hurry, but it doesn’t matter, because they are here to see this through.

One by one, they walk out on stage and say their piece.Their names are lost in the applause, and I cannot see the stage, can barely see the screens, so the pain and rage and passion in those voices is the only thing I know of them in this moment. Later, I will know that the girl who talked about losing her brother Ricardo to gun violence was Edna Chavez, a 17-year-old from Los Angeles, but in that moment I chant his name along with thousands, because she asked us to. The two middle-aged women next to me abruptly begin to sob. Sam Fuentes, is the Parkland survivor who gets sick on stage halfway through reading the poem she wrote for them all – and gets straight back up, defiant.

Yolanda Renee King, granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr, leads the crowd in chanting “We are going to be a great generation!” I join in, smiling at the image she creates, but later a friend will ask me “She’s not even ten. How can she even know what she believes in?” And I realize Yolanda is the same age as my sister. And I will think of how it must feel to be put up in front of the world, to have to fight for the lives of thousands of others because no one else will. Perhaps it would have made her grandfather proud, but he wasn’t nine years old when he started fighting.

Emma Gonzalez is the final speaker. She survived the Parkland shooting, and was one of the strongest voices calling for the reform of gun laws in the aftermath. She stands silent on the podium for six minutes and 20 seconds, as long as it took for a gunman to kill 17 people at her high school on February 14, 2018. The crowd cheers and claps and chants for half of that time until finally realizing that this silence isn’t about them, even though they stand there. It’s for those who never will be here again.

When it is all over, the survivors cheer and hug on stage. And then, the rest of us leave. Here and there, people still hold up their signs. Some cluster among the cherry blossom trees at the corner, others hold up the sidewalks. But most are walking away, eyeing the food truck and rejoicing as their phones regain service. They have places to be. My friends and I walk quickly, mapping out the stories we will tell. There are 54 of us and we have to catch a train, board a bus. Fourteen hours stretch before us. We have to go home.

Later, they call it a success. They congratulate the youth of America on what they have accomplished. They say they made people listen. I am not so sure. I think of thousands of volunteers, watchful, helpful, ensuring everything happened as planned. I think of those orderly lines, waiting patiently for the metro. I think of Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus appearing on stage, and people screaming louder than they had for the speakers, delighted by the free concert, excited to make history. I think of what we saw, standing in that crowd. Anger and grief and determination, yes. But also hope, and optimism. The utmost faith that something good would come of this.Could they all be wrong, those hundreds of thousands? Will it take far more anger, more fear, more death, before those in power feel compelled to act? Maybe not.

Maybe they are right. Maybe when people come together the way they did that Saturday, it really is that easy to convince the world it’s time for a change.

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