Youths raise their voices at Newtown rally to stop gun violence
NEWTOWN — The final stop of the 50-city gun violence youth protest tour not only invoked generational unity for kids to be the change they want to see, but historic movements such as the civil rights freedom marches.
If there was any doubt about the tour’s closing message on Sunday by teenage activists from the Florida high school where 17 students and staff were massacred, it was shouted to the standing-room only crowd of 1,000 people under a big-top tent at Newtown’s Fairfield Hills campus.
But the shouting didn’t come from Emma Gonzalez or David Hogg — two of the most vocal teens who founded the March for Our Lives youth movement six months ago.
Instead, the final call to arms came from 9-year-old Yoland King, the granddaughter of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who literally raised her voice.
“Spread the word!” King shouted into the microphone from atop a plastic milk crate, with the founders of March for Life and their Road to Change tour leading the crowd in repeated her words. “Have you heard? All across the nation, we are going to be a great generation!”
As much as the rally was a national moment and a symbolic meeting of youth from two of America’s deadliest school shootings, it was also a Newtown moment.
A highlight of the four-hour event was 16-year-old Natalie Barden taking the stage with her father, Mark, to sing a Tim McGraw song titled “Humble and Kind.”
Barden, in an orange Newtown Action Alliance T-shirt, had told the crowd how her younger brother, Daniel, was among the 26 first-graders and educators slain in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. Her father, in blue jeans and a white linen shirt, started strumming the guitar, with tears in his eyes.
“Always remember to be humble and kind,” she sang.
It was the only time during the emotional rally that a grown adult was allowed on stage.
All other adults — including friends of the March for Our Lives movement, such as U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, had to make their statements of support off-stage, away from the main action.
The rally comes three months after a national March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., and 800 sister events — and subsequent student-led classroom walkouts — calling for gun policy reform and youth voter registration.
It also comes two days before primaries in Connecticut for governor and Congressional seats, including the 5th District.
“Many of us have asked Congress to take action,” said Newtown high-schooler Tommy Murray, co-chair of the Junior Newtown Action Alliance, which lobbies for gun safety legislation. “Too many in Congress lack the political courage to say ‘no’ to the NRA.”
Classmate Jackson Mittleman, 16, agreed, thanking his peers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., for calling on American youth to make their voices heard at the polls in 2018.
“You taught us that young voices matter, and more importantly that young votes matter,” said Mittleman, a co-founder of the Junior Newtown Action Alliance, who helped coordinate the tour’s final stop in town. “Raise your right hand if you pledge to vote in November for gun violence prevention.”
For the most part, Mittleman was preaching to choir. Except for a scattering of signs supporting the NRA, there was no visible counter-protest from gun-rights groups, such as those that have been organized in Newtown in the past, and those that have followed the March for Our Lives tour.
Nor did teenage speakers from the stage target the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation — the 11,000-member firearms industry trade association.
In a statement the NSSF touted its safe storage and gun lock initiatives to prevent child shooting accidents, and its retail initiatives to prevent criminals and people with dangerous mental illness conditions from getting guns.
“The firearms industry welcomes participation in the conversation across the nation to make our communities and our schools safer,” NSSF spokesman Michael Bazinet said.
Youth attending the event such as Piper Coleman, a 17-year-old Newtown High School student, said the Sandy Hook massacre changed everything for her.
“It was really hard on us — that’s why now that I am in high school and I have more of a voice, I went to the march (in Washington, D.C.) and I am here right now, because I am hoping that some change will be created.”
Parkland student Matt Deitsch agreed.
“We came together to combat a corrupt system that perpetuates violence in the name of profit — a system that is working perfectly to divide us,” Deitsch said from the stage to cheers from his peers. “If every American worked to find solutions ... we would no longer have any new members of the club that Newtown and Parkland are a part of.”