Amid cheers and shouts, Washtenaw International High School sophomore Elizabeth Blackwell delivered her spoken-word poem at a student-organized gun control rally in Ypsilanti Wednesday. Her piece was written a day after the Parkland, Fla. shooting, titled “An Open Letter to my Congressman.”
“So don’t you dare exchange our learning for your lobbyists, our safety for your semi-automatics, our dreams for donations,” Blackwell said. “Because pissed off teenagers that are so alive, and so in love in with living, will not let you to reduce us to thoughts and prayers –– to another statistic. Because we will be the tsunami that carries you out of office for good.”
The rally was organized by Washtenaw Youth Initiative , an organization consisting primarily of high school students that formed in reaction to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High which left 17 dead. The Initiative’s platform consists of five main points: banning guns in schools, raising the legal age of purchase to 21, implicit bias training and psychological certification of police officers carrying guns, requiring a gun safety class before purchase and banning the sale of assault weapons.
Pioneer High School senior and Student Council President Emma Roth was one of the main organizers of the event and collaborated with students from other high schools such as Skyline, Lincoln and South Lyon. The students organized through social media to garner more support. Roth estimated the final turnout to be between 400 and 600 people.
And they’re not alone. Wednesday, students nationwide walked out of their classrooms to pressure the government to enact stricter gun control legislation. Teenagers gathered at notable locations across the country: the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.; the site of the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colo.; Borough Hall in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and more. These protests follow impassioned speeches and rallies hosted by student survivors of the Parkland shooting, who have become nationally recognized.
The Ypsilanti rally also featured an array of different speakers, from high school students to representatives from Moms Demand Action.
Skyline senior Daniel Heinz said he participated in the walkout because he felt the need for action.
“I came today because we need to do something about this,” Heinz said. “I couldn’t just sit around and do nothing. We just demand change. We call B.S. There needs to be a conversation.”
Heinz further explained his involvement in the movement through his concern for himself and his peers, saying he’s had enough.
“I care about everyone who lives in my country, I care about my people,” Heinz said. “I’m tired of seeing kids’ names on the screen. I’m tired of seeing all these dead children.”
Pioneer sophomore Maya Boyd attended because she feels she can make a difference. Young people, even without the ability to vote, can still affect change, she said.
“I am a student who wants to make a change with my voice and platform,” Boyd said. “I realize that we have a voice, not just our parents. We can educate people and make a difference.”
The rally saw a lot of adult attendance as well. Ann Arbor resident Lisa Querijero, a mother of two, said she decided to attend after high schoolers from the area spoke at an Ann Arbor Open Coordinating Council meeting. She described her sadness that her children have to perform active shooter drills in school and learn about gun violence at such young ages. Just like Heinz and Boyd, she wanted to make change.
“I want to change the fear that I can hear from these kids,” Querijero said. “That they feel in school. I had no idea that they were so fearful before I came here today.”
According to Roth, school administrators share this fear but are not legally allowed to endorse the rally. She said different schools had a variety of reactions.
“Unofficially, administration and teachers are scared,” Roth said. “They all feel it’s incredibly important. However, legally they cannot support anything we rally. Some of them sort of supported the walkout. But I know one school did actually threaten to block off roads so the kids couldn’t come to this. Another school threatened harsher suspensions. But in general admin are scared, so they get it.”
Roth said she would love to collaborate with other students across Michigan and the country. Washtenaw Youth Initiative is planning to go to Washington, D.C. for a national gun safety march, where Roth hopes they can meet more students. She also mentioned her determination to continue her activist work at Boston University, where she plans to study public health and theater.
The New Yorker pointed out how many of the Parkland student activists are also involved in theater. Roth suggested this correlation exists because of theater’s place as a haven for nonconformists and those who want to make change.
“Theater for a long time historically has been about sort of discussing things the public doesn’t normally want to discuss,” Roth said. “Theater is generally a place for students who don’t necessarily feel like they just want to conform. Whether that’s based on gender identity, sexual identity, racial and ethnic identities. But I think that sort of atmosphere does cultivate students who are interested in changing society.”
To create this change, Heinz urged everyone who has the ability to register to vote.
“If you are old enough to vote, register to vote,” he said. “Period. I don’t care which side you’re on, just vote, vote, vote.”