How American kids brought the gun reform fight to the streets of Washington - Macleans.ca

How American kids brought the gun reform fight to the streets of Washington

Isabela Barry lost her best friend in Parkland. How she and her classmates came to Washington to sing, rage and show America what change will look like.

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Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were joined by over 800,000 people as they marched in Washington for gun control (Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Call time was 9:15 a.m. Isabela Barry arrived backstage, having listened for her name during roll call. In a heated tent, high-top tables were branded with the name of her school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, as she later recalls. Barry and her classmate ate doughnuts for breakfast, glazed and chocolate glazed respectively.

Barry, 16, was one of the singers at the March for Our Lives at the National Mall in Washington, and a survivor of the February massacre that prompted it. After a shooter killed 17 people at their school in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day—including Barry’s friend, Helena Ramsay—survivors started a movement to call for specific gun policy changes, urge young people to vote and demonstrate in person on March 24.

With about 800 marches around the world, more than a million people got their memo.

“Twitter can only tell you so much about support,” says Barry, who couldn’t see the end of the crowd from the stage. “When you’re out there, you can think about the numbers, or you can think about who you’re doing it for.”

The march in Washington turned Capitol Hill into an ant hill of organized density, with people pressed up against fences and every blade of grass pressed down. T-shirts were $10; pretzels were three; and people wore price tags reading $1.05—marking the amount per student in Florida that Senator Marco Rubio received from the National Rifle Association, according to the calculations of Stoneman Douglas students. It was sunscreen weather. Bubbles floated overhead, with a crowd too thick to identify the bubble-blower.

The sophistication of the Washington line-up, including Jennifer Hudson, Broadway actor and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and a descendant of Martin Luther King Jr., might suggest the march was adult-led. Instead it was inherently youthful; speakers ignored grown-up etiquette as they kept the crowd waiting in powerful silence, and, with a few profanities and instructions to politicians to “get your resumes ready,” spoke to the Mall with gall.

“Never Again,” they demanded of shootings, and picket signs in the crowd, including one featuring SpongeBob SquarePants, echoed the lofty superlative.

READ MORE: Eight students say why they’re marching for gun reform: ‘No one wants to be next’

The students behind March for Our Lives are divided into two groups, each led by about 10 students, largely depending on which elective they took at Stoneman Douglas, and each used age to their advantage. Leaders of the #NeverAgain movement such as Cameron Kasky, David Hogg and Emma González, who primarily took TV production, made speeches directed at politicians with teenage intrepidity. Meanwhile, leaders of the Shine MSD movement, like Barry, who took drama, sang at the march with charm that boosted empathy for the cause.

Barry was a singer in a performance of “Shine,” a song written by two of her classmates, which another performer of the day, Miley Cyrus, has encouraged her millions of social media followers to download. Barry’s performance fell between speakers who told stories of lost friends and twin brothers, and warned politicians, “get ready to get voted out—by us, the future.”

These were children born in 2000 or later, many after 9/11, with fresh frames of reference and new expectations for their country. As the largest student-led demonstration in decades, the march against gun violence was childish—and powerfully so.

***

Before Barry and her classmates performed at the march, two of the girls had written their song in 30 minutes back in Parkland, and the group had rehearsed it just once in a hotel room for victims’ families the night before the march, at which point they had changed two of the lines.

Before stepping on stage, the pianist had cold hands and needed an assistant to urgently warm them up, and the group hug at the end of the song, when additional students leapt from the bleachers to embrace the singers centre-stage, was not part of the plan. Despite the improvisations, Barry says she didn’t feel pressure from the crowd. “When you get out there, it all fades away,” says Barry. “That’s what Miley told us, but it was true.”

Miley Cyrus performed “The Climb,” as the line-up pivoted from teenybopper tunes to traumatic stories and back again. Student Edna Chavez told policy-makers to “listen up,” recounting the normalcy of gun violence in Los Angeles—”normal to the point that I learned to duck from bullets before I learned to read”—and recalling the day her sibling was shot: “you see the melanin on your brother’s skin turn grey.”

The tone flipped again with the voice of nine-year-old Yolanda Renee King, granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr. “Spread the word! Have you heard? We! Are going to be! A great generation!” she chanted as the crowd repeated after her. “Now I’d like you to say it like you really, really mean it, and all the world can hear.”

A video of military personnel explained why assault rifles used in conflict zones don’t belong in America, right before students on stage swarmed to take selfies with performer Ariana Grande, who puckered her lips and entertained this unofficial intermission.

Additional mishaps occurred. “My script!” cried Stoneman Douglas student Delaney Tarr as it blew away in the wind. “I just threw up on international television,” said fellow survivor Sam Fuentes, after getting sick in the middle of her speech, “and it felt great.”

Parkland students were conscious not to usurp the stage-time. “We openly recognize that we are privileged individuals and would not have received as much attention if it were not for the affluence of our city,” said student Jaclyn Corin. “Because of that, however, we share the stage today and forever with those who have always stared down the barrel of a gun.”

