Teen speakers at Waco’s March for Our Lives event Saturday voiced grief and fear over recent school shootings and determination to fight for gun law reform, drawing applause from a crowd of nearly 400.
“Sometimes I ask, am I next?” Midway High School freshman Jeffrey Clendennen told the crowd at Heritage Square. “Are my younger siblings next? How many of us have to spill our blood before something is done? It’s no longer a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s a human crisis.”
The two-hour Waco rally and march was one of some 800 similar events worldwide Saturday to respond to the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 dead at a high school in Parkland, Florida. The event featured teenagers who had led mass school walkouts the week before to bring attention to the issue.
Casie Pollard, a sophomore who led the Midway walkout, told the crowd she was inspired by the outspoken survivors of Parkland, who have successfully pushed for gun law reforms in Florida.
“It struck as a very inspirational and insanely brave thing to do,” Pollard said. “Standing up to adults and people who say you cannot have a voice due to your age is quite difficult and nerve-wracking. … I’m also going to use my voice to speak up for what I believe in.”
Scenes from Saturday's March for Our Lives protests across the nation.
Student and adult speakers called for a ban on military assault style weapons such as the AR-15, as well as “bump stocks” and similar modifications that simulate automatic weapon fire.
They asked for universal background checks on gun sales and implored businesses to stop selling assault weapons.
The rally drew people of all ages, many carrying signs with messages including “Protect kids not guns,” “My dress code is stricter than our gun laws,” “I teach, I don’t shoot children” and “NRA: Not Right at All.”
Waco Independent School District Superintendent Marcus Nelson stopped for photos with two speakers from Tennyson Middle School, Abigail Zimmerman and Lily Coffman. He called the student activists “the best and the brightest.”
“I’m so proud of our kids and how courageous they are,” Nelson said. “As an African-American, I’ve seen the civil rights movement begin with someone saying ‘enough.’ … We understand we need to take this seriously.”
A group of about 40 mostly armed counter-demonstrators from across the state stood in the shade at the edge of Heritage Square, which had been reserved by rally organizers.
Waco police kept them out of the square, but rally attendees could see signs such as “Stop using dead kids to push gun control.”
Many of the counter-demonstrators openly carried rifles, and one used a bullhorn several times to interrupt student speeches until organizers went to converse with him. Meanwhile, Mary Duty, an event volunteer and McLennan County Democrats chairwoman, served bottled water to the counter-demonstrators.
The counter-demonstration was organized by This is Texas Freedom Force and Open Carry Texas.
“We’re coming out here to educate them on the Constitution,” said Brandon Burkhart, organizer of This is Texas Freedom Force. “All you’re doing when you’re pushing new gun laws is affecting law-abiding citizens and not the criminals. The answer is to arm Texas teachers.”
He said he does not think openly carrying military-style guns to a student-led rally was confrontational. He said it makes a statement.
“The reason we’re carrying a gun is to make a point that not all people with guns are bad,” he said. “The teachers right now, the parents, some of them, are telling kids that anyone with a gun is bad. We’re here to disprove that.”
Kyndall Rae Rothaus, pastor of Lake Shore Baptist Church, told the crowd that counter-demonstrators could not stop the momentum of the youth-led movement for gun law reform.
“You cannot fool the next generation of leaders,” she said. “You can’t intimidate them into silence.”
Haris Siddiq, a Reicher Catholic High School student body president who spoke at the event, said the counter-demonstrators had no effect on him.
“It’s a scare tactic, but it’s not working,” Siddiq said. “As long as we have each other, it’s all that matters.”
Siddiq led the walkout at Reicher, which he said brought some complaints from parents even though it was listed as a memorial service and not a gun control rally. Siddiq said he has learned from his father, businessman and Islamic Center of Waco President Al Siddiq, not to be afraid of criticism.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for my dad,” he said in an interview. “He tells me, don’t listen to them. We’re already a minority, so all we have is each other. I know my family’s always there for me.”
Other students urged adults not to become numb to the horror of the mass shootings, which have become almost routine.
“I personally cannot imagine being huddled in a classroom surrounded by the seemingly endless firing of a semiautomatic weapon, while hoping my trembling fingers can text ‘goodbye and I love you’ to my parents,” said Katie Fraley of Midway. “While I cannot begin to imagine it, the students at Parkland lived it. Seventeen people died experiencing it.”
Michelle Porter, a McGregor teacher who spoke Saturday, can do more than imagine a school shooting. She was a student at Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, when student shooters killed 13 people and then killed themselves.
“My wounds are still there,” Porter said. “That’s good. It helps me want to live a life of peace. It helps me to love fiercely and well.”
She said resolving the impasse over gun control has to involve more than rational solutions, because the debate is inherently emotional.
“I would ask us to connect to the emotions of sadness and lament that more children have died, that more people are suffering mental illness,” she told the crowd. “I ask us to sit with our feelings of sadness and lament longer and allow those feelings to shape what we ask from our policymakers.”