Marching for Our Lives

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She was standing alone. A pretty girl, she couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old. I don’t know how she arrived at City Hall, in downtown Cincinnati, on this shivery March day, with wet snow beginning to fall. Maybe her parents dropped her off? Maybe she rode with some older friends?

She was holding a large orange sign with hand-scribbled words and numbers. The numbers signified annual handgun deaths in various countries around the world. The statistic for America was staggering. It dwarfed the others. While I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the numbers, it is true that the U.S. gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher than other high-income nations.

At the bottom of her sign, as a coda, she’d written “God Bless America.” Probably a touch of sarcasm. But she’s young, and she looked like she was from a good family. Personally, I’d have chosen a more scorching coda.

***

It was the March for Our Lives rally in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A. on March 24, 2018, and “Eliza” was just one of thousands who’d gathered in front of City Hall to protest. There were many other rallies around the country, in addition to the one in the nation’s capital that drew a quarter million people – many of them young – in the wake of the recent mass murders in Parkland, Florida.

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Eliza, with some sobering figures

The rallies are an effort… another effort, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Portland, and other tragedies too numerous to count – to force our intransigent elected officials, many of whom campaign using gun lobby dollars, into addressing America’s shamefully lax gun laws.

At one time, firearm deaths were handgun-related only, guns purchased both legally and illegally. They were primarily restricted to the inner city, the evolutionary endpoint of a welfare society infected by poverty, drugs, racism, and corruption, attributed to punks, criminals, and cops (some of whom, as we’ve seen recently with crystal clarity, enjoy squeezing triggers). And attributed, secondarily, to the gun industry. Most of us got our dose of gun violence via local evening news: “info-tainment,” delivered while we sipped our cocktail of choice. Then, later in the evening, we jumped to fictionalized violence, courtesy of “the All-New (fill in the blank)” television drama.

Slowly and imperceptibly, however, gun violence crept into our suburbs. And now it’s exploded in our educational institutions. Our schools were once places of learning, and also havens of safety. Now, our kids and grandkids are getting blown away by legally purchased AK-47s.

There’s something profoundly sad when children are forced – literally, at gunpoint – into organizing a protest to repair the damage wrought by their parents.

***

I arrived at 801 Plum Street fairly early. The streets around City Hall were cordoned by police, and several cops were stationed at various points. A large television camera was positioned in front of the building near the edge of the street. Several long tables were pushed against the building, with several volunteers manning them. About 50 people milled about the front steps. One of them was adjusting a microphone stand.

Is this all there is? I thought. I’d attended a gun control rally in downtown Columbus back in the ‘90s and was disappointed at the small turnout. I’d hoped for a larger turnout today. Maybe the 32-degree temp and snow forecast discouraged people. I overheard one woman remark “Does the NRA control the weather, too?”

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Some ugly guy with a green sign. If you want change, you’ve got to vote.

Gradually, though, the crowd swelled. It eventually spilled into the street, then the opposite sidewalk, then extended down the street. It was a diverse cross section: young and old, male and female, white and black. Most of them carried signs, many homemade. The signs expressed all different sentiments. Many of them blasted the National Rifle Association (NRA), at one time merely a club, but now a potent right-wing political force. Some singled out individuals, like Trump, or Ohio Senator Rob Portman (R), or Ohio congressman Steve Chabot (R), who have consistently pandered to the NRA.

In fact, some Republican politicians refuse to even use the phrase “gun control” (similar to their avoiding “climate change”). I’ve visited their websites off and on for years, so I know. Their dropdown boxes for issue selection have no options for “Gun Control” or “Firearm Violence.” Instead, it’s “Crime/Violence” or “Second Amendment Rights.” They know who buys their meal tickets.

Eliza’s sign was my favorite: a cold, clinical dose of reality. Another favorite was the one that bragged about the “F” grade the sign holder had received from the NRA.

I didn’t bring a sign, but one of the volunteers asked if I’d like to encourage voter registration, and I agreed. During the speeches and subsequent march, I held my sign high, so the NRA can at least see that its opponents and critics are voters, too.

