WASHINGTON — They were three generations of women, up from Harrisonburg, Va., for the March for Our Lives. Jan, the grandmother, held up a sign that said: “My generation failed them.”
“My generation failed them too,” read the sign by the mother, Becky
And the granddaughter, Amy: “My generation will fix this.”
That was the point of it, the theme and the common hope among the hundreds of thousands massed along Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington Saturday afternoon, in support of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, survivors of the Feb. 14 mass shooting that left 17 dead.
Just reading the signs was an education in national politics, in teenage sociology and in grief. They were poignant but often funny, photos of victims of gun violence held high next to denunciations of the National Rifle Association and images of cartoon characters. There were signs honoring the victims of Columbine and Newtown, Vegas and Orlando.
There were legal arguments boiled down to what would fit on a piece of cardboard, and profanity, as supporters from across the country skipped the numerous local rallies to come to the capital.
As many said, this is where the Parkland kids were, so this is where they had to be.
Some of the best signs were the simplest, images of schoolchildren lost to gun violence. James Hartley quietly sat a few dozen yards from the throngs on Pennsylvania Avenue, holding a photo of Sara Engel, a 6-year-old who was slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
“Newtown really affected me,” said Hartley, who lives in Frederick, Md., “and I just wanted to bear witness to this.”
Many had made the trip from Parkland, Fla. Richard Newbery was one of them, holding a sign that said “Grab them by their midterms” and passing out some of the hundreds of ribbons the community had made in advance of the march.
Splashes of burnt orange and maroon showed the colors of Virginia Tech to honor those killed in the 2007 shooting in Blacksburg, Va., a four-hour drive from Washington. Tucker Foreman, a D.C. resident, held up a Hokies jersey with the word “Remember.” Foreman said he had purchased it the week after the attack.
“The reason is the conversation I just had,” said Foreman when asked what inspired him to bring the jersey on Saturday. “The gentleman over there asked ‘What’s that jersey?’ and when I told him he said, ‘I forgot.’ We can’t be in a situation where there are so many of these [shootings] people forget.”
Among the thousands of students were a number of teachers, many expressing displeasure with President Trump’s idea for stopping school shootings by giving teachers guns to shoot back. “Books not bullets” was a popular refrain. Robert McDaniel of Gainesville, Fla., stood on a patch of grass, holding a sign that said “Retired principal against arming teachers.”
“Thirty-five years in public education showed me that teaching is the toughest job around,” said McDaniel, “and that’s without having a gun.” He said he had spent the morning with teachers coming up to him to say thank you and take photos.
McDaniel said it had been an emotional morning. He and his wife, Anna, had a personal connection to the day’s events. They were close friends with the aunt and uncle of Carmen Schentrup, one of the students killed at Parkland. Schentrup had been accepted into the honors program at the University of Florida, where Anna McDaniel serves as dean of the College of Nursing.
Greg and Erin Mueller, a pair of teachers from McLean, Va., had brought their 9- and 12-year-old children to the rally “to show them what democracy looks like.” Erin Mueller’s sign read “I’m a teacher not a solider,” and she said that she didn’t feel kids would feel safe with armed teachers roaming the school.
Many of the signs were political, with a focus on the 2018 midterm elections — and beyond — with pointed messages for President Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The National Rifle Association, along with its president Wayne LaPierre and spokesperson Dana Loesch, also made for popular sign fodder. Younger attendees held signs advertising when they would be eligible to vote, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence passed out stickers counting down the days to the midterms: 227 days from Saturday.
A common theme among teenage girls attending the rally was the comparison of the number of rules for guns versus the number of restrictions in their respective high school dress codes. Emma, a 14-year-old from Silver Spring, Md., held a representative sign that read, “Why are my clothes more regulated than your guns?”
“Girls especially are very regulated on what they can wear just because it’s ‘distracting’ to boys,” said Emma. “And the government is doing nothing about things that are actually putting us in danger, things that could be ending — that are ending — people’s lives.”
Signs also compared how much more strictly women’s reproductive rights were restricted than gun ownership. One theme was that students would get more protection from Congress if they never left the womb. Several signs warned men that possession of a firearm did not enhance the size of any body part, one in particular.
There were signs meant to interpret the Second Amendment for the benefit of the courts, pointing out the absurdity of using 18th century policy to regulate 21st century technology. “Muskets. We meant muskets” read a sign carried by Trish Manzke who underscored the point by donning a silver Revolutionary-War-era wig she had purchased just for the occasion.
Her son, Skye, 17, stood nearby and said he really appreciated what his mom was doing. Trish Manzke was particularly pleased her son had just registered to vote in November’s election.
The crowd’s favorite Federalist, by far, was Alexander Hamilton, whose Broadway incarnation in the musical Hamilton was the inspiration for dozens of signs: “History has its eyes on you,” “Tomorrow there will be more of us” and “I will gladly join the fight.” Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the show and starred in it, performed at the rally along with fellow Tony winner Ben Platt from Dear Evan Hansen.
One of the attendees with a “History has its eyes on you” sign was Claudia Buettner, a 19-year-old student from Louisiana.
“I wanted to speak to my generation,” said Buettner when asked why she had chosen those particular lyrics, “because a lot of them don’t think about history outside of what’s in the book they have to read or look at the news, and I think it’s important for them to realize what an important period this is.”
She said some of her fellow Hamilton fans had been stopping by over the course of the morning.
“A couple people have come up to me and said, ‘We have the same sign!’”
Dr. Tyr Wilbanks, a trauma surgeon from the Bronx, wore his operating-room clothes and held a sign that said, “No more blood on my scrubs.”
“I could have gone to the New York rally, but I wanted to be where the Florida kids were,” said Wilbanks. “If the students from Florida were here, then I should be here. They’re like the child who pointed out the emperor has no clothes, they’re demanding action and not settling for thoughts and prayers.”
Wilbanks said he had treated many gunshot wounds in his time and was appalled by the waste of young lives. His daughter held up a chart showing that the U.S. had by far the highest rate of gun deaths among developed nations.
“I’m so proud of what they’ve done,” Wilbanks said of the Parkland students. “They’ve provided a great counter balance to the NRA.”
A number of the signs paid tribute to the words of activist Emma Gonzalez, a Parkland senior and one of the leaders of the Never Again movement. Gonzalez rose to prominence following an emotional speech just days after her classmates were killed, a speech in which she declared “We call BS” on lawmakers and gun advocacy groups. More explicit references to what “BS” stands for were common, although the placard of one young girl perched atop her mother’s shoulders included an age-appropriate parenthetical of “Bologna sandwiches.”
Along with the somber tributes and calls for policy changes, there were also plenty of memes — oh, so many memes. The Parkland survivors have been praised for their social media savvy, digital natives who understood how the internet functioned, and many of their supporters brought the online into the real world for the march. They took the inside jokes that spread across social media — esoteric references that are barely comprehendible unless you’re comfortable with the weirder corners of the internet — and attempted to wield them as weapons in pursuit of gun policy reform.
There were references to the rapper Drake and to a confused Brazilian telenovela star, but the most prolific meme by far was that of cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, a signifier of absurdity meant to mock ideas such as arming teachers.
“I wanted to think of the most patronizing thing possible,” said Mary McDowell of College Park, Md., who had designed a SpongeBob sign for her friend. “And also inject a little humor into this.”
Danielle Gatapia, a graduate student from Boston, held a SpongeBob sign with the same message, deciding she wanted to show her support without doing something too serious. She had found kindred spirits in her fellow meme warriors.
“I’ve seen a few other people with memes,” said Gatapia, “and they’ve come up and we’ve high-fived and said we need more memes.
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