Over 400 voices rang out in unison over the Diag Saturday morning with a message for state and U.S. legislators alike: “stop the silence, end gun violence.” Organized by high school students from the Ann Arbor and Plymouth-Canton areas, the Washtenaw-Wayne County March for Our Lives was one of over 450 local marches that happened across the country on June 11.
The national call to action was sparked in the wake of the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which resulted in the death of 19 students and two teachers — just one of the more than 240 mass shootings so far in 2022. Guns have been the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens since 2020.
When the March for Our Lives movement was initiated in 2018 following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., it was seen as a testament to the efficacy of student activism. During the movement’s first year, marches all around the U.S. — including the main protest in Washington, D.C. — were organized primarily by middle and high school students. Over 4,000 people attended the first student-lead rally in Ann Arbor alone.
The return of the March for Our Lives movement on Saturday was a result of renewed student activism calling for gun reform. Around six local high school students who are a part of the Washtenaw-Wayne County chapter of March for Our Lives orchestrated Saturday’s protest on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, including Plymouth High School rising senior Kavya Keshavamurthy.
Keshavamurthy said she went on a virtual call with leadership from the national March for Our Lives organization and chapter leaders from all over the U.S. shortly after the massacre in Uvalde. It was there, she said, that March for Our Lives announced its intent to once again incite a wave of protests after four years.
She and the rest of the Washtenaw-Wayne chapter immediately began organizing the march in Ann Arbor. Keshavamurthy said she hopes Michigan legislators in Lansing and on Capitol Hill will hear the echoes of their chants, will see the faces of the protestors in the media and will be moved to pass bills addressing gun reform and mental health.
“The overarching goal of our march is basically to send a message to our legislators,” Keshavamurthy said. “Our politicians can no longer just get away with thoughts and prayers. They need action.”
The Washtenaw-Wayne County chapter of March for Our Lives is currently co-lead by two recent Ann Arbor Public Schools graduates: Rhiannon Hubbard, who graduated this year from Pioneer High School, and Christine Kang, who just graduated from Skyline High School.
The pair stood before the crowd to kickoff Saturday’s protest by listing off the numbers 58%, three million and one million: 58% for the majority of Americans who have experienced, or know someone who has experienced, gun violence in their lifetime; three million in regards to the number of American children who witness gun violence on an annual basis; and one million for the number of women alive today who have been shot at by their partner.
They warned the crowd to not let these statistics become mere numbers or to accept them as facts, but to fight to decrease the number of lives affected by gun violence.
“We have seen so many acts of gun violence that we allow these numbers to remain numbers, but we must never let that happen,” Kang told the crowd. “There are friends, families and communities behind these numbers.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Hubbard and Kang highlighted one final statistic, but this time it was a number they felt encouraged by.
“I am so grateful and proud of the over 400 people who showed up today to march with us to end gun violence,” Kang said. “I can’t even put into words how powerful this all felt.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich, also attended the rally. Four years ago, Dingell spoke at the last March for Our Lives in Ann Arbor about her personal experience with domestic gun violence and the need for constructive discourse about the importance of gun reform both on the Capitol floor and between individual voters.
Not enough has changed between 2018 and now, Dingell told The Daily before addressing the crowd once again on Saturday. Dingell said she has been consistently advocating for increasing gun restrictions at a national level. Dingell has previously supported legislation aiming to expand background checks for prospective customers and has expressed support for the Protecting Our Kids Act that passed through the U.S. House Thursday. The package would raise the age limit for purchasing guns from 18 to 21 and would make gun trafficking a federal criminal offense.
But with more than one mass shooting per day on average in 2022 thus far, Dingell said finding common ground with other legislators to pass these bills into law is not happening fast enough to save lives. Dingell told The Daily she will always “march for the lives” of Michigan children. She said she is hopeful the young people planning and attending protests like the one Saturday will use their experience to create concrete change in the future.
“I’ve always come for the kids,” Dingell said. “I keep thinking, when’s it enough? Was Newtown enough? Was Parkland enough? Was Oxford enough? I think it’s gonna be the voice of young people that may someday get the change that we need.”
Students from high schools across the state came to Ann Arbor to march in solidarity with the movement. Sophie Hanawalt and Xavier Choussat just completed their sophomore years at Seaholm High School in Birmingham, Mich.
After the November 2021 shooting at Oxford High School that resulted in the deaths of four students, Hanawalt said she decided to found a March for Our Lives chapter for the Birmingham Public Schools District. Though she hopes to host more events in her local community over the summer, she and Choussat — also a member of the Birmingham chapter — said marching with a neighboring community and hearing different perspectives from another part of the state was an inspirational experience.