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All ages showed up.

The speeches began about 11 a.m. The first speaker was Rasleen Krupp, a junior from nearby Wyoming High School. This girl was amazing. Her bullhorn voice seethed anger and power, as she implored the crowd to stand up to opponents of gun control and fight to reform America’s gun laws. She delivered an oratory that would make Cicero proud.

Ethel Guttenberg, from nearby Amberley Village, had a granddaughter killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Her speech was courageous and strong, calmly thanking everyone for turning out, and, like Krupp, encouraging everyone to keep fighting, to not give up despite the disappointments ahead. She also noted that some politicians refused to even meet with her.

I wonder if she was referring to Portman, or Chabot, or both.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D) spoke, to mild applause and a few boos. He decried gun violence (someone yelled out “from cops!”) and encouraged people to register and vote in November.

A teacher from Mount Healthy school system spoke while hugging his son. He lambasted Trump and others for suggesting teachers be armed, saying that he’s “not trained to use a firearm,” and shouldn’t be required to defend his students just so individuals can legally purchase weapons of death.

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Whole families turned out to peacefully march and protest.

A young boy spoke. I didn’t get his age, but he looked about 9 or 10. He’d earlier addressed City Hall. He explained, haltingly, that his school had held a drill, like a fire drill. The kids were told to huddle together in a corner of the room. He said that he wanted to be in the center of the huddle, so that he might be more protected from gunfire, but that he felt sorry for his friends in the outer circle. I’m not a psychologist. But I would think a drill like this could have lifetime consequences for a child.

***

The march went for about a mile, winding through downtown Cincinnati. Lots of chanting, a few sidewalk spectators and building residents cheering us on. It felt good to be moving with passionate people of similar mind. The march conjured memories of old marathon races I’d run, except this race had much more significance.

After the march, all the signs were dumped on the steps of the local office of Senator Portman. Not surprisingly, he didn’t show his face.

***

Some people are saying that the Parkland massacre is a tipping point. That American citizens are finally getting fed up. I thought this same thing after Sandy Hook, when first-graders were mowed down in cold blood. Yet nothing happened in Washington. Once we verbalized our thoughts, and said our prayers, we shuffled back to reality TV.

Another riveting speaker on Saturday, a woman representing Mom’s Demand Action, noted that this is a “uniquely American problem.” Other nations, including allies and some we’ve defeated in wars, now look at us and shake their heads in disgust. 0324181039-00America is fast losing the global standing and respect it once had. And it’s not just about Donald Trump. It’s about a culture of guns and violence that has permeated our fabric and is ripping us apart from the inside.

If we’re going to remedy this cancer we’ve encouraged for so many years, it’s going to take much more than thoughts, prayers, marches, and speeches. Right now, gun manufacturers and the NRA have a stranglehold on our elected officials. The only way to loosen that grip is to fire the political puppets we currently have and remain single-minded on regularly and consistently electing gun-control candidates in local, state, and national elections, who will raise their middle finger to the NRA, and pass common-sense gun legislation.

At this latest juncture, it’s youth who are leading the charge (and who can blame them, when their lives are on the line?). While their activism is encouraging, young people’s priorities shift, just as my generation’s did after Vietnam and Watergate: we fall in love, start careers, get married, invest in Wall Street… we lose focus, and forget.

A public health crisis on this scale requires the attention of everyone, who will remember never to forget.

Never.

 

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19 thoughts on “Marching for Our Lives

  1. Pete, with all due respect, I think this piece is long on histrionics and short on coherent solutions. Sure, it’s fun to bash Republicans and march in the streets, but what does that accomplish? The future belongs to the Gen X and Millennial generations, but their voter registration and turnout is pathetic. Nothing will change so long as people fail to exercise their most fundamental power to make change by voting. The sad reality is that our society is awash in guns. I’m all for strict background checks, waiting periods, etc., but common-sense reforms like that won’t change a thing until the people elect representatives who aren’t invertebrates.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Tad. It’s a shame this problem has to be a Left-Right thing. But when so many politicians, primarily in one party, refuse to adequately address it, it becomes political.

