Shaker Heights High School junior Kevin LaMonica speaks at the Cleveland March For Our Lives <span class='image-credits'>Bob Perkoski</span>

From the mouths of babes: Students organize thousands to march in Public Square against gun violence

Katrina Cassel, of Shaker Heights High, speaks at the rally

Seven area high school students fed up with school shootings motivated as many as 20,000 people to descend upon Public Square on Saturday morning, March 24, to demand an end to gun violence at March for Our Lives.

Spurred by the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the marchers’ voices resonated loud and clear that this violence must end, and assault rifles should be banned. The Cleveland march was one of more than 800 March For Our Lives events in Washington, D.C. and around the world, including Akron, Canton, Medina, and Avon Lake.

Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson and Cuyahoga County executive Armond Budish spoke, as well as Laurie Leavy (whose 15-year-old daughter survived the Parkland shooting), Douglas High School graduate Zachary Lee, and Shooting Without Bullets founder and creative director Amanda King. Ohio gubernatorial candidate Dennis Kucinich was also present.

Shaker Heights High School junior Kevin LaMonica speaking at the rally

But it was the voices of the young, rising generation that really made the march resonate. The Cleveland March for Our Lives drew a crowd made up of students—some as young as 11 years old—as well as adults from older generations.

Many of the organizers also spoke, including 17-year-old Shaker Heights High School student Kevin LaMonica. LaMonica says the Cleveland team started working on a local march about a month ago, right after the national march was announced. (He couldn’t find a local event at the time, so he decided to create one). The entire group came together through social media channels. LaMonica created a Facebook event for the march, while another student filed for a parade permit, and a third filed a rally permit.

“Gun reform has always been an issue I’ve been passionate about,” says LaMonica. “The shooting in Parkland had a big impact on me, and I had a moment of reconciliation that I was not doing enough. I had a call to action. I was just so fed up with the fact that so many people are dying from gun violence. And not just from mass shootings.”



LaMonica wants to make people more aware of the impact gun violence has in U.S. society—especially in communities of color and the LGBT community. “Gun violence is an everyday issue,” he explains. “This is something that happens to everyday people every day. And all [Congress] can offer up are thoughts and prayers, but they can’t offer up legislation to protect people. It isn’t about Democrat or Republican, it’s about life and death.”

LaMonica says he supports universal background checks for weapons purchases and wants to see legislation banning assault rifles and accessories like high-capacity ammunition magazines and bump stocks. He cites mass shootings in Parkland, the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas, and Pulse Nightclub in Florida as examples of why this reform is necessary.

“These weapons were designed to kill, and there’s no reason for people to have something like that,” LaMonica says. “I believe everyone has the right to carry a firearm to protect themselves or hunt, but use common sense.”

Fellow march organizer and Solon resident Pranav Iyer, 18, filed the parade permit for Saturday’s event. Although he says he has not been directly affected by gun violence, he has grown up hearing about school shootings like the 2012 Chardon High School shooting and the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.

After the Parkland shootings, Iyer decided it was time to speak up. “This was an opportunity to amplify your voice, have your story heard,” he says. “I realized I have a voice, I have power.”

Iyer says that listening to Shooting Without Bullets' King at the rally made him realize that gun violence has often been seen as a race issue among inner-city and African-American communities, but it is really an issue that simply affects humans.

“The reason it came into the spotlight is because Parkland is in an affluent, white community,” he explains. “This movement for sure is about standing together. It crosses racial, socio-economic, and political divides, and students are coming together as one.”

LaMonica was surprised and pleased with Saturday’s turnout. He says the Facebook page listed 3,500 planned attendees, but as he met with different groups to promote the march, he realized the number would be higher. “When I was up on the stage, I was looking out at a [protest] sign on the opposite side of Public Square, and I got a little emotional at that point,” he says of the incredible turnout.

Iyer says the next step is to harness that momentum and keep it going. “We have to keep up the pressure,” he says. “The key is to not let up. We have to call our representatives, we have to show up to vote in November, and maybe before the election we have another rally.”

For LaMonica's part, he is optimistic about what the future holds in terms of ending gun violence and "very proud of what is happening nationwide."

More photos by FreshWater photographer Bob Perkoski below.







Shooting Without Bullets founder and creative director Amanda King, from Bryn Mawr College, speaks at the rally








Sign reads: "There's a sense of courage that comes with being unarmed"



 
Clevelanders Speak Out
Clevelanders Speak Out

In addition to the organizers, many members in the crowd were also greatly impacted by the March for Our Lives in Cleveland. FreshWater talked to a variety of people who attended the march to hear their stories.

The Youngest Voices

Alice Murray, 11, a sixth grader at Woodbury Elementary School in Shaker Heights, attended the march with three friends and two of their mothers. “I went because my friends and I thought it was a good cause,” says Murray. “I think it’s a really big problem and it needs to be resolved.”

Murray says being a part of the crowd gave her strength in knowing so many people share her convictions. “I will continue to fight,” he says.

