There was a lot of planning. In addition to the personal messages on the orange cards, students carried flowers with orange messages attached that contained data and statistics from Children’s Hospital regarding the impact of violence on young people. (Orange ribbons symbolize gun control.) They gave the flowers, with their messages, to random people on the way to Penn’s Landing to spread the word.
They made their own signs, which they held up during their walk and 17-minute vigil, a wind-blown American flag and the city skyline behind them, the sparkling Delaware River in their sights.
The signs were original, direct, pleading and angry: “Put an end to school shootings,” said one. “My education matters but my life matters more!” The 17 Parkland names were written inside a drawing of a handgun. Another said “Am I next? Fear has no place in our school.” In the corner, “no guns.”
There were long messages and short ones. A girl held a sign saying “When we protect guns more than we protect children, we become an uncivilized society. Black kids are 10x’s more likely than white kids to die from gun violence, stud[ies] say.” That was near a sign reading “books not bullets,” and another that simply said “#change.”
Diamond Parks carried a sign that featured Trayvon Martin, who was killed in 2012 at age 17 in Florida. “He would have been 22,” it said. The sign tied his killing to domestic violence because his shooter had a history of it and still had no trouble owning a gun.
She lives in West Philadelphia and is no stranger to gun violence. “Usually, people get shot every summer,” she said. “Where I live, it’s an everyday thing.”
Same for Diamonique Maxwell, 17, also from West Philadelphia.
“Last night, there was a shootout on 52nd Street. I feel that this [protesting] shouldn’t be starting now because this has been happening in communities and neighborhoods. Guns shouldn’t be allowed, period, because we use them in the wrong way. The government should protect us,” she said.
During the vigil, one student rang a bell at each minute, while another held up a sign with the name and age of one victim. The students massed on the steps stood in total silence.
Lenfest, in the heart of Old City just two blocks from Independence Hall, is the oldest of Mastery’s Philadelphia schools, opened in 2002. It has no metal detectors or security guards. A few students interviewed, unnerved by school shootings and the periodic lockdown drills conducted at Lenfest, said they thought these things were needed.
“Right now people are paranoid after the school shooting,” said Robert Smalls, 18, who lives in Southwest Philadelphia.
But most of the students disagreed, and, in fact, regard those security measures as counterproductive. “We don’t have metal detectors and security guards, which sends a message that we have a community that doesn’t need those things,” said Terrance Booker, 17, a junior. “It gives the vibe that we are a community that trusts one another.”
Amya Gordon, the student whose brother was shot last fall, agrees. “We don’t need them because our community is not violent,” she said. Staff members know the students and are on top of disputes before they escalate.
It was the concept of taking a stand on behalf of a wider community that caused Gordon to rethink her initial reluctance to take part in the walkout.
“I decided to march for a higher purpose,” she said. “If I march, it would be for my brother and others. If I didn’t participate, I’d be like everybody else who sits around and does nothing.”
– Dale Mezzacappa