Beside family and friends, I participated in the #MarchForOurLives protest on Saturday, March 24, 2018. This is why.
On March 14, my daughter, Zena, 13, upset by the recent murders in Parkland, Fla., participated in an event that was taking place one month to the day after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. This student-led demonstration, called #NationalWalkOutDay, was both a memorial to those killed and a protest, demanding lawmakers take action to pass stricter gun control laws including banning assault weapons, requiring universal background checks for gun sales, and restraining order laws that would allow courts to take guns from individuals who demonstrate warning signs of violent behavior.
She participated in this event that was coordinated by her school. The school allowed the 17-minute moment of silence to commemorate the 17 children that were killed at Stoneman Douglas High. After everyone returned to their classes, she remained. As her mother arrived to pick her up, she told her that she was still sad and wasn’t done protesting.
On Tuesday, March 20, 2018 there was a school shooting at my nephew’s high school in Leonardtown, Md. that resulted in the death of two teenagers. Not only did this violence traumatize the families of those directly involved but it also traumatized the entire student body and extended community.
In support of my daughter and nephew and the brave students working so hard to affect change, we joined about 30,000 other people, mostly teens and their parents, in a protest in downtown Pittsburgh. This protest was called the #MarchForOurLives, and it corresponded with other student-led protests across the U.S. Like the school protest, #NationalWalkOutDay, it advocated for rational firearm reform and enforcement.
Like other Pittsburgh protests, #MarchForOurLives was peaceful, organized, passionate, and respectful. We started outside of the Pittsburgh City-County Building, where speeches were made on that brisk Saturday morning. Many of us could not hear the initial speeches due to a lack of an effective audio system. Instead, we talked to each other and the teens around us about why we were there. Each person I spoke with had been personally affected in some way by gun violence.
Then the #MarchForOurLives march began. We proceeded to walk together from Grant, down Fifth Avenue and into Market Square. There, the 15- and 16-year-old high school event organizers, with the help of a few adults, addressed the crowd. For the next hour, we listened to a variety of presentations which included speeches from greater Pittsburgh area high school students. #MarchForOurLives was clearly a nonpartisan movement for students by students with a desire to turn their schools into safe environments conducive to learning by requesting a change in the laws to mitigate the recurring tragedies that are only made possible through the use of firearms.
The speeches moved me. What these young people had to say surprised me. These kids really had stories to tell. Every story was highly personal and emotional. I listened intently to their experiences and discovered why they are so passionate about this issue. Gun violence had directly or indirectly touched each and every one of their lives. A few stories brought nearly everyone in Market Square to tears.
Listening to these stories even made me face certain facts. I had to face the fact that if it were not for challenging Pittsburgh traffic, I probably would have been in the lobby of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) on that fateful day in March 2012 when gun violence ended the life of a WPIC therapist and wounded seven others. It made me face the fact that the intersection of mental health and gun violence has ended the lives of four of my extended family members.
Prior to this event, my daughter was offered support in making a sign for the march. She declined. There, in Market Square, students from North Allegheny High School had set up booths to allow students to express themselves by making their own signs on site. After the march and presentation were complete and people were leaving, my daughter, after reflecting on what some of her friends had told her and upon the speeches of the day, decided to make her own sign that simply read: “‘There is nothing we can do about it’ IS A LIE.”
She was especially hopeful that the students who had recently turned 18 and had registered to vote that very afternoon would be able to make a difference in who will be elected in November. She hoped for a change the in the laws that currently make it easy for certain people to obtain firearms or to change the lawmakers that oppose such firearm reform.
For me, #MarchForOurLives was a shared event with my family. It was a reminder that it is imperative that our responsibility to ensure that our right, as Americans, to “bear arms” does not violate our rights, as Americans, to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As a nation of laws, we must find a way to pass and enforce laws that create a balance between them.
Participating in #MarchForOurLives brought me a little closer to my family in a more open way. Maybe this event will help us all be a little more open to creating that needed balance between the rights highlighted by two of our founding documents that we don’t usually think of as being in opposition of each other: the U.S. Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
Kenneth Lang is the father of two teenagers and is service coordination supervisor at Pittsburgh Mercy.