NYC High School Students Walk Out on 4/20 for the 19th Anniversary of the Columbine Shooting

By Ilana Cohen

DSC_0896 On Friday, April 20th, on the 19th anniversary of the deadly shooting at Columbine high school in Colorado, thousands of students from all over the city walked out of class to gather in Washington Square Park. The walkout was organized in protest of the recent mass-shootings, and inspired by the uproar of teenage voices speaking out against gun violence. Students from all city high schools, and some middle schools, were encouraged to participate and stand-up against the systemic issue of gun violence. Public, private, and charter schools alike gathered to hear speeches made by Columbine shooting survivors, lawmakers, and student activists from NYC schools.

Overall, Beacon’s administration and staff seemed supportive of the walkout, as they saw us out of the building and onto the street. Teachers were smiling as kids bore signs and sported orange clothing. Orange, partly due to the Wear Orange movement, started by a teen activist to commemorate her friend who passed away at the hands of gun violence, has become the color of gun violence awareness. Participants have worn orange ribbons in support throughout various marches and demonstrations.

Beacon students left the building after B-Band around 11:00am for the A, C, and E trains at Port Authority. There was a large group of students walking along 43rd and 44th street, but smaller groups formed along the way and within the subway cars. Unlike the March 14th walkout, which was centered around Beacon and took place outside the school, the walkout last Friday was a more independent event. Students were responsible for their own transportation and directions to the Park and once inside, Beacon students did not necessarily join together as a conglomerate.

Students from ICE, LaGuardia, St. Ann’s, Packer, Brooklyn Tech, Murrow, and countless other high schools gathered to express their feelings on the issue of gun violence. As many as 6,000 participated in Washington Square Park. People gathered around the famous fountain, and crowds congregated around the park’s arch, where the podium was set-up. Speeches and demonstrations continued from 12pm-3pm. Around 1pm, there was a political demonstration within the fountain at Washington Square Park, in which students held up pieces of paper with a name of a victim of gun violence. The great deal of participants emphasized the prevalent nature of this issue, especially in the school system, and the number of children that have been murdered. There was also a “die-in,” where students outline their bodies with chalk and laid on the ground, presenting the upsetting reality and frightening situations of many school shootings. Beacon junior Frankie Morris-Perez said, “It’s really encouraging to see my peers come together and show everyone who says ‘we aren’t old enough’ or ‘we shouldn’t have a say in the political agenda,’ that we are persistent and will fight until something is accomplished.”

Beacon’s own Arielle Geismar gave a moving speech about protecting our school and ensuring that instances of violence, like Columbine, does not continue to happen within our schools. She highlighted the importance of concrete policy and action, in regards to gun control, and expressed a national outrage towards this issue. Columbine survivor Amelia Fernand also spoke about her experience, 19 years prior. Initially, she spoke about her feelings and fear during the shooting and went on to describe the importance change within our gun policy. The New York Daily News reported her saying, “For my entire adult life I have felt hopeless that our government will ever do anything about the school shooting epidemic in this country… And now I actually feel like change is coming. I am so incredibly proud of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students.” Fernand’s voice illustrated the generational impact of this issue, as students noted the fundamental ways in which the 2nd amendment is being abused and circumvented.

Gun violence is an epidemic in America. On average, 33,000 people die each year and 96 people die each day at the hands of gun violence, and out of those 96, seven are children. America seems to be the only country in the world with this intrinsic issue. Other countries, such as Canada record as little as 172 deaths each year, with japan reporting only 7 in 2017. This large difference stems from the second amendment- which gives citizens the right to bear arms. In our country, 22% of guns are obtained without a background check. Right now, over 3 million guns sales have been blocked due to background checks effectively preventing prohibited people from purchasing weapons. Furthermore, activists are pushing for rigorous background checks, a longer wait period (which currently stands at 72 hours), and included safety-training or permit registration.

Gun laws do make a difference: in 1995, Connecticut made a law requiring registration for licensing when purchasing a gun, which resulted in a drop in gun homicides by 40%. Another way gun owners have been slipping through the cracks is due to the gun show loophole, meaning people with criminal records can purchase a gun, there has been a recent push to close these cracks.

Certain policy makers have been looking to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban and agree we should prevent the selling of high capacity magazines, which are designed to kill hundreds of people in a very short amount of time. When the federal assault weapons ban was in place, the number of gun massacres fell by 43%. When the ban ended in 2004, data showed a 239% increase in massacre deaths than before the ban. The Las Vegas shooting, the Orlando Pulse shooting, and many more could have been prevented by the assault weapons ban, ensuring that these shooters couldn’t walk into to gun shops days before the massacres and purchase war weapons.

On April 20 1999, America began its streak of gun violence in schools, with the shooting in Columbine High School, leaving 13 dead and 21 injured. Columbine was possible due to the gun show loophole, and the shooters were equipped with high capacity magazines and shotguns without ever having to show identification or enter a background search. This kicked off a devastating era of mass shootings. The shaken and devastated Colorado community began to focus on the gun control debate, but their efforts only went as far as an increasing security in schools, enacting the immediate “action rapid deployment,” a policy that was geared to police officers in shooting scenarios. Now, Columbine is not even considered one of the 10 deadliest shooting in America.

Beacon sophomore Emma Pilkington stated that she was “[there] to support my peers in the fight against gun violence,” alluding to the important display of solidarity, amongst teenagers after the mass shooting in Florida at Parkland High School mid-February. Teen leaders and survivors of the Parkland shooting, such as Emma González, Cameron Kasky, and David Hogg, have been travelling the country, speaking at various demonstrations and events. Their impact extends beyond their teen audience, as national magazines and TV shows have given them a platform to express their youthful opinions, which are often ignored by mainstream media. Since the deadly shooting, there have been 40 more mass shootings and instances of gun violence in America.

Some viewed the rally as more of a social event, rather than an effort to stop gun violence. One anonymous Beacon student said that “The walkout was an excuse for people to fuck around, smoke weed, and hang out with their friends- which was extremely disrespectful.” They continued, noting the “white” nature of the demonstration, expressing the lack of representation within the speakers. Others believed that the walkout was an important movement for all teenagers, sophomore Ivan Knoepflmacher said “We are the general [public] that will affected by gun control.”Another sophomore, Ava Mascuch, echoed Knoepflmacher’s sentiments by explaining the discrepancies within gun policy: “The law that was created in the 18th century was describing guns that you had to put powder into and took a couple minutes to reload. They didn’t know about the guns we have today, so now we need to change and re-adjust those laws.”

Barring specific grievances about the management of the protest, most students agreed that the rally served as a tangible step toward policy change. Notwithstanding the informal organization or design, the demonstration showcased the ability of student leaders to transcend school divisions and coalesce around a common political cause. Perhaps of greatest import, however, is the resolve that this protest has affixed to the youth-led anti-gun movement: more than two months after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, student protests have yet to be dampened by right-wing detractors, and the momentum will continue until, as student advocates claim, gun policy displays discernible revision.