March for Our Lives protest in KC draws thousands
Moved at times to tears, joy and chants of defiance, thousands of people all but filled Kansas City's Theis Park on Saturday, part of a national wave of March for Our Lives protests to end gun violence.
Some 800 cities across the United States and around the world held rallies, primarily organized by students after the February mass killing of 17 students and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
In Kansas City, police estimated the crowd reached 5,000 to 6,000 people at its peak.
"I am so inspired. I think it's exciting," said Priscilla Reckling, 68, of Kansas City as she stood with friends at the rear of a crowd of protesters waving signs with sentiments such as "Enough," "Protect Children Not Guns," "Give Teachers Books Not Bullets" and "Arms are for Hugging."
"They are taking the reins," she said of the students' goal of "sensible gun laws." "I understand these young people's frustration."
Her friend, Cheryl Dillard, 70, chimed in. "Of all of the adult voices we've heard on this issue, people are starting to listen to the young people."
"And it's a pretty simple message," friend Jan Stallmeyer, 69, added. "Sometimes we adults make things too complicated."
Not far off, Isaiah Williams stood in silence next to his grandmother. He was holding a sign, "I am 6. I want to see 60."
The Kansas City event was planned by a coalition of teenagers from schools and neighborhoods on both sides of the state line. It ended with a wave of people marching from Theis park, just south of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, through the Country Club Plaza. From a stage set up at the south end of the Park, speakers at times stirred the crowd to boisterous cheers.
Sara Holscher, a 14-year-old freshman at Olathe North High School, drew loud cheers as she spoke of the history of social activism and how, all too often, calls for change in the face of gun violence quickly die down with the next day's headlines.
"But this time is different," said Holscher, the daughter of Kansas state Rep. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat. "We will keep coming back. We will keep gathering. We will keep making trips to the Capitol. We will keep putting pressure on our lawmakers. We will outlast the dreaded cycle because there are so many lives depending on it ...
"We have had enough!"
Seas of people
Across the country, vast crowds from Washington to Los Angeles to Parkland heard students who have energized their generation with eloquent calls for gun control pledge to exercise their newfound political power in the midterm elections this fall.
At the Washington rally, Parkland survivors led a crowd that filled blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol Hill. Aerial images captured seas of people — in front of Trump International Hotel in New York; in a central square in Tokyo; along the streets of Boston; at a rally in downtown Fort Worth, Texas; and crammed into a park less than a mile from Stoneman Douglas High.
Delivered in soaring speeches, emotional chats and hand-painted signs, the protesters issued angry rebukes to the National Rifle Association and politicians who oppose tougher gun laws. A sign in Washington declared “Graduations not Funerals!” while another in New York said: “I should be learning, not protesting.”
Celebrities, including Lin Manuel Miranda, the “Hamilton” star, and pop singers Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus, performed in Washington.
The most powerful, and emotional, moments of the day came from the surviving students of the Parkland shooting, who declared themselves to be angry, impatient and determined to use their newfound political awareness to force lawmakers to restrict the guns that mowed down their friends in front of them.
“If they continue to ignore us, to only pretend to listen, then we will take action where it counts,” Delaney Tarr, a Stoneman Douglas student, told the immense audience in Washington. “We will take action every day in every way until they simply cannot ignore us any more.”
She added: “Today, we march. We fight. We roar. We prepare our signs. We raise them high. We know what we want, we know how to get it, and we are not waiting any more.”
‘Fear has no place in our schools’
In Kansas City, where the rally started at noon, people began gathering at Theis Park park as early as 9 a.m., bundled against the morning chill. Stacey Conley of Cameron, Mo., a Marine who witnessed combat in the first Desert Storm, clasped a sign reading "Marine Vet for Gun Control."
It was the sad reality of a moment last week that inspired her to come, she said. Her 17-year-old daughter, Grace, was just about to go to a Christian rock concert in Kansas City. Conley felt compelled to warn her.
"If she hears gunshots, I told her to hit the deck and stay there," Conley said. "It physically made me sick to have to say it. It's a shame it had to be said."
