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.
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?”
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.
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.
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. America 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.