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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Notes from the March on Washington

Watched MSNBC coverage of 50th anniversary of “I Have a Dream” speech rally and march on Washington. Missed speakers who were deemed less important than TV commentators but too notes on the other. Best speeches: Marc Morial, Cory Booker, Merlie Evers-Williams, John Lewis, Asean Johnson, Martin Luther King III, and Al Sharpton (listed in the order they spoke). Big winners: Black-GLBT coalition. We will no longer hear arguments about who suffered more from leaders of either community and both communities will flourish together. Which leads to biggest surprise: that there was no representative of the GLBT community on the program. Another big winner: Al Sharpton: gave a great speech, deserves respect, cemented his position as a leader—or the leader; I can’t presume to know—of this civil rights generation. Another big winner: the multiracial, multigenerational crowd. Biggest losers: Republicans, none of whom spoke. They no longer (as if they ever did) can claim any moral authority to speak on any moral issue. And I’m being kind in my assessment.

Here are my notes:

Just heard the speech by Ben Jealous of NAACP. Either he was nervous or unprepared but I hope they get better from here on in. Best feature: He kept it short.

* * *

Good speech by Rep. Marcia Fudge (D) Ohio. “It is time for us to get uncomfortable…. Civil Rights is unfinished business. It’s time to make it our business.” Ohio is one of the reactionary hotbeds today. Not real proud of my home state. Glad she’s around though.

* * *

Nice speech by Attorney General Eric Holder. Gave overview of history of Civil Rights Movement. Noted that it now includes women, Latinos, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, and others. “We stand on shoulders of untold millions” of others who sacrificed their lives so others could live free. Gives credit to them for his and his boss’s jobs. Talks about shaping the future that builds on past achievements. Pays note to need to guarantee voting rights but doesn’t say anything about going after bankers who have stolen the futures that Civil Rights activists fought and died for. Overall, though, decent speech. Good presentation, looks respectable.

* * *

Marc Morial, CEO, National Urban League: “We must redeem the dream” so our children can live in communities without excess gun violence, be well educated, have full economic opportunity. “We must stand our ground” against forces that seek to push back the clock. Best speech so far.

* * *

Mayor Cory Booker, candidate for senator of New Jersey: Notes father’s constant reminder to him to never forget that he is reaping benefits of those who came before. “The dream still demands” that there is much to do. “We still have work to do” is his repeated mantra in reference to gun violence, wages stagnating, economic inequality, toxic environments. “My generation can’t sit back thinking that democracy is a spectator sport.” “We can’t get caught in state of sedentary agitation.” Includes gays and lesbians. This will be a regular appeal today. No longer will there be a divide between the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement after today. Excellent speech.

* * *

Steny Hoyer, chair and ranking Democrat in Congress: Recalls MLK saying that 1963 was a beginning, not an end. We will not rest. That is our pledge in 1963 and that is still our pledge. Hardly my favorite elected official but it was a decent speech. Then Nancy Pelosi: She’s always a crowd favorite. She was here 50 years ago. I didn’t know that. Recalls King saying “we won’t take the tranquility drug of gradualism.” Notes progress: 5 African-American members then, now 45 plus Black Caucus. Calls for paid sick leave for workers, quality health care so power of women can be unleashed. Notes that this is Women’s Equality Weekend. Need to correct what Supreme Court did to voting rights.

* * *

Merlie Evers-Williams, widow of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers: “What are we doing today? Where have we come from? What has been accomplished? Where do we go from this point forward?” Thinks of “Stand your ground.” “Flip that coin and make ‘Stand your ground’ a positive ring.” Stand our ground on gains we have made, to oppose efforts to turn back clock. She’s the second speaker (that was televised) who made reference. We’ll be hearing it throughout the day. “Assess where we are today” and stand your ground for justice, equality. Asks “Ain’t I a woman,” quoting Sojourner Truth and then acknowledging women leaders Betty Shabazz, Rosa Parks, and others. “The strength of a tree come from its roots.” Notes young people in the audience. Calls on her (and my) generation to stand by them and bring them up. (National Writers Union: Let’s revive the mentorship program.) “Never become so depressed that we think we can’t make it.” Felt a tear when she referred to her murdered husband. Great speech.

* * *

John Lewis (only speaker at 50 years ago march): Doesn’t matter what he says; it will be great. Notes that today we have another fight. Must fight the good fight against people who want to take us back. “We’ve come too far.” Said back then one man, one vote. Said we can’t wait. Doesn’t matter now if straight or gay, all live in same house. We can’t give in. He gave blood on bridge in Selma, Alabama. Won’t let Supreme Court take away that right. We must make noise. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool of a democratic society. We must use it. Congress must fix Voting Rights Act, pass comprehensive immigration reform. Keep the faith. I got arrested 40 times in the sixties, got bloodied. Ready to fight on “as you must fight.” Phew. Best speech so far.

