Students march for their lives: ‘If others aren’t going to do it, I think we should’

Organizers vow political action after protest

Proudly showing their views are (from left) Eva Hammerschmidt, a ninth-grader at East Grand Rapids High School, and Quinn Guikema and Axel Hammerschmidt, fifth-graders at North Park Montessori

As Parkland, Florida, students continue to stand up, demand action and grab headlines in response to the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, local students echoed their messages Saturday during their own Grand Rapids Student-Led March for Our Lives.

From Rosa Parks Circle, six teenage organizers from Forest Hills Northern High School and Grand Rapids Public Schools’ City High School led a crowd of thousands, adding to the national rallying cry, “Enough is Enough.” Grand Rapids Police estimated about 4,000 people turned out on a clear and chilly day to call for safer schools and gun-law reforms.

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“Adults aren’t taking action like us kids want,” said FHN sophomore Sara Ojala, who helped lead the event. “We are the ones in schools, obviously; it’s not them. If I want something to change I am going to take action for myself and I’m not going to wait for someone else.”

Nationwide, huge crowds, including hundreds of thousands of people in Washington, D.C., gathered for Saturday’s March for Our Lives events. Marchers heard from students taking matters into their own hands against the all-to-common scenario of active shooters in schools and gun violence more broadly. The national movement demands that a comprehensive and effective bill be immediately brought before Congress to address these issues.

The Grand Rapids march, featured in a video by the Grand Valley Lanthorn, brought out plenty of adults but was led by students who say they are committed to long-term activism for political change.

While setting up prior to the march, student organizers said they were compelled to get involved in a big way, not wanting to sit on the sidelines for a cause they strongly believe in.

“We saw the students in Parkland and they were standing up and doing things and I was like, ‘I want to also,’ because we can’t leave an event like this in the hands of adults,” said Ellie Lancaster, senior class president at City High. “I’m also going to turn 18 next year so I thought this would be the perfect step to take before I can actually vote.”

Students said the issue is personal to them. It’s about safety and security in school, and the fact that adults and legislators with political agendas have not taken action means it’s up to them to do so.

‘A lot of kids are getting hurt from all of these school shootings and something needs to be done.’ — Alectra Kowal, Kelloggsville seventh-grader

“I personally don’t want to feel scared while I’m in school,” said FHN sophomore Evan Calderon. “I want to be able to focus on what I’m learning, and not if that person I don’t know in the office has a gun and is going to come in and shoot us. There should be restrictions to help stop this kind of madness.”

Added Sara Ojala,“I know that ever since Columbine, there has been shooting after shooting and people for a week are like, ‘Oh, this is so tragic. I send my thoughts and prayers,’ but no action has been taken. It’s 2018 and nothing is being done.”

Other student organizers included FHN sophomores Emily Masternak, Mya Gregory and Emily Dieffenbach.

One of the march organizers, Forest Hills Northern sophomore Emily Dieffenbach, addresses the crowd of thousands at Rosa Parks Circle

Rallying for Reform

The crowd filled the Rosa Parks plaza and spread out onto Monroe Center, as student organizers, community members and activists passionately called for sensible gun reform onstage. Some shared their own personal tragedies involving gun violence before marching through downtown. Middle and high school students from many area schools lifted signs and chanted “Vote Them Out!” and, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the NRA has got to go!” alongside teachers, moms and dads, some pulling toddlers in wagons.

Kelloggsville Public Schools students Alectra Kowal, a seventh-grader, her sister, Aliah, a ninth-grader, and brother, Isaak, a fourth-grader, marched with their mother, Jackie Kowal, and grandfather, Bob Kowal. They said they have lost a family member to gun violence.

“A lot of people from my school don’t think people are taking gun control seriously,” Alectra said. “A lot of kids are getting hurt from all of these school shootings and something needs to be done.”

Holding signs with messages like, “The cost of weak gun laws is human life” and “We march for the 17 students who never will,” a group of East Kentwood High School students gathered.

‘If we got a lot more younger people to vote we would be able to make a big difference.’ — Torian Hemphill, East Kentwood senior

“I think at this point it’s kind of ridiculous that we still don’t have anything stopping this from happening in our country and we really need to effect change. If others aren’t going to do it, I think we should,” said senior Torian Hemphill. “If we got a lot more younger people to vote we would be able to make a big difference. I know I’m going to vote in every single election I can when I’m old enough to.”

“I want to be putting pressure on the government to do something,” added senior Emma Pinchak. “I think organized events like this are really good for media attention that gets (legislators’) attention.

City High School senior Ellie Lancaster, one of the march organizers, speaks to the crowd packed into Rosa Parks Circle

Speaking Up Means Criticism

Student organizers said they learned a lot about political organizing by planning the event, like the need to pay attention to small details and follow the city’s rules. They also faced opposition from people trying to discredit their message.

“We learned that there are a lot of different groups that will come and try to stop this,” Forest Hills’ Evan Calderon said, noting that they were anticipating that gun advocates might protest their march. “We learn you have to turn the other cheek and ignore them.”

“Always take the high road, for sure,” said Sara Ojala. “Especially on Facebook with the comments we get. Don’t stoop to their level. Stay above it.”

The students said they believe the Parkland teens and the thousands of students joining the cause can have an impact, especially at the ballot box. The students now plan to partner with Students Demand Action, which works with Moms Demand Action, to help throw support to candidates running in November who want gun reform. “We just want to get as much support as possible for these new gun reforms and laws we hope are passed,” Sara said.

“This is really just to show our representatives that, as students, we are not going to take this anymore,” Evan said. “We really just want to pressure them into making changes. I really do think it will have some impact.”

The march at Rosa Parks Circle was multi-generational, including East Kentwood High School students Briana McAllister (left), sister Allison (right) and their mother, Diane

Time to Register

They also can’t wait to vote.

“This is a generation that is making change, and we will be the ones to vote soon,” Sara said. “I hope we will be able to change these laws that aren’t working, and these elected officials that aren’t doing what we want them to do.”

Landyn Teachout, a junior at Grandville High School, said protesters need to back up their rhetoric by registering to vote.

“People see that there’s an issue here, but people aren’t voting,” she said. “Hopefully people will vote and we will see the change in government we want to see.”

State Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, was one legislator paying attention. She joined the march from Rosa Parks Circle and said she was impressed with the huge, multi-generation turnout.

“I’m very inspired to see the young people get so involved,” said Brinks, who is running for State Senate this fall. “They’re realizing they do have a lot of political power. I’m really anxious to see how that turns out this November.”

The protest bolstered her hopes to address gun violence and school shootings at the state level.

“It seems like the Republicans are talking only about mental health,” said Brinks, a third-term legislator from the 76th House District. “I’d like to talk about gun policy as well. I think it’s pretty clear you can’t do one without the other and still make a difference in this area.”

Charles Honey contributed to this report

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March for Our Lives around the world, including Grand Rapids

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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