Most of the estimated 20,000 students and supporters who filled the Capitol plaza Saturday, March 24, 2018, in St. Paul likely found the overcast sky and biting wind appropriate for a cause as sobering as gun violence in America's schools. As the river of students, teachers, parents and supporters wove its way past police vehicles' lights flashing from Harriet Island through the concrete and glass canyon and poured out onto the lawns and steps of the Capitol, helicopters circled overhead while massive speakers blasted "Not One More" and "Enough is Enough."
The chill in the air was no match for the passion of a new generation of protesters driven by gun violence, forced to grow up too soon at the muzzle of a gun.
The plaza became a sea of signs begging legislators to stop the slaughter and defying the threat of bullets with the power of votes. The signs read: "Look Me In The Eye and Tell Me I'm Not Next," "One Child is Worth More Than All the Guns on Earth," "7 Children Die from Gun Violence Everyday," "This is Not A Drill," and "We Stand with Parkland."
A delegation from Somerset High School was one of the first groups to arrive at the start of the march route, according to Somerset special education instructor Dave Folkert, who accompanied about 20 students and four adults, including Wisconsin Sen. Patty Schachtner, to the march.
"The kids thought it was awesome. They were really inspired and moved by the speakers and the sheer number of people who showed up. They left the event feeling like they had the power to make a difference and to be a voice in a debate like that," Folkert said. "They were all glad that they came over and were all asking what else they could do or what else they could be part of to help other causes like this."
According to Folkert, Schachtner's grandson Eric Forsberg, a SHS freshman, initiated talks of sending a delegation to the march. Forsberg was looking to get involved following the Parkland shootings and approached the school board about doing something with the March for Our Lives event, since the students couldn't be part of the first walkout on March 14 due to being on spring break.
"Eric got in touch with me and we went to the student council to talk with them about gathering students to go to St. Paul for the march," Folkert said. "Personally, I was ready to do whatever I could after the Parkland shootings. So, when I found out Eric was pushing for us to go to the march, I was all for it."
As one of the first groups to arrive on Harriet Island, Folkert and the Somerset delegation of students and community members were able to see the march take shape as the morning went on.
"I thought it was a great experience. I was overwhelmed by the number of people that kept showing up and how the crowd just kept growing," Folkert said. "I think we were one of the bigger delegations of students that came over on a bus. I thought there was a good western Wisconsin representation at the march as well, even though it was in Minnesota."
The bus the students road to the march was donated by the Safeway Bus Company.
If an experience can be both heartbreaking and hope inspiring, this was it. A lineup of local politicians both red and blue, spoke about what was possible but it was the courage, stories and voices of students including four from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, that will echo in the hearts and minds of those who attended.
"My friend had to hold her friend's hand as she passed away. Why did it have to take 17 of my friends, schoolmates and administrators getting killed to bring attention to this issue? I don't want to have to spend another weekend deciding which of 17 of my friend's funerals I'll be able to go to. I want to be able to go to the mall with my friends and not be stared at because you're wearing an MS tee shirt and are a student there. Unfortunately this is my life now, but it doesn't have to be forever," said Marjory Stoneman Douglas freshman Taylor Benson.
"It is so important that all of the youth who will be 18 for the next election, register to vote now so we can put people in power that actually care about the youth and minorities in this country enough to listen to us and actually put laws in place to prevent so many other innocent lives from being taken," said Harding High School junior, Rose Whipple, indigenous heritage Ho-Chunk and Santee, member of Students Demand Action.
"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. The fact that students and parents actually experience this enrages me and here's what I think we should do about it. We should not be arming teachers. Instead we should be working on longer and more thorough background checks and we should raise the age to buy a gun to 21 everywhere. And no one with any mental disability anywhere should ever be able to buy a gun," said Marjory Stoneman Douglas freshman Stephanie Horowitz.
Two Great River High School freshmen, identified at the rally only by their given names, spoke. One reminded people that everyday 50.7 million students go to school.
"The fact that we even have to fight in the first place to make sure children don't get gunned down in the middle of class breaks my heart. Yet it brings me hope to see so many people coming together," a girl identified as Vasyl said. "We go to school every day knowing that any one of us could be next. There is no excuse, absolutely no reason, in today's America that can justify the death of a single child to a gun," Vasyl said.
"It was just before seventh grade that I learned how to paint myself with my classmates' blood and pull them over me in order to play dead in a classroom. I'm 15. I should not have to spend a decade preparing myself to get gunned down in a school," a freshman named Ellie said. She then quoted a 1960s activist. "I've had enough. Like Angela Davis said, 'I'm done accepting the things I cannot change. I'm changing the things I cannot accept."