Daniel Duff’s most vivid memory from his freshman year in high school may be two hours in a closet on Valentine’s Day.
“I heard all the shots fired,” he recounted on Thursday.
Those shots, in an adjacent building, killed 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland FL. Seven of Duff’s friends were among the dead.
The Florham Park native shared his story at Morristown’s Lidgerwood Park, where the Road to Change bus made one of its last stops on a summer tour that has taken Parkland survivors to 20 states.
A parallel tour has crisscrossed Florida, carrying the same pitch for common-sense gun laws and promoting registration of young voters.
Morristown was added to the itinerary in recognition of its student-organized March for Our Lives march that brought an estimated 13,000 to town in the early spring.
Thursday’s event drew a smaller weekday crowd to what was billed as a picnic. Remarks from Gov. Phil Murphy, First Lady Tammy Murphy, and Sen. Cory Booker were punctuated by free hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream, and a broiling sun.
An inflatable golden chicken stood in for President Trump, while volunteers in orange t-shirts signed up a trickle of voters. A deejay blasted Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up.
When the bus arrived from New York, students from Parkland, Chicago and Milwaukee — some wearing U.S. flag shirts with a bar code for voter registration– scrambled to the Lidgerwood basketball court for a few minutes of hoops. Later, visitors and hosts danced together.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin
David Hogg and Emma González, recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas graduates whose activism has landed them on numerous TV shows and the cover of Time — and provided fodder for conspiracy cranks and the far-right — gave short interviews.
“You do have a right to bear arms. But you do not have a right to gun violence. And that’s what we’re preaching here,” said Hogg, leader of boycotts and die-ins and co-author, with his younger sister, of a book about the mass shooting by former student Nikolas Cruz.
The tour started in Chicago in June and ends this weekend in New York and Newtown, CT, where 26 children and staffers died in a 2012 elementary school shooting.
Along the way, the Parkland group has encountered a few counter-protests, including a Texas stop where demonstrators brandished assault weapons, students said.
“It’s been emotionally hectic, I’d say,” said González.
“We met a lot of people who had similar experiences to us. It’s been a nice experience to work with people who know what we’re feeling, and create a community on a more national scale that hasn’t been there before,” she said.
“Every place I’ve been to has been more uplifting than the halls of Congress,” said Hogg, adding that sympathy’s not enough. “Don’t just give us your thoughts and prayers. Go out there and campaign. Nov. 6 is just around the corner.”
During the tour, Parkland students visited Standing Rock, the North Dakota scene of an oil pipeline showdown between the government and Sioux tribe.
They also spoke with the family of Philando Castille, the black motorist fatally shot by a Minnesota policeman while reaching for his driver’s license in 2016. And they met Michael Brown Sr., father of Michael Brown, killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
New stories of gun violence are heard at every stop, said Matt Deitsch, a 2016 graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Still, he believes solutions will be found.
“It’s going to take conversation. On this tour we’ve really learned that this is not a polarizing issue. Everyone pretty much agrees on what policies need to be put into place to save lives…These problems are easily solved if we have non-corrupt leaders,” Deitsch said.
The students are demanding comprehensive background checks for gun buyers; a digital revamp of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; increased funding for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research America’s gun violence; and bans on high-capacity magazines and semi-automatic assault rifles.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) had a local story for the Parkland kids: He said his Newark neighbor, Shahad Smith, 28, was killed on his block with an assault weapon in March.
“This is not a right-left issue. This is a right-wrong issue,” Booker said, praising the young activists for “showing light amidst too much darkness, too much pain, too much hurt.”
Roughly 80 percent of gun crimes in New Jersey are committed with guns that come here illegally from other states, said Gov. Murphy. He too lauded the youths, asserting this generation “is setting the bar, and they will succeed where we failed” to influence Congress.
‘WE HAVE REASON TO BE AFRAID’
Democratic Congressional candidate Mikie Sherrill made the rounds, accompanied by Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty. Morristown First Lady Mary Dougherty, a candidate for Morris County freeholder, and Cathy Wilson, Morris Township Committeewoman and Democratic chairperson, also attended.
New Jersey students came from as far as Monmouth and Bergen counties, and as near as Morristown High School.
“I don’t know if it’s going to change anyone’s mind, but I want to bring awareness to the fact that kids are scared to go to school,” said Maddie DiDomenico, a rising freshman at MHS.
“There’s nothing worse than a fear that is rational,” chimed in Seton Stanton, another rising freshman in Morristown. “We have reason to be afraid. Shootings are happening.”
Stanton was thrilled to meet González, “an inspiration to young women everywhere to use their voices.”
Daniel Duff said he was apolitical until last February, when he heard gunfire as he cringed in a closet with classmates. He tried to convince himself this was just another drill, though he knew it was not.
“It was like nothing I can explain. I think about it all the time. It’s a very surreal experience that no one should ever have to live through,” he said.
Duff rode on the Florida tour. Visiting family in New Jersey on Thursday, he came to Lidgerwood Park with his parents to support the national tour.
It’s time for leaders to represent the views of the people, Duff contends. “That’s something we don’t have,” he said, “and it’s something that we need.”
He remains hopeful.
“I think where our country is at right now can definitely be improved on,” Duff said. “But I think where we’re headed is definitely a good place.”
Correspondent Carly Cannavina contributed to this report.