by Charles McGuigan
At High Noon, March 24, there was a showdown of sorts in downtown Richmond. As the bell in the clock tower near 9th and Franklin Streets tolled out the hour, thousands of people, many of whom had marched from Martin Luther King Middle School on Church Hill, flooded the main gate of the Capitol grounds, assembling in the shadow of an equestrian statue of the nation’s first president, and then the crowd, ever-thickening, moved beyond a drumline, and passed groups of people chanting, until they reached their ultimate goal—the South Portico.
The showdown was between young people, and Republican leaders who have done nothing to change gun laws because of their fear of the National Rifle Association, one of the biggest and richest lobbies in America. These young people, who had seen peers die in school massacres across the country, had had enough.
Rounding the southeast corner of the Capitol building, I see thousands of people, young and old, packed along the rolling green knoll that spills off the portico and flows down toward Bank Street. A woman named Darian Wyatt stands before a podium and begins to speak. This is at about the same instant another young woman, just a hundred miles to the north, delivers a stunning silence that is heard round the world. Her name is Emma Gonzalez, and aside from being young and female, she shares another trait with Darian, who is about to speak. They are both skilled and natural orators.
“We have to let our legislators know that we don’t want to have to fear for our lives everywhere we go,” she says. “We want universal background checks. We don’t want assault rifles in the hands of ordinary citizens.”
Darian is nowhere near finished. Nor are the other speakers gathered here.
“We’ve seen that gun violence affects everyone,” says Darian. “Little kids in elementary school, older people in churches. On March 13th of this year, lest than two weeks ago, over seven thousand pairs of shoes were placed in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C commemorating the more than seven thousand children who have been killed due to gun violence since the Newtown Massacre in 2012. In six years, over seven thousand children have been killed at the hands of these weapons, have been killed by guns getting into the wrong hands.”
The response from Congress, of course, was to do nothing.
“We need to let our legislators know that there is no more silence,” Darian says. “Too many legislators are reluctant to do anything about gun violence. Too many legislators are not willing to speak up. It’s time to let our legislators know that the time for comprehensive gun control laws is NOW! Enough is enough!”
The applause and chanting that follows is thunderous, and as Darian leaves the podium, a young man named Maxwell replaces her.
“The message to every legislator and to every single individual in this country is that change is coming,” says Maxwell. “Kids keep getting shot, and we keep doing nothing about it. A kid is shot in school, we do nothing. A school is shot up, we do nothing. An unarmed man is shot, we do nothing. A news reporter is shot on live TV, we do nothing. We’re calling BS.”
The crowd again erupts in applause. Like others gathered here and around the country this cool spring day, Maxwell does not mince words. He cuts to the quick.
“This isn’t the America that our history teachers have taught us about,” he says. “This isn’t the America that respects life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. No, this is the America where politicians and leaders prioritize lobbyists and money over the life of kids.”
The words sear the air, and the crowd erupts again in loud cheers and sustained clapping.
“This is America where we’re told we’re too young to have a say and that we should shut up and listen to what our leaders say,” Maxwell says. “Well guess what? They haven’t done their job and we’re calling BS.”
The inaction of Republic politicians nationwide is staggering. Particularly when you examine the statistical data. Of all politicians holding state or national office, those who receive an A or A+ ratings from the NRA are invariably Republicans. This too: over the past twenty years in candidate and party contributions, independent expenditures, and lobbying, the NRA has spent over $200 million.
Maxwell continues his speech.
“We’re sick of hiding in the corners of our classrooms during shooter drills and not knowing what’s going on, and having that fear in back of our mind that this may be the moment that we are shot because our leaders haven’t, couldn’t and can’t take action,” he says. “We’re taught from day one to stand up for ourselves, to defend ourselves, and that is what we’re doing today, right here, right now.”
Again, the applause comes loud and long.
“And to all the people who doubt us, to all the people who undermine us, we’re not going to stop,” Maxwell says. “All we’re asking for is the common sense changes that everyone agrees on.”
Which is true. Upward of ninety percent of Americans want gun control reform—prohibition of the sale of assault rifles, universal background checks, a limit on the size of magazines and so on. Contrary to the ridiculous rhetoric of the far-right, this is not about repealing the Second Amendment.
“So remember,” says Andrew. “Vote! Vote! Vote! Vote!”
And the multitude chants the same word over and over, and it drowns out every other sound in the world.
“Vote them out,” Andrew says. “Let’s call BS and let’s vote, let’s make our voices heard.”
To truly effect change in a democracy, you have to get the vote, and Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU in Richmond, offers some pretty disheartening facts about the number of millennials who actually vote.
“I want to give you one number that’s deeply dismaying and I charge all of you to be responsible for changing it,” says Claire. “One out of five people between the ages of 18 and 29 vote. One out of five. And we need that to be what?”
“Five out of five,” a thousand voices respond.
“That’s your first charge,” Claire continues. “And that’s about your own personal registration and showing up and it’s about encouraging and challenging all your friends to do so. And then I want to give you another number which is just short of half a million and that’s how many people in Virginia who are disenfranchised and cannot vote because they were once convicted of a felony. So what we need to do is change the Virginia State Constitution, so everyone eighteen and over, who live in Virginia and are citizens, can vote. Everyone. Universal suffrage.”
One of the most moving moments of this day of moving moments comes when a group of children, age ten through seventeen, mount the steps of the Capitol and read the names of gun violence victims who were murdered in Richmond this past year—more than seventy in all. As the kids read the names from slips of blue paper, a man with a drum taps out a slow funeral dirge, and many in this audience of five thousand are in tears. It goes on for well over five minutes, but it seems like an eternity.
Then a young man takes the stage and asks a simple but direct question: “If anyone in the audience has lost someone through gun violence, please raise your hand.”
As he speaks, more than a hundred hands shoot up, raised toward the sun, which is just past its zenith
“We will take a moment of silence,” he says.
And in that moment of silence, which also seems like an eternity, the absolute evil absurdity of the NRA crystalizes on the crisp, early spring air.
As the crowd begins to break up, I catch up with Kenya Gibson, Third District School representative, who had stood with the students on the South Portico during the proceedings. Her arm is draped over her daughter’s shoulder.
“I’m here because enough is enough, and I’m also here because Black Lives Matter,” Kenya tells me. “We are thankful that we haven’t had a mass shooting here in Richmond, but ultimately we have to also recognize those folks being killed one by one. Unfortunately those victims are silent, and they are killed with no fanfare, no headlines. It’s time to make some change happen. So let’s get out the vote, let’s put people before dollars.”
Just behind Kenya is the young woman who began the day’s event at noon with her impassioned speech. Darian Wyatt opposes the sale of AR-15s and other semi-automatic assault rifles to civilians, and Darian knows a thing or two about this. A self-proclaimed military brat, she tells me that even on garrisoned military bases, these kinds of weapons are always locked up, handed over to military personnel only for target practice or when the troops are deployed. Her father, who died defending his country, was the recipient of two Purple Hearts.
Like so many others gathered here today, Darian takes aim at ineffectual Republican representatives.
“The people who are in office now are owned by the NRA,” says Darian Wyatt. “And I know it may sound pessimistic, but I don’t think we can change them. The money is so big. And I don’t think they care enough about us, to be quite honest. But what we can do is get them out of office, and vote for people who are not going to be bought by the NRA.”