      1. “Histrionics” means “theatrical performances” or “deliberate display of emotion for effect” (per Merriam-Webster). I may have displayed a little emotion – mass murders of children tend to elicit emotion – but I don’t think my essay is “long on” histrionics. Most of it concerns a protest march, the signs, and the speakers.

      2. I didn’t intend my essay to offer “solutions.” It’s intended to describe my experience at a civil disobedience gathering and to draw attention to a horrific problem in America (which answers your question “what does that accomplish”). If you want my solutions, go back and re-read my essay “America and Guns,” from Dec 2012, which I wrote after the Sandy Hook massacre.

      3. I don’t bash Republicans and march in the streets to combat gun violence because it’s “fun.” That’s a callous implication, Tad.

      4. Regarding your comment about voter registration and poor turnout by young people, did you miss what I said about voting? The photo of me holding a “Voter Registration” sign? Did you gloss over my last few paragraphs? I’m quite aware of the lack of voter turnout by young people. And the reason for voting is to create a better society, which demands legislation, and in this case, legislation to reduce gun violence.

      5. Yes, it’s a “sad reality” that our society is “awash in guns.” I alluded to this by discussing Eliza’s sign and mentioning our “culture” of guns. Obviously, your solution to this problem is to do nothing, except blindly elect… vertebrates?

      6. Regarding your casual dismissal of “common-sense reforms,” I completely disagree that they won’t change anything, and you omitted banning assault-style weapons, and closing the gun show loophole that enables juveniles, the mentally unstable, and criminals to purchase guns. I’d elaborate, but like I said in #2, this is a separate discussion. Also, trying to convince skeptics that serious, common-sense firearms controls (as occurs in other countries) do lead to success is – as Sen. Barney Frank famously said – like trying to talk to a dining room table.

      Lastly, Tad, I’ve noticed you get prickly whenever I criticize your political party. I admire your allegiance to the Republican Party, whose attempts to remedy gun violence in America – by squawking about the 2nd Amendment and putting armed guards in our schools – are utterly shameful. But just so readers don’t get the impression that all Republicans are as coy and dismissive as you about America’s gun problem: my father was a lifelong fiscal Republican. While he was alive, he could care less about protecting military weapons so men-children can get their jollies by playing bang-bang on the weekends. He even told me once he was perfectly fine with banning all handguns and rifles… which even most liberal Democrats, including me, don’t advocate.

      It’s a shame there aren’t more like him around these days. He’s one Republican vertebrate I might actually vote for. Peace.

    • I hope so, Neil. We just had a granddaughter, and… well, you get the idea.

      America is not in a good place right now. As far as guns, this country has to evolve some more, but maybe we can plant some seeds. If nothing else, I’ll be on the correct side of history (not that anyone will remember after I’m gone!). Peace.

  2. Thanks Pedro for this heartfelt 1st person account of the beginning of the end of the beginning ( I heard an 18 year old say that). The high school seniors and those around that age have always, in my eyes, had a spirit and life force know to few other groups in the human race. More power to them and you and every other age/race/socio-economic class/gender that cares enough to cry… or to raise their fist at the absurdity that is found in America today. God bless every one of us who know this can no longer be the norm. Shooting in schools must come to an end – and the NRA has a obligation that they’ve long ignored – control the killing machines that have become a far-to-popular “hobby”. I know those who have unbelievable home “arsenals” but will never understand what they expect to do with them. The only purpose as I see it: Cause innocent lives to tragically end. Thanks again and God bless as we STILL pray for peace

    • I appreciate your feedback, Rock. Yes, the NRA does have an obligation. It used to be a club for hunters, collectors, skeet and target shooters. But long ago its priorities became twisted: irresponsible leaders preaching to fawning disciples who lack the tools and ability to think clearly and independently (we’ve seen this often in history, haven’t we). But these high school kids, and their courage, are amazing. Here’s hoping for a new beginning!