Meanwhile, Sienna Sindwani, also 11 and a sixth grader in Shaker Heights, decided to go after watching the news in one of her school classes. “I went to the march because it’s important to support gun control laws after all the bad things that are happening,” she says. Sindwani felt support from the crowd. “It was very inspiring, and it was really good,” she says, adding that she is hopeful for change. “I agree with everything they said.”

Pam Turos

Pam Turos is a Euclid resident with three children who attend Campus International School in Cleveland. In the past, she has participated in the 2015 Tamir Rice shooting protest march and the 2016 Million Women March, but she feels that Saturday’s event addressed the issues and brought everyone together.

“I feel like I’ve been keeping an eye on social justice issues, and this march was the first time I saw something that really spoke to those issues,” she says. “I’ve been concerned about school safety for a long time. My kids go to school in Cleveland, just 10 minutes from where Tamir Rice was playing [when he was shot].”

She adds that protests that center around gun violence, Black Lives Matter, and the Million Women march often can create racial divides, whereas this march crossed racial and social boundaries to bring everyone together. Gun violence is a problem that affects everyone, she says, and she saw Saturday as the first time everyone came together.

“People are dying in Cleveland every day and no one is marching,” she says. “This is when it becomes an inclusive conversation. This is about gun violence in America. I don’t want anyone’s kids to die. Yes, I’m from the suburbs, and yes, I’m white. But these kids matter, too.”

Turos, who began the march with an interfaith prayer service at Trinity Cathedral, says she saw a shift in the mentality of the marchers, who came together as one cohesive group—and she says the younger generation should get all the credit.

“These teenagers got it right,” Turos says of the organizers. “For the first time, they called out racial inequality. They understand that gun violence is a problem.”



Annette, Clark, and Jackson Helm


Shaker Heights resident Annette Helm marched with her 14-year-old son, Clark. Fed up with school shootings being regular news, Helm wanted to teach Clark the value of making one’s voice heard.

Helm told Clark about her protesting experience to abolish apartheid during her college days. “He said, ‘What’s apartheid?’” she says. “I said, ‘Exactly.' It got him to understand that you need a lot of voices and a lot of patience. So, I hope it will get him involved in future marches.”

Helm says Clark felt the momentum as soon as they arrived on Public Square and was chanting with the crowd by the end.

While Clark initially went to please his mother, he says he sees the importance of the issue. “I liked it, it was inspiring to see a lot of young teens come together and try to make a difference,” he says. “So maybe people are standing up for stricter laws and regulations will [prompt] Congress to hopefully make up its mind.”

Annette Helm says the second amendment is “not an all-or-nothing issue,” but more about compromise. “Let’s start with bump stocks, let’s start with the minimum age requirements,” she says. “We have to meet in the middle somewhere.”

Her 17-year-old son, Jackson, stayed behind because of an injury, but he says he wanted to be there. “It’s awful to see every day on the news, another school shooting,” says Jackson, adding that most students are quite aware of current events because their cell phones keep them updated.

“In today’s society, kids are forced to grow up earlier,” continues Jackson. “Kids every day are exposed to horrible things that are happening, and they’re definitely at a boiling point. One thing that’s frustrating is politicians from all walks of life treat kids like they are kids. It’s unfair to treat them as if their opinions don’t mean as much because we’re exposed to so much today.”

Brady Dindia

University Heights resident Brady Dindia attended the march with her mother, husband, and father-in-law, holding a sign that read “We call B.S. Grab ‘Em By The Ballot.” 

“I went because a peaceful and more civil society has always been important to me,” Dindia says. “Marching with my mother at the Million Moms March in 2000, we marched then for reasonable gun laws and, sadly, we still have to.”

Dindia was motivated by the students who organized Saturday’s event. “I see a new future in the voices of the kids who have stepped up to lead this new wave in the movement,” she says. “I want them to know that there are reasonable adults who are in full support of their efforts and willing to help in whatever way we can.”

She says she is ready to keep the cause going. “We will vote accordingly and hold open the doors until they are old enough to vote and hold elected office themselves,” she says of the determined teens. “We will listen to what they have to say and let their ideas and concerns guide us. And we look forward to the day when we can vote for many of them.”



Sherah Newman


Cleveland Heights resident Sherah Newman, 58, went down to the march with two friends. Her nephew is a teacher in Florida, and the Parkland shooting hit close to home. “I think it’s an extremely important issue and I wanted to show my support and be counted,” she says. “I have a nephew who is a teacher in Florida, so I got some personal interest in the issue too.”

Newman says there were “tons of people crammed onto the Rapid” headed toward the march, and she was heartened by what she calls the “amazing” turnout. “It was pretty varied with different age groups—young people, teenagers, young adults," she says. “And it was a diverse crowd with a range of races. It was nice to see so many people out, interested, and involved.”

Looking forward, Newman is hopeful that this issue will stay front and center until action is taken—and she believes that youth activism will be key to accomplishing that goal. “The kids who spoke were inspiring and very articulate,” says Newman. "It gives me some hope that maybe something will happen with this issue and other issues.”
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