“I’m really trying to do everything I can to try to make change because at the end of the day, if we don’t make our voices heard, then we’re not safe,” Hanawalt said. “Being able to come to a collaborative space like this and trying to think about ways you can do something is really special.”
Several of the speakers attested to the importance of voting in the upcoming August 2 primary and November 8 general elections. With several posters displaying rhetoric such as “use your ballots to stop the bullets” and Promote the Vote volunteers helping individuals register to vote, voting for candidates who openly support gun reform policies was a recurring call to action throughout the event.
However, Choussat said several of the high school students in attendance, including himself, will not be 18 in time for the 2022 elections. Marching alongside those who can vote and having conversations with them about his experience as a student is one way he can remain politically active, Choussat said.
“I have a younger brother and I don’t want to see him get killed,” Choussat said. “I don’t want to go to his funeral. I have to do something and I can’t vote yet. So (protesting) is what I want to do.”
In addition to students, teachers also attended the march to speak about their perspective on the shooting in Uvalde and other recent school shootings. Jessica Giardini, an elementary teacher at Brick Elementary School in Ypsilanti, said whenever she first hears news about another school shooting, she thinks back to every other mass school shooting she has heard about in the past and finds herself worrying about the students in her own classroom. Since the Oxford shooting in particular, Giardini said she has noticed her district increasing active shooter preparedness training and adding safety features within classrooms.
“After Oxford we had the ALICE training,” Giardini said. “We had the police chief come in and we had a whole virtual training (session). We have special locks on the doors so we know what to do (in case of a shooting). But when things happen that quickly, you do what you can.”
Celeste Kanpurwala, leader of the Ann Arbor chapter of Moms Demand Action, spoke at the protest to share her frustration as a parent who cannot trust that her child is safe in their school. She also expressed her disappointment with the school’s implementation of active shooter drills, which ask students to practice what they would do if an active shooter entered their building.
“I’m furious that I send my kids to school, just holding my breath hoping that they make it through another day,” Kanpurwala said to the crowd. “I’m also furious because the active shooter drills, which are designed to potentially save their life, are actually traumatizing them and doing nothing for their actual safety.”
Several additional community members from the Washtenaw-Wayne County area flocked to the Diag wearing blue for the March for Our Lives movement and orange for Wear Orange Month, which is annually observed in June in honor of the victims of gun violence.
Though she is not new to protesting, Ypsilanti resident Debbie Tanciar said Saturday’s march felt personal to her. The day of the Uvalde shooting, honor roll students at Robb Elementary School received certificates denoting their academic accomplishment. For many of the parents who attended the honor roll celebration, that was the last time they saw their children alive.
Tanciar said her grandson goes to school in Texas and had also received a similar honor roll certificate on May 24. She said the similarity between the photo she saw on Facebook of her grandson with his certificate and those of the victims was haunting.
“My grandson was in Texas, with those certificate pictures that same day, only a couple hundred miles away from (Uvalde),” Tanciar said. “We’ve been to these rallies before obviously, but this one particularly struck me (as important) because … that could have been his last picture also.”
Just a day after hundreds of March for Our Lives protests across the nation concluded, policymakers are taking action to expand gun reform. The Republican-led U.S. Senate announced the framework for a bipartisan plan Sunday that would increase national funding for mental health, expand background checks for anyone under 21 trying to purchase a gun and offer incentives for states to adopt “red flag” laws — laws that allow police officers to confiscate privately-owned weapons for a temporary period of time.
Rising LSA sophomore Zoey Rector-Brooks was one of the estimated 40,000 individuals who attended the March for Our Lives protest in D.C. Saturday. They helped organize the march in D.C. and also worked with the Washtenaw-Wayne County March for Our Lives leadership to ensure the protest ran smoothly in Ann Arbor.
Seeing Republican and Democratic legislators come together to collaborate on gun reform policies right after thousands of people marched in support of the cause, Rector-Brooks said, is extremely encouraging.
“We’ve had so much success at the state-level … and now we’re finally seeing change happen at the federal level,” Rector-Brooks said. “Having support across both sides of the aisle, finally working together is going to save lives.”
In a press release from the national March for Our Lives organization shared with The Daily, David Hogg, the co-founder of March for Our Lives, celebrated the Senate proposal that he hopes will be formalized and passed into law quickly.
“We’ve said this time is different, and it’s clear it is,” Hogg wrote. “Thousands of Americans this weekend, including Democrats, Republicans, and gun owners in 450 cities made clear that the Senate must bring this plan to a vote. We cannot wait any longer — lives literally hang in the balance.”
Daily News Editor Roni Kane can be reached at email@example.com.