By Carl Francis Penders
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
WASHINGTON, D.C. – “This is the beginning. It’s not the end,” said Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” during a break from coverage of the March 24 March for Our Lives in Washington, organized by Parkland, Fla., students who survived the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Referencing his April 2011 Daemen College address, and recalling that former U.S. Rep. Jack Quinn was present that evening, Matthews said, “Jack Quinn. What’s he doing now? Quinn’s the kind of Republican we need.”
“Beating the NRA is not easy,” Matthews said. “What are these kids going to do when they’re in graduate school, and nothing’s changed?”
Yet plunging into the nation’s firearms fray come the Parkland students. With hearts broken by the madness the world foisted upon them, to quote Ernest Hemingway, they are determined to be “strong at the broken places,” and not be broken by the world, or by the National Rifle Association.
“We’re looking for legislation to make our lives safer, not just in school, but in everyday life,” said Rebecca Schneid, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas junior. The march was “a great show of unity. An amazing experience,” she said, urging people, “to keep the momentum going. Use the voice you’ve been given to make change happen. And we support universal background checks, research on gun violence and a ban on assault weapons.”
“Very successful,” Melissa Falkowski, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas journalism teacher, said of the march, adding,“I’m working with the AFT [American Federation of Teachers] teachers and students to get people registered to vote and draft gun safety legislation.”
Barbara and Andy Parker, too, were broken by the insanity of gun violence. Their daughter Alison, a television reporter, was killed while working in Moneta, Va. They carried a placard with Alison’s picture that read, “Gunned Down, August 26, 2015, NRA Collateral Damage.” Yet they, too, are strong in broken places.
“We’ve been at it since the day after our daughter’s death,” said Barbara Parker, advocating sensible gun laws. “We could not do anything less. I love it! [the march] I couldn’t be prouder if it were my own kids.”
While impassioned speeches emanated from the podium, passion also reigned on the ground. Volunteers trained days ahead, meeting student organizers.
Alvin Upton, a Maryland resident who likes “giving back,” greeted marchers with, “Thank you for coming. Thank you for coming.”
Mike Lewis from Columbia, Md., a retired teacher who served in the Peace Corps, possessed a “volunteer mentality.” Yet tragedy struck during his tenure as a teacher. “I had kids killed in the streets,” he said.
“This is our first march,” proclaimed a Virginia couple. With two young toddlers, they marched to ensure safe schools.
Olivia Anderson and Maydee Martinez were HeadCount volunteers, a nonpartisan voter-registering organization. “We’re here for everyone,” stressed Anderson. “Even gun rights advocates.”
But gun rights were not on the minds of students I encountered. Dean Hughes, a junior at Virginia’s Langley High School, said he was against guns, alluding to favoring an outright ban.
“I come from a British family,” he said, having relatives in Glasgow, Scotland, and Manchester, England, that he visits regularly, places where “no one really has a gun.”
Raphael Leslau, Hughes’ soccer teammate, and a student at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., was born in Israel and visits Jerusalem every summer. “There’s always riots and protests going on,” he said. “But you just can’t get a gun.”
“It’s not just scary, it’s crazy,” he added referring to American gun violence, and the ease with which weapons are accessed. But he felt the march “will be powerful” because it included “all types of people, of all ages,” adding he was “surprised by the diversity.”
Ximena Morales, a Walter Johnson junior who hails from Columbia, said her cousin’s best friend was shot and killed by an ex-boyfriend. Both were high school sophomores. “I knew her,” Morales said, “and it was hard for me to see her go through that.”
“We see the problems with violence,” Morales said. “It’s wrong that people can just go and get a gun. … You can’t get a gun like this in Columbia. You can’t even get a gun like this in Venezuela.”
“Seeing kids give such powerful speeches brought tears to my eyes,” she said, accessing the conviction and emotion she shared with the Parkland students, where strength has come from “broken places.”
Carl Francis Penders, of West Seneca, has written about the Ohio National Guard shooting at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, that killed four students and wounded nine. “Fire in the Heartland,” a documentary film on that shooting, will be shown at SUNY Buffalo State’s Burchfield Penney Art Center at 7 p.m. Thursday.