A march for all of our lives

By Pearl Benjamin | Apr 05, 2018

On March 24, 18 students representing Thornton Academy, Baxter Academy, Waynfleet School, Yarmouth High School and Camden Hills Regional High School rode a red-eye bus from Portland to Washington, D.C., to attend the March for Our Lives rally organized by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students.

Although all on board were relatively new to activism, most of us had already spent several weeks researching, writing articles and letters to the editor, organizing protests, and lobbying legislators about an issue that hits all students close to home -- school shootings. The mass murder in Parkland, Fla., and the movement that rose from it inspired us to stand up for ourselves and our safety. But listening to those teen leaders speak firsthand and being a witness to that historic event taught us so much more than that.

I thought I knew what to expect. The names and faces of many of the outspoken Parkland students were already well known to all of us, and I knew they would inspire us to empower ourselves and fight back against the NRA’s corrupting grip on our politicians. There was some of that, of course, but it was only a piece of what truly sank in that day.

We heard from Edna Chavez, a Latina youth leader and gun violence survivor from Los Angeles. Edna watched her brother die after being shot, and during her speech she asked us to say his name.

“Ricardo!”

The chorus from the crowd still echoes in my head, as do my friends’ gasps as Edna described watching her brother’s skin turn gray as he died before her eyes. Her graphic description provoked a mixture of shock, fear and crushing sadness, which we would experience more than once that day.

Chicago teen Mya Middleton explained how she was threatened by a shooter while buying medicine for her mom at the neighborhood store. D.C. student Zion Kelly told us how he, too, had lost his brother to gun violence, and then asked us to raise our hands if we had ever been personally affected by gun violence. Thousands of people raised their hands. Looking around me, my arms at my sides, I truly understood the meaning of "March for Our Lives." I understood that fighting for my own safety was only a tiny piece of the enormous problem I’m fighting to fix.

I have not witnessed a shooting. I have not lost a loved one to a bullet. I have not been directly affected by gun violence. But it is my job as a human being to stand up for Edna Chavez, for Mya Middleton, for Zion Kelly, and for every member of that 800,000-person crowd who raised their hand that day.

Being a teenager gives me a greater opportunity to speak at this rare moment in time, but it does not make me a victim, and it does not mean I truly understand the issue. I do not and hopefully will not ever fully understand what Edna, Mya and Zion have gone through, but it is my responsibility to listen to them and to fight on their behalf, because they are fighting for so much more than just their own safety. . At the end of her speech, Edna said, “I am here to stand with the Parkland students, I am here today to honor Ricardo, I am here today to honor Stephon Clark, I am here today to uplift my South LA community.”

The leaders of this movement told us that to fight for our lives we must fight for all of our lives. And to do that, we have to start listening to all those affected, and use the knowledge they give us to take action.. Naomi Wadler, just 11 years old, was invited to speak on behalf of all the women of color who have been disproportionately affected by gun violence, but whose stories are rarely seen on the news. As Naomi said, “I am indeed full of privilege. My voice has been heard. I am here to acknowledge their stories, to say they matter, to say their names. Because I can, and because I was asked to be.”

Yes, the new young leaders of the gun control movement are inspiring, and yes, they make even the most introverted teenager want to grab a bullhorn and lead a battle cry. But it’s important to understand what speakers like Edna Chavez and the all-powerful Emma Gonzalez really want to inspire. On the ride back home, my friends and I were discussing the integrity Emma Gonzalez showed in her incredible “6 minutes and 20 seconds” speech. We were awestruck by her strength and determination. Some of us even said that we wanted “to be her.”

One of my friends who had come with me on the trip turned to me then and explained to me that it was understandable that we wanted to “be” Emma -- she is incredible, determined, the face of the resistance, and an obvious role model. But we shouldn’t truly want to “be” Emma, because what makes her inspiring to us today has also probably crushed her and completely altered her mental health. Emma Gonzalez wouldn’t be the Emma Gonzalez we idolize had she not gone through the trauma of the Parkland shooting.

This comment made something clear to me: that we shouldn’t strive to be just like speakers like Emma, Edna and Zion, because we should never want to go through the pain that they went through, which eventually brought them to the March for Our Lives stage. Yes, these leaders want us to speak out like they do, but they also want us to listen. They want us to hear each other, hear all the different gun violence experiences, and act together as a family.

I’ll never forget smiling through tears as our newfound family sang “Happy Birthday” to Parkland victim Nick Dworet with speaker Sam Fuentes. I’ll never forget clapping along to Alex King and D’Angelo McDade’s pep rhythm. I’ll never forget embracing my friends following Emma Gonzalez’s shocking four minutes of determined silence. I’ll never forget the faces, the stories and the chants. I’ll never forget our unified voice. We are all leaders in this revolution. We will change the world for each other.

Pearl Benjamin is a 10th-grade student at Camden Hills Regional High School.

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