Thousands March for Lives in Ann Arbor

I marched for my life with the young people on Saturday March 24 at Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School along with 4,000 others. The march was one of some eight hundred that were held around the country that day. Another 200,000 marched in D.C.

Together, they produced a paradigm shift in how the country views the issue of gun violence.

Like the others that day, the march in Ann Arbor was for all of us, of course. Who can be against fewer deaths by gun violence?

But the young people, mostly high school and college age, led by worker and full-time student Kennedy Dixon and a small committee, organized the event; promoted it through social media; raised funds for the event and a victims’ fund on GoFundMe; recruited support from city council members, principals, and the police; and were the main speakers.

The Scene

The march, sponsored by Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence and March for Our Lives, energized me politically more even than the women’s march last year. There was a general feeling that this time was different.

I arrive a half hour earlier than the scheduled start time. A friend I marched with fifty years ago slaps me on my shoulder and says, “Hey, how ya doin’?” I speculate with a friend from my temple congregation on whether or not there will be a counter-demonstration.

A woman hurries past me while talking on her cell phone: “Hey, where are you parked?” A food stand advertises free hot dogs and Cokes.

I sign a petition for a cause that I support as the petitioner notes that her high school dress code is more regulated than gun laws. A little girl carries a sign saying, “Arms are for hugging.” Her younger brother lies in a wagon arms outstretched, holding a sign: “No Arms in School.”

The signs overall carried the same sense of optimism as signs I’ve seen at rallies past but they were unique to the occasion.

  • They were subtly intellectual: “Nyet.”
  • And they were straightforward: “Guns Are Dumb.”
  • They were logical: “Fewer guns. Fewer bullets. Fewer deaths.”
  • They reflected the existential fear that many of us feel: “Am I Next?”
  • They were religiously sarcastic: “Would Jesus Have an AR15?”
  • They were inspirational: “You can put a silencer on a gun but not on people.”
  • Many challenged the idea that prayer is an adequate political substitute for action: “Thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
  • Other signs had so many words I couldn’t read them in their entirety in the brief time the lettering faced in my direction.
  • None demanded that we abolish all guns or repeal the Second Amendment. That’s a phony fear tactic constructed by the weapons lobby that controls the NRA.

And I see the leadership of this issue being passed to a new generation. Like the young people of my generation who ended the war in Vietnam because we were the people dying over there and the politicians didn’t care, the young people are forcing the issue of death by gun violence onto the national agenda (along with outrageous college tuition costs, which were not raised at this event) and they won’t give up until they win, because they are the ones who are dying (and being priced out of college or saddled with debt). They are challenging the impotence of mass-murder apologists who justify the inevitability of massacres as collateral damage for “the price of freedom.” They are creating a movement that will be replenished year after year by new young people.

An older woman says to a young girl, “You’re the reason I’m here.”

I find a spot near the front so that I can see the speakers. I stand behind the chained-off area that is reserved for attendees who are disabled. Nice touch, I think. Throughout the event, a woman stands on stage signing for the hearing impaired.

The Pre-Rally Entertainment

Gemini was the pre-rally entertainment. Gemini, the duo starring Ann Arbor twins Sandor and Laszlo Slomovits, is a fixture in Ann Arbor so I feel compelled to state as confession that I had never before heard them perform in concert. I thought they were inspirational. They sang the folk standards that I sang during rallies from the sixties and seventies: “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “Where I’m Bound,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “This Land Is Your Land” (the song that played at our wedding, on piano and flute, as Emily and I walked up the aisle together as newlyweds), and others.. I sang along again and was inspired.

A young girl played violin. Having assumed that the band members were all from my generation, I wondered what disease she had contracted that made her look so young. Then I heard someone behind me telling her friend that the girl was the daughter of one of the twins—she’s San’s daughter, Emily. She played beautifully and it meant so much to me to see two generations of activism connected by song. I cried when she solo’d the second verse of “If I Had a Hammer”; every time she played the violin after that, I cried some more.

And yet I was troubled. The young people organized the march. They led the march. They are the reason sanity is going to win on this issue. Where was the young local group that could rev up the young crowd with anthems from their generation—not as a replacement for Gemini but as a complement?

I kept that thought to myself until I found myself walking next to a man on the last leg of the march and he mentioned it and then another who overheard him agreed. Just a note to organizers: We older peace veterans are here to guide you and support you as much as we can because our organizing days aren’t over. But on this issue, you are the leaders. Create your own mythology.

The Rally

The young speakers and their older allies who held the stage were eloquent and inspirational. They quoted statistics on gun deaths and the cost to society like I once recited batting averages. They connected the dots by declaring that Sandy Hook and Columbine and Stoneman Douglas and Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile, and the other daily murders aren’t isolated events. They rejected the notion that if we can’t stop all gun deaths we can’t stop any.

The slam poetry of high school senior Serena Varner was riveting as she recited the words off her cell phone. Remember the Parkland victims, yes, but why do we only get roused when white people are among the victims? She spoke about the intersections between racism and gun violence, between sexism and gun violence, between LGBTQ and gun violence, between domestic abuse and gun violence—“It always involves gun violence”—and recalled the names of black youth killed not at schools but in parks and at homes. ‘They all have to be part of the picture.”