Carolyn Mills of Belton sat close by with her son Terry Purdie and Purdie's granddaughter Leah, who held a two-sided sign. On one side: "Books not Bullets." On the other: "I'm 10. I need a safe place to learn."
Only in the fourth grade, Leah said she is well familiar with school lock-down drills, a precaution against active shooters.
Paxsten Eads, a senior at Fort Scott (Kan.) High School, spoke of how one week after the Parkland shooting, a fire alarm sounded at her school. Her schoolmates, she said, feared leaving the classroom.
In Parkland, the 19-year-old shooter drew students from their classroom by pulling a fire alarm.
"We shouldn't have to have that kind of fear," she said. "Fear has no place in our schools."
One attendee, Brent Taylor, 51, of Kansas City, drew angry rebukes and stares as he weaved through the mass with a Donald Trump banner tied as a cape over his shoulders. He held a cardboard sign above his head: "Guns in the hands of a good man save lives! Leave my guns alone."
"I'm against banning guns," he said, as others attempted to block his sign with theirs. "I'm against gun violence, too."
He said he applauded the young people who organized the rally but did not think "taking guns away from honest citizens is the way to go."
Moments before, a student on stage had read a roster of more than 200 people killed by gun violence. On the west side of the park the sidewalk was lined with placards in memory of children and adults killed by gun violence, each with a photo, many with names:
Tanya Drew, Died 2/20/15, Little Rock, Ark.
Reat Underwood, Killed 4/13/14, Overland Park, Kan.
Tom Pickert, Died 10/25/17, Kansas City, Mo.
‘I’m ready to vote’
Before she stepped on stage, Danielle Foster, an organizer who is a senior at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, said it was the activism of survivors of the Parkland shooting that compelled her to take a stance.
"I used to be on the outside," she said, "the person watching. I hadn't found my voice yet. But this year, I found my voice. And I'm using it to change things, to say that we teens are fed up with all the violence."
Mayor Sly James addressed the crowd about 2 p.m.
"If you really want to make the changes you're working on and talking about, you must vote," he urged the crowd. "Vote for people who do what is right, not what is political."
In the crowd, 15-year-old Gracie Swanson of Overland Park held a sign that read, "I will be 18 in 2020 and I'm ready to vote."
"I'm willing to kick you out, if you're not willing to save our lives," she said.
Proud of the young activists, James was strident in likening their passion to the activism of another era.
"I used to stand here, in Theis Park, on a stage like this, in 1966, '67, '68, playing music to protest the Vietnam War. We did it then. We can do it today. ... I've never been more proud of the people of Kansas City as I am of the people here today."
At 3 p.m, thousands began marching toward the Plaza.
Focus of anger
Just hours before the rallies, President Donald Trump signed a $1.3 trillion spending bill that did nothing to expand background checks, impose new limits on assault weapons, require a higher age for rifle purchases, or curb the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The legislation, which was viewed as the last opportunity this year for Congress to enact any significant new gun restrictions before midterm elections in November, included only some school safety measures and modest improvements to background checks.
National gun rights organizations largely stayed silent Saturday, following vigorous efforts since the Parkland shooting to squash any movement toward significant gun control legislation. A spokesman for the NRA declined repeated requests for comment.
Small counterprotests took place in a few cities. In Salt Lake City, several hundred people gathered near a high school, some carrying signs like: “AR-15’s EMPOWER the people.” Brandon McKee, who wore a pistol on his belt, brought his daughter, Kendall, 11, who held a sign: “Criminals love gun control.”
Those pro-gun protests were swamped in size and enthusiasm by the gun control marchers, many of whom traveled for many hours to attend the rallies in cities across the country.
But the largest rally, by far, was in Washington, where stage risers and giant television monitors were set up in the shadow of the Capitol building – the focus of much of the anger and resentment from students throughout the day.
One protester carried a sign that said: “If the Opposite of Pro is Con, then the Opposite of Progress is Congress.”
Most Republican and Democratic members of Congress had already left the city to return to their home districts for spring break when the rally started. Trump spent Saturday afternoon at the Trump International Golf Club, less than an hour north of Parkland.
A statement from a White House spokeswoman said, “We applaud the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today.”