When 16 Houston and Bibb students filed off a bus in Atlanta on Saturday morning, they joined a crowd that would soon number nearly 30,000 people, all there to demand tighter gun laws.
The scenes of marchers filling streets repeated itself across the country in March for Our Lives events, part of a student-led movement demanding changes to gun laws they say will keep their schools safe.
Momentum for stronger gun control laws sped up last month with the murder of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
“It’s time for a change, and this is happening way too often,” said Warner Robins High School junior Amber McCants, 17, speaking of mass shooting at schools. “I just feel that it’s important for someone to step up and say something.”
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The students’ bus pulled up near the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Downtown Atlanta nearly 45 minutes before the rally’s advertised starting time. Even showing up that early didn’t get them standing room on the plaza near the speakers’ stage, and crowds filled up more than a block behind them. But loudspeakers and screens broadcast a program which lasted nearly an hour, including students singing, reciting poetry, and an address from Atlanta Democratic Congressman John Lewis.
Organizers told police to expect 10,000 to 15,000 people. But Atlanta police estimated the crowd soon blew past that size. Some city garbage trucks were used to block traffic from the roughly three-quarter-mile march route from the civil rights center to the state Capitol building.
The Midstate delegation included students or recent graduates of Stratford Academy and Warner Robins, Houston County and Northside high schools.
“I feel like every time there’s a mass shooting, we always say, ‘Oh, it’s so sad. We’ll send our thoughts and prayers.’ But we actually don’t do anything about it,” said Zeyna Abdulla, 16, a sophomore at Stratford Academy.
“We never put in any laws that will prevent this again, and it just keeps happening. It’s like a cycle. So, we really wanted come out here and help actually make a difference. Help change the law,” Abdulla said.
She wants the minimum age to purchase a gun to be raised to at least 19, possibly to 21, and she wants that to be a federal law which would replace state-by-state age requirements.
Some of the students made signs for the protest. Others carried signs made for them by a Stratford teacher.
Amy Griffith Dever, a Macon attorney, volunteered as an adviser to the students.
“What you’re doing today is an opportunity to really have an experience that’s going to be with you I imagine for a lifetime,” Dever told the students using microphone of the chartered bus.
“This is chance for you to start being part of this social contract that we need to have with each other, and you all need to have as much voice as anybody else does,” she said.
Brenda Sutton, who also served as an adviser for the trip, made a live Facebook video on the way up to Atlanta.
She marched for her sixth-grade grandson.
“I just want to make sure that when he goes to middle school that he feels like he can go to school and do his work and not have to deal with somebody coming in and tearing up the place,” Sutton said as she spoke into her cellphone camera for her video.
Sutton, who is the director of the Houston and Macon Judicial Circuits Alternative Dispute Resolution Program, said she also plans to be available to students to help them put their ideas into action.
During the march, Justin Fambro, a Northside graduate and now student at the Art Institute of Atlanta, reached out and hugged Sutton, who’s also his grandmother.
Fambro had filled out one of the papers folks with clipboards were circulating among the crowd: voter registration forms. The state elections this year will be the first for which the 18-year-old Fambro can cast a ballot.
He said he’s marching because his little brother is in school and his mother works at a high school.
“We need schools to be safe for everyone,” Fambro said.
The museum which marked the start of the march commemorates people power, folks organizing, marching, boycotting, protesting — and voting — to claim civil rights in countries across the world.
Now the people who want to change gun laws are using the same tactics.
Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, had some thoughts for the marchers.
“We need to march, we need to sit in, sit down, we need to stand up, do whatever we can to disturb the order of things, because there will be no peace, there will be no order, until we end gun violence ... Young people who will be 18: get out there and register and vote,” said Lewis.