* * *

Asean Johnson, 9 year old. Today’s youngest speaker, following Rep. Lewis, last march’s youngest speaker. That did it. I cried. “Every child deserves a great education. Every school deserves equal funding and resources.” Keep MLK’s dream alive. Ed Schultz calls him a gift from God.

* * *

Lee Saunders, President, AFSCME: The promise of democracy has not been made real for all of us, including people who work hard, play by the rules, retirees who don’t know how they’ll make it, students who graduate with huge debt. “If it’s not real for all of us, it’s not real for any of us.” March to live not in fear, where citizens are respected, jobs pay fair wages. “Don’t simply commemorate; agitate. Don’t memorialize’ mobilize…. Let us restore the American dream.”

* * *

Martin Luther King III: Father’s words “etched in eternity and echo through ages, tribute to tenacity of intrepid people who, though oppressed, refused to stay in bondage” (not sure if this is exact quote or paraphrase). This is not time for nostalgia or celebration. Can and must do more. Father said looked to day when his four children would be judged by character, not color skin. Segue to Trayvon Martin and call to repeal Stand Your Ground legislation, immigration reform must be passed, voting rights must be secured. “Fight back boldly.” “Heroes and sheroes fought and died.” We must not rest until Civil Rights Act restored. Dream far from being realized. Calls attention to city of my birth, Detroit, now under siege by state government. America needs a new Marshall Plan to recover. No more senseless Newtowns and Columbines, killings of young people by young people. More gun control but also more love. All colors. Gay and straight. All religions. “We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.” Quotes dad: “The arc of justice is long but it does bend toward justice.” Speeches getting better and better.

* * *

Rev Al Sharpton, keynote speaker, president of National Action Network: Some came to Wahington and couldn’t buy coffee until cross Mason-Dixon line, couldn’t find hotel to rest, saw friends’ blood shed. We owe them for what we have today. “You got where you are today because some educated women who never saw a college campus put their bodies on the line.” Wen want to rewrite Voting Rights Act and protect right to vote. Need federal law to undo what Supreme Court did. Always had voter ID. Why do we need special ID now that we got to Obama. Second, need jobs. “Folks want to work and earn for their families.” We redeposited check that MLK noted had bounced. It bounced again. Marked insufficient payment. Gave benefits to banks, the rich, the 1%. But not to Head Start, municipal workers, teachers. We will make check good or close down banks. Third, build what must be build around gun violence. Fight against recklessness that makes us so insensitive that we kill each other for no reason.” Medgar Evers and other did not give their lives to give young the right to be thugs and hoodlums. Don’t disrespect your women no matter how much money they give you. “Rosa Parks was no ho and Fanny Lou Hamer was no bitch.” Clean up our house and then we can clean up America. Need to expand coalition. “Bogus argument” about who suffered more. “We all need to unite and get well together.” Dreams are those who won’t accept what is and want to change reality. We need to give our young dreams again. Will register voters in all states. Need to flip folks in Congress, like his mom taught him to flip pancakes. Our votes soaked in the blood of martyrs. All America for straight whites who only speak English has passed away. We’re gonna bring a new America with liberty and justice for all. It’s time to march register, vote for a new America. We’re on our way. At end of speech, pays tribute to Joseph Lowrey, one of the heroes who didn’t get recognition then but now received Medal of Freedom from first black president.

* * *

C.T. Vivian, close friend of MLK: This anniversary is reminder that we didn’t have as many leaders then. Must think what we will do when we go home. Changing America became the greatest drama of the time and we won. Greatest spiritual leaders in America has been by African Americans. Our methods worked. If we choose, we can create the future. The problems we have to solve immediately will give us victories to solve the long-term problems. Can’t allow 45% of young people to drop out of high school. Quotes W.E.B. Du Bois: “We are a small nation within.” If we organize now, the future is ours.

* * *

Joseph Lowery, founder, SCLC, talking from wheelchair: Quotes: “Everything has changed and nothing has changed.” That’s where we are today. We’re here in Washington for two reasons: to commemorate, but go home to agitate, to complete unfinished tasks. Repeats it over and over until crowd realizes he’s trying to get them to chant. We’ve come a long way but we’ve got a long way to go. Sharpton again, brings families of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin to the stand. Emmett’s cousin: We aint’ gonna run. We’re gonna change the system. Trayvon’s mother: He’s all of our son and we have to fight for our children. Bernice King prayer: Help us to overcome our differences, stomp on enemies of progress and unity and inequality, violence and crime. We won’t get weary. Great right until the end: “In Jesus’s name we pray. Sorry, I don’t pray in Jesus’s name. Why can’t a Christian give a prayer that is for everyone? Downer end to otherwise inspirational program.