  3. Mindsets and entitlement are hard to change (throw in a large side of ignorance). I’ve been sitting up here watching this play out for years and still it continues. Like any kind of shift it will take someone special to lead it. Then others will catch the fire and it will happen. Common sense and a whole lot of other things coming together are what it will take.
    There are a lot of really good people in that country of yours and it’s going to take the majority of them to pull this together. Lots of models around the world to pull from as far as laws go. CB will do his small part to help out my brothers and sisters across the border so these tragedies stop. Being heard is on one. Good luck with that Pete.

    • Your country has a lot of hunting rifles, from what I hear, CB, but a much different mindset. If you could send some of your Canadian sensibility down this way, that can only help the cause!

      • Different mindset, culture, laws. Hunting is a way of life for a lot of folk up here (hunting rifles not assault weapons). Strict laws so we don’t get every wack job from the States and other counties that want to hunt here for a trophy. We finally have stopped the Grizzly Bear hunt all together (I think) but again different mindset and laws. Far from perfect but we do get some things right. We have our tragedies but not to the scale and regularity that you get down there. My heart and thoughts go out for the right thing to be done in your country. Later Pete and take care.

  4. Hey Peter: I have never understood the logic of military-style firearms for sale to the public. It doesn’t make sense, even if you use the argument that a civil war era gun is a permitted possession. I do think that one of our prime drivers in gun violence today are the expanded violence of TV…will Mark Harmon or Scott Bakula ever enter a room without gun drawn… and the decay of moral boundaries on the movie and video screen. Life is cheap, and the media celebrates it. The other driver is a preponderance of drugs which create insane, impoverished people and communities where again, life is cheap, if not meaningless. Thanks for writing!

    • Phil, I agree with everything you said. TV and movies contribute to our culture of guns and violence. I grew up with it, kids are still growing up with it. The violence has a numbing effect on society. And mixing guns with drug abuse and poverty creates a lethal cocktail. While we’ll never completely eradicate gun violence, we can drastically reduce it, if we really tried. Military weapons now purchased by private citizens? How did we get to this point? Thanks.

  5. Very interesting to get the perspective as an adult who has gone through other campaigns in our country’s past.

    The entire mess makes me deeply sad and extremely angry at the same time.

    My son is a teacher in Milwaukee and says their school has been a safe place in the past with murder and drug violence in students’ home neighborhoods. Now lock-down drills are necessary and kids can’t help but worry if their school is next. How do kids who are already going to school hungry concentrate as they subconsciously watch for subtle signs of violence. Sad.

    How can politicians continue to cater to the NRA as people are killed in their safe places at school and at work or the movie theater. When money has that much control, politicians are no longer “trying to do what’s best for their constituents.” Mad.

    We live in a quiet, primarily middle-class city in Wisconsin where arts are a huge part of the community yet three area high schools have experienced lockdown in the past two weeks because of death threats and gun violence (one act literally stopped the day before it occurred). Schools already suffering from lack of time and funds now need to focus on security and every time a school goes into lockdown, a child’s security is chipped away.

    This type of society is not what our forefathers planned or what our brave veterans fought so hard for.

    • The irony is, a lot of these “brave veterans” are staunch NRA supporters. I know, because I work with them.

      But you’re right, what a terrible society, when kids have to deal with lockdowns in schools. Like one of the moms said at the Cincinnati march, this is a “uniquely American problem,” almost unknown in other Western countries. Gun manufacturers and the U.S. gun lobby (and their weak-kneed political whores) have controlled the conversation far too long with their myth about the 2nd Amendment’s intent. But real change won’t happen until gun control supporters (the majority) get as passionate about the issue as the NRA-influenced minority. It’s a shame, but it’s taken regular mass slaughters to even make a dent. We’ll see what happens in November, if gun control will at least come close to economics and jobs as far as voter concern.

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