Chicago, Brooklyn and Newtown, Ct. sent speakers to the march. “I am here today to represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper,” said Naomi Wadler, 11. “I am here today to acknowledge their stories, to say they matter, to say their names, because I can, and I was asked to be,” she said. “People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own. People have said that I’m a tool of some nameless adults. It’s not true.”

Among the most-anticipated speaker was Parkland survivor Emma González, who became a face of the #NeverAgain movement when she spoke at the Broward County Federal Courthouse three days after the massacre. “Six minutes, 20 seconds with an AR-15, and my friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice,” she said. “Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dillan … Jaime Guttenberg would never, Meadow Pollack would never…”

Gonzalez stopped. An older person, out of courtesy, might have told people she planned on conducting a minute of silence, or three minutes, but instead, she did not speak until she had been at the podium for the length of time it took the shooter to complete his massacre at her school. “Brilliant,” one spectator said.

The video of the Parkland shooting played on jumbotrons next to the stage, but some crowd members thought it was unnecessarily graphic, and Barry, who had heard a bullet fire at her school last month, wasn’t prepared to see the footage on the screen backstage. “Isabela dove for the floor and shut her ears because she can’t see videos [of the shooting],” says her mother, Meredith Barry. “Her best friend was killed. She thinks the bullet she heard killed her friend.”

Her daughter explains the experience herself. “It’s like we had to grow up so quick,” Barry says. “We lost our innocence that day, and we can never get it back.”

***

On Feb. 5, Isabela Barry submitted a 1,200-word paper for one of her classes, called “An open argument against guns.” One excerpt recounted how easy it is to access guns, and, “as a high school student, knowing this gives me chills to my core. The fact that the things that happened at Sandy Hook and Columbine could happen anywhere, even at my own school. It is terrifying, it makes me not want to go to school for fear that when I leave my house it will be the last time I see my parents.”

Nine days later, Barry was in drama class, which is preparing for a musical. Next thing Barry recalls is flooding into a storage closet with 60 students. “I was shoved,” Barry recalls. “I fell on people because people were shoving me.”

Many students were in denial that a serious incident was happening, as they had recently done drills for tornadoes and fires, Barry says. But in the closet on Feb. 14, she was at the front of the group near the door, and she heard a gunshot. “You feel so helpless because you just hope that the right person finds us first before the wrong one does,” recalls her friend, Alex Moscou. He says a policeman eventually found and evacuated them from the closet.

Students were out of school for two weeks. On Feb. 17, outside a local courthouse, González delivered the speech that brought her international attention, becoming, with her cargo jacket and buzzed hair, an icon of the #NeverAgain movement.

The same day as the speech, Andrea Peña texted her friend, Sawyer Garrity, as Peña recalls, saying, “Hey, it’d be totally cool if we wrote a song.” Peña texted the chords to Garrity, who came to her house, and at her piano, they wrote the song they later called “Shine.”

Therapy dogs, with names like Luigi and Spark, were available to students as they returned to school, and on the first day back, Barry’s mother recalls, “I literally walked Isabela in like she was in kindergarten.” Students attended half-day classes for one week, then incrementally increased the school days, as one student recalls, adding one more hour each day until they returned to their 7:40am to 2:40pm schedule.

New security measures required all visitors to show ID when arriving at the school, Barry’s mother says. She says the facility doesn’t have metal detectors, but that students will be required to use transparent backpacks when they return from Spring Break.

“I think people have been saying they’re going to boycott that,” says Peña. While some students complain they’ve spent a lot of money on their own backpacks, Peña worries for her privacy. “It’s like, ‘Hi, world, this is everything I carry in my bag,'” she says. The backpack boycott isn’t yet official. “That’s TBD, I guess.”

While the drama students formed a group called Shine MSD, they resisted political involvement. “There were definitely people trying to get us to point out politicians,” says Barry. “We’re more of the healing side of it.” Meanwhile #NeverAgain became the hashtag associated with school walk-outs and political rallies. The two movements aren’t close-knit; even though Barry goes to school with the other leaders, she only found out about March for Our Lives while watching CNN.

During one rally in Florida, Parkland students invited former astronaut Mark Kelly, who connected them to the Giffords charity, named after Kelly’s wife, Gabrielle Giffords. Through the charity, the Shine students and their parents flew to Washington on the plane of the New England Patriots.

Other Douglas students signed up to fly down to Washington at no travel expense, and they were assigned two floors of a Hilton DoubleTree hotel near the Virginia-Washington border. The boys’ floor was the sixth floor, as one student recalls, and the girls stayed on the fifth.

***

It wasn’t a school night, but Barry was in pajama bottoms and sock feet by 9 pm on the night of the march. In the hotel lobby, she slumped on the floor with Peña, singing with the giddiness of child who is over-tired.

Her friends ate lava cake from Domino’s and cleaned their pant legs by picking off hairs from the therapy dogs with them on the trip. They scrolled through their phones under loose supervision of parents, including Barry’s mother, who works in medical billing, and her father, a UPS driver.

At 10:30pm, the revolutionaries went to bed. Since the shooting, Barry cannot be alone, and she often falls asleep on video chats. At the hotel, she could not turn out the lights, even with her parents and sister at her bedside. Back in Parkland, her father has strung Christmas lights around her room.

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