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A Movement Grows 

After walking out in remembrance of the Florida shooting, Richmond students and concerned groups are preparing for a national march this weekend.

click to enlarge Thomas Jefferson High School students Kaurice Boyd, Darrius Kenny and Ta’Quan Grant walk out of class in support of gun reform and school safety.

Ash Daniel

Thomas Jefferson High School students Kaurice Boyd, Darrius Kenny and Ta’Quan Grant walk out of class in support of gun reform and school safety.

At 9:55 a.m. Wednesday, about 90 students file out the front door of Open High School. Some hold signs, some chat with their friends, some walk quietly with hands in their pockets and hoods over their heads. The high schoolers cross Pine Street and line up along Belvidere Street.

"We're going to have 17 minutes of silence for each of the individuals who were shot that day," student Josue Ramirez says to the group.

Ramirez reads aloud the names of the students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who died Feb. 14. He reminds his classmates to be respectful of the moment of silence and a reverent hush falls over the crowd. With teachers and school administrators watching over them, the students stand in silence until 10:17 a.m.

Belvidere is relatively busy. While cars and trucks fly by the kids, dozens of drivers honk and wave in solidarity, breaking the silence. When the 17 minutes end, the adults begin shepherding the group back to Open High, reminding them that it's still a school day.

For Josiah Salgado, a 17-year-old junior, the walkout is an opportunity to be a part of something bigger.

"That was a little surreal for me. I have never in my life done anything like that for a bigger cause," he says before returning to class. "I've never done anything bigger than me, and that's really been calling to me recently. Parkland really hit me in terms of my peers, and my safety and gun control in general."  

Salgado, who's compiling a short film about the ongoing student-led movement on school safety and gun control, plans to attend the March for Our Lives in Washington this Saturday, March 24. He thought about sticking around Richmond that weekend for the march to the State Capitol, but says that the protest in Washington will have a larger impact. He turns 18 in a few weeks, and says he can't wait for his first opportunity to vote. He's already registered.

"It's kind of sad, honestly, that we have to be the ones to do this," Salgado says. "But I think it's good because it's going to show that our generation specifically is rising up and taking initiative to fix our problems that we have right now."

click to enlarge Freshman Darren Lage is one of nearly 100 Open High School students to walk out of class in support of school safety and stricter gun laws. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Freshman Darren Lage is one of nearly 100 Open High School students to walk out of class in support of school safety and stricter gun laws. 

About 10 miles away in Mechanicsville, students at Atlee High School also stand up and walk out of their classrooms. According to Kate Dotson, a 17-year-old senior who finished her writing Standards of Learning test in time to join the walkout, teachers directed them to the school auditorium. Many students felt that "was not right," she says, so part of the group left the building and stood around the flagpole instead.

"It was empowering to stand with people who were not afraid of standing up for their peers and their future, knowing that we were making a difference," Dotson says.  

Thomas Jefferson High School senior Ta'Quan Grant wasn't sure how many of his classmates would participate in the walkout. But when 10 a.m. rolled around and more than 100 students left class to gather outside, holding signs and speaking about their experiences with gun violence, he says the energy was "electrifying and positive."

Grant, 17, grew up in Highland Park and lives in the Church Hill area. Shootings have been commonplace in his community and in his life since childhood, and he walks through a metal detector on his way into school every morning.

"I know how it is to live in an area dealing with guns," Grant says. "Every other week you'll see the police around because there's been a shootout or some other irresponsible act of crime."  

Grant, an ordained minister and a Richmond School Board candidate, describes the Parkland shooting as a "reality check" for young people, especially in communities of color. "All of a sudden it seems like, since the Florida shooting, students are now rising up," he says. "And yes, it's good, but especially in the black community, what about when Trayvon Martin got shot? Did Richmond Public Schools students protest?"  

Adria Scharf, director of the Richmond Peace Education Center, says she's heard that sentiment echoed among black students.

