Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in the nation's capital and cities across the U.S. on Saturday to demand action against gun violence, the latest and most visible show of force by a student-led political movement born in the wake of a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Led by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a shooter's rampage last month left 17 dead, the teens who took the stage at the March for Our Lives in downtown Washington called for Congress to enact stricter gun controls in response to the nation's relentless, two-decade stretch of campus shootings.

Hundreds of sister protests were taking place in cities across the United States, including Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Although the Washington march was bankrolled by left-leaning celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and George and Amal Clooney, students who survived the Parkland shooting, students directly affected by gun violence have been its faces.

Advertisement

Their unequivocal message on Saturday: The inaction that has repeatedly characterized federal lawmakers' response to school massacres and everyday gun violence would no longer be tolerated.

"To the leaders, skeptics and cynics who told us to sit down, stay silent and wait your turn, welcome to the revolution," Cameron Kasky, a Stoneman Douglas High student, said to a standing-room only crowd that packed at least 10 blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue. "Either represent the people or get out. Stand for us or beware. The voters are coming."

People gather in front of the stage before the start of the March for Our Lives rally on Saturday in Washington. Photo / Washington Post, Salwan Georges
People gather in front of the stage before the start of the March for Our Lives rally on Saturday in Washington. Photo / Washington Post, Salwan Georges

About 20 speakers - all of them kids or teens - spoke to a striking diverse crowd that included students from every background: black and white, rich and poor, suburban and inner-city.

Together, they sang along to Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande, shed tears during a chorus of "Happy Birthday" to a Parkland victim and chanted "Enough is enough!" as one of the movement's leaders, Emma Gonzalez, stood silently on the stage.

One of the rally's most emotional speeches was delivered by Zion Kelly, a senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, whose twin brother Zaire was shot and killed by a robber in September. Choking back tears before a rapt crowd, Kelly described the close bond he had with his brother.

"From the time we were born we shared everything. I spent time with him every day because we went to the same schools, shared the same friends and we even shared the same room," he said. "I'm here to represent the hundreds of thousands of students who live everyday in constant paranoia and fear on their way to and from school."

Because many of the demonstrators were children, authorities in the nation's capital said they were taking extra security precautions.

"To be honest, I'm scared to march," Stoneman Douglas senior Carly Novell said in a Saturday morning tweet, citing the risk that a shooter might terrorize those gathered to protest in Washington.

Advertisement
Daisy Hernandez, 22, stands with friends in front of the stage before the start of the March for Our Lives rally on Saturday in Washington. Photo / Washington Post, Salwan Georges
Daisy Hernandez, 22, stands with friends in front of the stage before the start of the March for Our Lives rally on Saturday in Washington. Photo / Washington Post, Salwan Georges

"This is a march against gun violence, and I am scared there will be gun violence on the march. This is just my mind-set living in this country now, but this is why we need to march."

Callie Stone, 18, was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue before the march wearing a denim jacket emblazoned with "Nasty Woman," a term President Donald Trump used against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election and that progressive women adopted as a moniker.

With Stone was her mother, whom Stone had told the previous day that she wasn't sure she wanted to raise children in a world where students fear going to school. "But I said, 'Look at you, at your generation - you all are bringing us hope,' " said Kelly Stone, 54.

Kelly Stone was a middle school student in Canada in 1975 when a gunman killed two people and himself at Brampton Centennial Secondary School, which she went on to attend. She said that incident has cast a long shadow over her life and that of her daughter.

Nearly 200 people have died in school shootings since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, which left 13 dead and inaugurated a relentless two-decade stretch of campus gun violence.

During that period, more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Demi Lovato performs during the March for Our Lives rally Saturday in Washington. Photo / Washington Post, Salwan Georges
Demi Lovato performs during the March for Our Lives rally Saturday in Washington. Photo / Washington Post, Salwan Georges

"We've grown up knowing this could happen to us," Stone said.

Just on Tuesday, 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey was fatally shot at Great Mills High School in southern Maryland by a 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, who died as well. One other boy was injured in the gunfire. Willey was taken off life support two days ago.

Great Mills students, wearing their green-and-gold school colors, were among those thronging the main stage Saturday afternoon.

Carmen Hill, 17, a Great Mills senior, said Willey had been in her fifth-period American Sign Language class. She said it was time for elected officials in Washington to take heed of the anger and activism that has seized the country in recent weeks.

"If they weren't listening," Hill said, "they are now."

Organizers had hoped for a crowd of half a million in Washington. Police did not provide crowd estimates, though by 1 p.m. about 207,000 people had ridden Metro, officials said.

That was more than three times normal Saturday ridership, although it did not approach the 470,000 people who used the system by 1 p.m. for the Women's March last year.

The White House issued a statement Saturday praising the marchers, despite their calls for tougher gun-control measures than Trump supports.

Crowds gather at the March for Our Lives rally Saturday in Washington. Photo / Washington Post, Salwan Georges
Crowds gather at the March for Our Lives rally Saturday in Washington. Photo / Washington Post, Salwan Georges

"We applaud the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today," White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said in the statement, in which she added that "keeping our children safe is a stop priority of the President's."

The president himself was in Florida at Trump International Golf Club, located about 35 miles from Parkland.

Nevaeh Williams, a 16-year-old who lives and attends school in the poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods of Washington, said that while the focus on reducing gun violence was welcome, it was coming belatedly for young people who face it daily on the streets of the District and in other cities.

Williams' cousin was shot four years ago. A classmate, Zoruan Harris, the quarterback for the football team, was fatally shot in 2016.

"As soon as stuff happened in Florida, everyone wanted to do something," Williams said. "But every week someone gets shot in D.C."

More than 800 events were scheduled to take place around the world Saturday, according to March for Our Lives organizers.

Crowds pack Pennsylvania Avenue during the March for Our Lives on Saturday in Washington. Photo / Washington Post, Toni L. Sandys
Crowds pack Pennsylvania Avenue during the March for Our Lives on Saturday in Washington. Photo / Washington Post, Toni L. Sandys

Beyond major cities, they included rallies in Las Vegas, where a gunman killed 58 people at a country music festival last year; in Parkland, home to Stoneman Douglas; and in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where the community is marking the 20th anniversary of a middle school shooting that left four students and a teacher dead.

Survivors or relatives of those killed in other mass shootings were also at the march in Washington, including some from Columbine, Sandy Hook and Marysville Pilchuck High School in Washington state, where four were fatally shot in 2014.

By mid-afternoon Saturday the rallies had proceeded peacefully, with small and scattered counter-protests by opponents of stricter gun control.

In Washington, a group of several dozen protesters in tactical gear and bearing a "Don't Tread on Me" flag stood by FBI headquarters, conversing with march demonstrators and enduring the occasional yell or middle finger.

In Boston, a group of about 25 counter-protesters gathered in front of the gold-domed Massachusetts statehouse to decry calls for tougher gun laws.

"I think it's a little ridiculous," Benjamin Johnson, 21, from New York, said of the March for Our Lives event.

"After a tragedy like this one," he said of the Parkland shooting, "everyone looks past the motives of the shooter and immediately focuses on guns. If you run over someone with a car, they don't blame the car. But if someone is shot, they immediately blame the guns."