One by one the students approached the microphone in front of the Smart Financial Centre relaying their fears of being “the next one” to succumb to gun violence in the schools.
Their emotions were high and their passion, palpable. As each one came forward sharing their frustrations and fears, hearing the audience cheers and seeing the nods of encouragement from the adults seated before them, they felt empowered.
“Up until now, having our voice is one of the things we’ve been deprived of and we are the ones directly affected,” 18-year-old Yash Parmar said after the rally.
Parmar is one of the teens who helped organize Sugar Land’s non-partisan March for our Lives Rally Saturday afternoon.
More than 500 students, families, clergy and teachers, many carrying signs, marched from Sugar Land’s Memorial Park, 15300 University Blvd., to a lawn area at the Smart Financial Centre to give speeches and encourage one another to pursue change.
“Any issue that comes up, until now, we haven’t had a platform to say what we think and it makes me feel empowered. This was a national event and a few concerned parents started it and I came in and helped with getting speakers and approvals for posters in school,” said the Elkins High School teen.
Parents from the Riverstone community in Sugar Land, who call themselves “Riverstonians Together” also organized the rally.
“I want the message to be that student safety and people, in general, be above guns. Guns are a right every U.S. citizen is entitled to, but we have to make sure safety is a number one priority,” Parmar said.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Parmar said. “We want to keep the conversation going, keep the conversation alive.”
Spurred by the national march on Washington, rallies were held across the nation following Florida’s Valentine’s Day massacre at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and staff were murdered and 17 others injured by a student using an AR-15 style assault weapon.
Since the Columbine High School murders in Colorado in 1999, where a dozen students were killed, schools and universities have been the scenes of mass shootings by gunmen with assault-style rifles. After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children between the ages of six and seven years old were killed, national efforts to change gun laws were stymied by a powerful gun lobbies. Now mass shootings occur in schools, churches, clubs, and other public places with such regularity speakers said they always fear they will be next.
“My name is Norah Rami. I’m an eighth grader and I’m 13. I’m three years away from getting my driver’s license, five years from voting. But I could be shot today,” she said.
“We are the change, we are the future. But if we are dead, how can we make change?” she asked the crowd who responded with cheers.
“When we are talking about gun violence, we are shut down when we tell our teachers we should be talking about this. I am only 13, but there are 13-year-olds being shot and killed,” said the middle school student.
Sidney Barnes, 17, of Clements High School, said every day she tells her parents she loves them because each day could be her last.
“Because of gun violence, I’m scared. I don’t feel safe at school, conferences, church, dance clubs. Those students were just like me. We’ve been asking for gun reform and nothing happened. We are not asking, we are demanding change,” Barnes said.
Speakers said they were wary of politicians who accept money from the National Rifle Association. Chants of “vote him out” erupted after Parmar said he met with Rep. Pete Olson and asked what could be done to curtail gun violence.
“He said the answer is a good guy with a gun,” Parmar said.
The students were not the only ones to speak.
With clergy behind him carrying the Fort Bend Interfaith Community banner, the Rev. Will Starkweather, pastor of the St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, told the audience he was there to support the students.
“People are dying whether Parkland or Sugar Land. We have a moral imperative to take a stand against evil. I’m here with colleagues not to be a leader; you are the ones driving change. We are here to amplify your voices. So we will stand with you, we will work with you and we will march with you,” he said.
A 71-year-old retired doctor recalled that in the summer of 1968 he was the age of many of the students on the lawn.
“We thought we would change the world but we failed you, we didn’t get the job done. Now it’s your turn, get it done,” said Dr. Michael Crouch.
A young mother marching with her 5-year-old daughter carried a small sign stating, “arms are for hugging.”
She cringed listening to a preschool teacher tell of herding toddlers into a closet space during an “active shooter” practice at one of the schools.
“I really want to come up with a peaceful solution, not arming teachers,” said Stefanie Pepping. “Schools should be a safe place, not a war zone where teachers have guns.”
“Why do teachers have guns? Is it for the bad guys,” asked her 5-year-old.
Pepping gave a big sigh.
“Well baby, they don’t right now and we’re hoping they don’t,” she said.
For many of the students, the day was a success.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Parmar said “We want to keep the conversation going, keep the conversation alive. Most have a big uproar and it dies down. I asked our government teacher what I can do to get my voter registration and he helped me with that. I got my voter registration a few days ago. I’m 18. I want to vote for the change I want to see.”