Gretchen Ascher, a South Lyon East High School junior, stated the demands:

  • Digitize firearms data.
  • Background checks.
  • Ban all high-capacity magazines.
  • Repeal the Dickey Amendment.
  • Ban high-powered assault weapons, with buy-back.

Liana Treviño, a survivor of the recent Las Vegas shootings who lives in town, struggled to read her account for the first time.

Mary Voorhorst, 10th grade teacher, described the simulated shootings she witnessed as part of a gun-violence-prevention training, and the strategies that they learned to counter terrorist attacks. I recall air raid drills in the fifties where my classmates and I hid under our desks and covered the backs of our heads to protect ourselves—we were told—from an atomic blast, should we face one. Today’s fiction, including armed teachers, is more cynical and sophisticated. “Teachers are being told to fix society’s problems because legislators are not passing laws. We need to examine the Second Amendment in the present context.”

Jennifer Tang Cole, a social worker from Sandy Hook, argued that prevention requires education, not just a phone number. She promoted Sandy Hook Promise, a group funded by parents of kids who died there, to help family members identify warning signs in children. “Do not let your critics silence you,” she called out to the young people. “You are the heart of this movement. Call principals, superintendents, lawmakers. Demand programs.”

Ann Arbor State Rep. Yousef Rabhi charged, “We can do better as a nation,” then recited “We believe in a nation that” and filled in the blanks one repetition at a time as Martin dreamed his dream, and invited us to share his vision.

 

The young people hear their elders challenge their inexperience and label them as naïve. NRA President Wayne LaPierre belittles the surviving high schoolers of Stoneham Douglas as patsies to billionaire liberals and Hollywood elite.

Really?

But the young people don’t care. As Morgan, a freshman at University of Michigan whose last name I didn’t catch (and whose first name I may have not heard correctly), said to his generation’s detractors: “We don’t give a damn what you think.”

“We are winning this fight because we have an unspoiled sense of what is possible.” He called out recent victories, including laws passed in Rick Perry’s Florida and Dick’s Sporting Goods’ decision to stop selling assault-style weapons.

The NRA

And they are calling out the NRA as the biggest state-sponsored terrorist organization in our country’s history. Over and over.

  • A theme throughout the day was “Vote,” usually to vote out the NRA-bought politicians who have purchased the Republican Party.
  • Celeste Kampurwala, the local events leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, noted that the NRA has been around for 147 years and her group six, and yet their membership has surpassed the NRA’s. She shared her own gun violence story, about a depressive father who died by gun suicide.
  • We were reminded that the Dickey Amendment, that rider added to the 1996 omnibus spending bill to prevent the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence, was courtesy of NRA.
  • Congresswoman Debbie Dingell bragged about her F rating with the NRA but announced that, because of the spending bill that Trump just signed, the CDC can now do research on gun violence. “Now we can get the data into the national health care system to track it.
  • A sign taunted, “Hey, NRA, Promote Art Not Artillery.”

“It’s not enough but it’s a good beginning,” Morgan shouted. “NRA, your time as a monopoly in the gun debate is over.”

In future rallies, I would like to see speakers include NRA members who are fed up with their organization’s leadership and are ready to challenge it from within. The United States lost its terrorist war in Vietnam when the military turned against it. There were over eight hundred underground newspapers during the Vietnam era that were published by GIs representing every branch of the military.

Antiwar veterans formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War and it became the group that broke the back of the war effort. Where is the alternative gun rights group to the NRA that will support the Second Amendment but with limitations, just like every other of the amendments has limitations? (Try crying “Fire” in a crowded theatre.) AIPAC had a stranglehold on what was deemed the Jewish position on Israel until J Street forced a more visionary position onto the table. Current and former members of the law enforcement and criminal justice communities formed Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) to speak out about the failures of the war on drugs that they had helped to propagate.

The March

We march through the parking lot, down South Seventh, to West Stadium.  I observe that I have never marched through a school parking lot, between cars, but it is entirely appropriate now because schools are where so many of the murders take place. Look to see more anti-gun violence rallies and voter registration campaigns taking place at schools.

A young girl says to a woman who she does not appear to know, “The only thing we should be scared of in schools is tests.”

A man shouts, “Arm the Homeless.” He identifies himself as Jarvis Stone, from the Committee to Arm the Homeless. “Who else is more susceptible to random violence than the homeless?”

A woman speaks admiringly to a friend about the Las Vegas survivor who addressed the crowd:  “She had to go through a lot of grief, trauma, to speak in front of such a crowd. She had so much courage.”

On West Stadium, we head right and are met by joyous drivers heading in the other direction, waving upraised fists and honking support. We turn right at Ann Arbor-Saline and march back toward where we began. I suspect few marchers made it back to the beginning as their waiting cars in the parking lot to our right proved too strong an attraction.

“The young people showed that they can organize an event and start a movement,” one man tells a friend as he heads to his car. “They’ve got the passion. The facts are on their side. Now the hard work begins. Patience.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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