Thousands of students and people from around the Twin Cities marched from Harriet Island Park in St. Paul to the State Capitol on Saturday morning, demanding that politicians take action to curb gun violence.
The estimated 18,000 marchers chanted slogans such as “Hey hey, ho ho, the NRA has got to go” as they walked across the Wabasha Street Bridge and through downtown St. Paul, cheered on by supporters. Students on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School boys’ hockey team, in town for a national tournament, walked at the front of the group, holding signs memorializing their 14 classmates and three staff members who died in the shooting on Feb. 14 at their school.
Four students from the school subsequently spoke at a rally on the front steps of the Capitol.
“Feb. 14 is supposed to be a day of love and appreciation for those around you,” said a freshman from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, choking back tears as she said she lost four close friends in the shooting.
“But now for me, it is a day I will never forget, because that day, four of my friends and 13 other of my schoolmates, teachers and administrators were viciously killed in our school by an evil murderer. And I can’t even build up the courage to say his name, because he doesn’t deserve that.”
She said she had friends who had to “sit in a classroom and watch all of our friends be murdered in front of them.”
“Not a day goes by where I don’t think of my friends Jamie, Gina, Cara and Alaina and how they were the happiest people I have ever met,” she said.
She said Gina was in two of her classes and “now I have to sit there and look at her empty desk sitting next to me wishing she was still there.”
“But I will never forget her,” she said. “I write her name on every assignment I turn in, because in that class, we did all of our work together.”
“I not only want but I need something to change,” she added. “Every day, I ask myself, ‘why them?’ They were freshman students just like I am. It could have been me or my brother, but somehow, I got lucky that day. I’m not going to move on, but we’re all going to move forward, because that’s what they would want.”
Marjory Stoneman Douglas freshman Stephanie Horowitz said she was outside the building where the shooting occurred when the fire alarm went off.
“Thanks to coach (Aaron) Feis, who sacrificed his life protecting me and my classmates, and my teacher, I was directed back into my class,” she said. “Twenty other students and I plus our teachers squeezed into a tight closet for two hours. When the SWAT team finally came to save us, we had to run a specific route in order to avoid any possible dead bodies or injured kids.”
She said “everything became a blur” and that she couldn’t think straight when she finally made it home. Days kept getting harder and harder, instead of easier, she said, adding “the nightmares and the crying would not stop, and because of this tragedy, I don’t see the world the same any more.”
“I don’t feel safe in my own home because of what that 19 year old did, and that is not okay with me,” she said. “No child should go to school and wonder if they’ll make it home alive, and no parent should wonder if it’s their last time hugging and saying ‘I love you’ to their child.”
She said she’s enraged that parents and students have that experience and added “we should not be arming teachers,” drawing one of the biggest cheers of the rally. Solutions, she said, should include longer and more thorough background checks, raising the age of buying a gun to 21 and not allowing anyone with any mental disability to buy a gun.
The rally also included a speech from University of Minnesota student Sami Rahamim, whose father, Reuven Rahamim, was killed in a shooting at his Bryn Mawr neighborhood-based business, Accent Signage, on Sept. 27, 2012.
Sami Rahamim was on a bus ride to Madison, Wisconsin, that day, when he started seeing tweets about a shooting in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood. He said he sent those reports to his dad asking him to be safe, but that “as the details trickled in, it became clear that my world was about to change forever.”
“That day, after weeks of poor performance, the company was letting a 13-year employee go,” Rahamim said. The employee pulled out a handgun and started shooting, Rahamim said, killing six fathers, including his own.
Rahamim said his father immigrated to the U.S. from Israel when he was 22. He worked odd jobs, learned English and eventually developed an interest in engraving, opening Accent Signage in 1984.
“After almost 30 years in business, he could not have been prouder of his success,” Rahamim said. “…He loved his work, had a great family and gave back to his community. There was little doubt he was living the American dream.”
Since the shooting, “my family lives the uniquely American nightmare,” Rahamim said, adding that it “tears me apart” to know his father won’t be at his college graduation this May.
“Not a day goes by that this doesn’t wash over survivors of gun violence in some form or another,” Rahamim said. “It is a needless pain, a senseless trauma that time may mend but never truly heals.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey joined the students as they began their march at Harriet Island Park. He said he was proud to continue supporting the momentum the students and young people have brought to the issue.
The students are the National Rifle Association’s “worst nightmare, and if change is going to happen, it’s young people that are going to bring it,” Frey said.
Frey said Minneapolis is doing everything it can under the law to bring change, though he noted that it is preempted from taking certain legislative action. He said his office has a role to play as a bully pulpit and that the city has a major interest in “stopping these ridiculous gun deaths.”
“There’s no reason that someone should have the ability to reel off 30 shots before reloading through a magazine clip,” he said. “We’re talking about sensible gun reform that would prevent the loss of life through mass shootings, and it’s happening all the time. It’s got to stop.”