By Sarah Yamashita and Kevin Coughlin
Chanting Books, Not Bullets and Save Our Schools, area high school students led thousands of gun-reform activists through downtown Morristown on Saturday as part of the national March for Our Lives.
And from the steps of town hall, in voices tinged with anger and resolve, students gave an honors course in curriculum changes prompted by Columbine, Newtown and Parkland.
“A few weeks ago, in a dark room, as my class cowered in a corner, we were taught how to avoid getting sprayed with bullets if someone was to break a window,” recounted Randolph High School student Caitlyn Dempsey.
Facing a brisk breeze, she addressed a sign-waving crowd that packed the municipal lawn and filled South Street, from James Street to well beyond the Kings supermarket.
Morristown Police Chief Pete Demnitz estimated attendance at 13,000, nearly matching estimates for January’s Women’s March in Morristown.
A half-million marchers were anticipated in Washington DC on Saturday. Some 800 sister marches were scheduled nationwide.
Slideshow photos by Jeff Sovelove:
“You have woken people up, I can tell you that,” said Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, who introduced student speakers from several towns.
They urged fellow students to register to vote, and to press lawmakers for “sensible” gun laws such as universal background checks, “red flag” rules to strip guns from domestic abusers, and a ban on sales of assault weapons.
Survivors of the Valentines Day massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland FL created the group #NeverAgain, which organized the national March for Our Lives with support from Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety.
Morris County students raised nearly $10,000 online and got local help from NJ 11th for Change, Moms Demand Action, BlueWaveNJ and the Morristown Area League of Women Voters.
Billed as a nonpartisan demonstration, the Morristown audience included Democratic congressional candidates Mikie Sherrill, Tamara Harris and Mitchell Cobert, all vying for a shot at the seat of retiring Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.). Republican candidate Martin Hewitt also showed up.
Sherrill was joined by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the Minority Whip in Congress. Most Americans favor stricter gun laws, but they have been stymied by the National Rifle Association, Hoyer said.
“But now they’re facing kid power. They’re facing young people who have no political agenda other than making our country safer,” Hoyer said.
‘WE WILL NOT TAKE THIS ANYMORE’
Security was heavy, with public works trucks and police vehicles blocking side roads along the march route, from town hall to the Morristown Green and back. Only three counter-protesters were identified by police; everyone was peaceful, Demnitz said.
Assisting Morristown police were the Morris County Prosecutor’s and Sheriff’s offices, and police from East Hanover, Florham Park, Hanover, Harding, Madison, Mendham Township, Morris Plains and Morris Township, Demnitz said.
The need for such measures was viewed by some students as a commentary on 21st century America.
“We need social workers, not police,” said Luna Aguilar, a Morristown High School student who is active with the Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center.
“We cannot arm our teachers. We cannot fill the school with police officers that feed the school into the prison pipeline. More guns and more oppression is not the answer,” she said.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin
Teachers should be remembered as heroic educators, not martyrs, Aguilar said. The nation values gun ownership more than young lives, “and we will not take this anymore,” she said.
“We, the youth, the future of our country, are deciding right here, and right now, that we are worth more than the right to own an assault weapon.”
Raniyah Mahdi of Ridge High School questioned the logic of laws that ban 19-year-olds from buying alcohol — yet allow them to purchase AR-15 assault rifles.
Since the Parkland shooting in February, Mahdi said, there have been another 18 school shootings, and 73 teen deaths from gun violence. Citing a Newsweek report, she said child deaths by guns since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting have surpassed combat deaths by U.S. soldiers since 9/11.
Australia banned rapid-fire guns after a 1996 mass murder and has not had a mass shooting since.
“This shows that gun control can work. For us the time is now. Enough is enough,” Mahdi said.
Slideshow photos by Sarah Yamashita:
Students also spoke of gun violence against immigrants and minorities. Morristown High School senior Nile Birch, a member of the school’s activism club, Melanin Minds, shared his unease, as an African American male, about interactions with law enforcement.
“We must stand together so that every single one of us can feel safe,” Birch said.
Dempsey, wearing the bright orange hunting safety colors of the Wear Orange and Everytown for Gun Safety movements, said her recent lockdown drill at Randolph High included “tips on throwing projectiles at the perpetrator.
“I was in calculus. I should have been learning derivatives or integrals.”
At lunch, on school buses, and in hallways, Dempsey said, “kids debate if they should jump out of a window and risk death or broken bones or stay in the room if there was a shooter.
“Teachers have to decide if they would throw themselves in front of students. Teachers have to decide what would happen if they had to learn how to use a gun.
“This is what it’s like to be educated in America,” Dempsey said. “Our youth is being prepared for war.”
An a cappella group from Montclair High School, The Passing Notes, sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to close the event.
‘WE NEED TO BE RELENTLESS’
Throngs of supporters lined South Street to cheer the marchers.
Morristown High School freshman Euwen Brennan was among a handful of students who defied administrators by leaving the building during the National Student Walkout earlier this month.
On Saturday, he sported a homemade sign that read: “The only thing easier to buy than a gun is the GOP,” a reference to Republican legislators’ acceptance of NRA money, and the lack of comprehensive background checks for gun buyers.
Friends Cathy Malanga and Melissa Faitoute, both from Berkeley Heights, said they wanted to show solidarity with the students. They are “the only hope we have,” said Malanga, a teacher.
“I’m a mother of a young child who goes to school, and I am concerned about the use of guns in this country and the fact that we’re being dictated by a lobby group that does not have our best interest at heart,” said Faitoute.
Hackettstown High School student Caitlyn Spuckes participated in last year’s Women’s March in Washington DC, and at this month’s optional National Student Walkout. About half of her school chose to take part in that demonstration for gun reforms, she said.
Saturday’s march was “sending a message that people aren’t going toi put up with things that put us in harm’s way anymore. Like, this is everyone taking a stand,” Spuckes said.
“We demand change, and if our representatives are not willing to listen to us we are going to vote them out of office and make the change that we want to see in the world….we need to be relentless,” he said.
Students at the Morristown-Beard School are organizing to participate in a national walkout on April 20, said student Perri Easley of Denville.
“I know there’s been a lot of backlash at other private schools specifically pertaining to suspension. We’re definitely ready to deal with any backlash,” Easley said.” I believe that because we’ve seen so many students who are passionate about this issue, we really see that it matters.”
Slideshow photos by Bill Lescohier:
For Jesse Hermit, 56, of Summit, Saturday was his first protest march. The nation must find a middle ground on gun laws, he said.
“I’m marching because I think we need to get some sense into the gun laws…This one just has to be taken care of, it’s way out of control and it just has to be taken care of,” he said. With enough pressure, he hopes, lawmakers will “be swayed to come to some common sense in the middle.”
A veteran named Jeff said he traveled from West Milford for the march. His girlfriend is an educator and he does not want guns in schools.
“I’m a combat veteran, I know what these weapons are used for and there’s just really no reason to have more guns in schools,” he said.
“We should not have this problem, they don’t have it anywhere else in the world and we shouldn’t have it here.”
Nicholas Voltaggio contributed to this report. He is a freshman at Morristown High School. Sarah Yamashita is a senior at the Morristown-Beard School.