"I'm not hearing any anger, just a recognition that it took a mass shooting at a suburban school to catalyze this movement," Scharf says. "We saw thousands and thousands of young people walk out of school [last week] and that's exciting to see. But there's also a segment of young people we work with who have been advocating for this for a really long time. They're doing the work. They're the pioneers."

click to enlarge Open High School students line Belvidere Street for 17 minutes of silence in support of the students and educators who died in last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Open High School students line Belvidere Street for 17 minutes of silence in support of the students and educators who died in last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. 

Preparing for March 24

The Richmond Peace Education Center provides conflict resolution programs, racial justice initiatives and other resources to youth in low-income neighborhoods such as Gilpin Court.
Scharf recalls asking a roomful of young people whose lives had been affected by gun violence and watching nearly every hand go up.

"There is, without question, the reality that gun violence has been disproportionately concentrated in those communities that have been left behind by economic and racial segregation," she says. "And I think we've accepted, for far too long, too much violence concentrated in some of our communities."  

Scharf notes that, while Richmond hasn't seen a mass school shooting, the city has experienced an increase in homicides in recent years. There were 67 killings in 2017 (up from 61 in 2016 and 39 in 2015) and more than 50 out of the 67 died from gunshot wounds. Another eight people were shot and killed last year in instances that police classified manslaughter, self-defense, or other nonhomicidal deaths. That number, Scharf notes, isn't far from the 58 people killed at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas last year, the deadliest mass shooting in American history.  

"We lose as many or more people last year that were killed in the Las Vegas shooting, which is the equivalent of a slow-motion massacre," she says.

Last month when Parkland students called for a national March for Our Lives on Saturday, March 24, Scharf says the center immediately filed a request for a permit to gather at the Bell Tower in Capitol Square that day. It didn't have a plan, she says, but she knew it "had to organize something."

The peace center has since joined forces with Richmond-area branches of the NAACP, Moms Demand Action and the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, plus the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County and Richmond Public Schools, to organize and sponsor the March 24 event.

March for Our Lives RVA will begin at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, with grounds opening at 8:30 a.m. Art supplies will be available for anyone who wants to make a sign, and the program will begin at 10 a.m., rain or shine.

Scharf says some local students will open the event by reading poetry and "speaking authentically from their own experiences," and then the group will march just over a mile to the State Capitol — on the sidewalks, because event organizers don't have a parade permit. Once at the Bell Tower, volunteers will read aloud the names of each person lost to gun violence in Richmond last year, plus the 17 students and educators who died in Parkland.  

"Because RPS is endorsing it, I think it's not going to be super-partisan, so there won't be attacks on specific lawmakers," Scharf says. "I think the message will be crystal clear: Protect kids, not guns."

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Political Players

Among those expected to attend the March 24 event are Mayor Levar Stoney and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.

Stoney tells Style that he wishes the Commonwealth of Virginia gave localities like Richmond the ability "to restrict gun purchases and where you can bring guns."

"For instance someone can walk into City Hall with a weapon and no one can stop that individual," he says. "To me that's bothersome."

Stoney says he plans on being "very vocal" with state legislators about gun reform.  "I would love for us to stiffen the backbones of our friends in the General Assembly so they can stand up against the [National Rifle Association]," he says.

Stoney says the Republican majority in Virginia is "holding on by pure luck," and the next generation of voters could turn the tide. The day after last week's walkout, the mayor visited three Richmond high schools, encouraging students of age to register to vote and hit the polls in November.

"My hope is that this issue, that a lot of kids in this city deal with on daily basis, will carry the day for candidates who support common-sense gun control," Stoney says.

The issue boiled over in the Virginia House of Delegates earlier in March, making news when many Democrats walked out of the chamber after Delegate Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, defended Republican resistance to gun control by blaming "the abortion industry" for creating broken families and fostering violence.

One of Virginia's U.S. senators has been pushing his colleagues to also consider standing up against the gun lobbyists. According to Tim Kaine's press secretary, Miryam Lipper, Kaine recently gave a floor speech that highlighted the need for more discussion in the Senate about how to reduce gun violence and promote gun safety.

"He is hopeful that the conversation these high school students have ignited around gun violence will lead to concrete legislation that can reduce incidents like this happening in the future," Lipper says. "Kaine has likened it to the activism of high school students in Birmingham in 1963 protesting segregation, a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement."

Last Friday, during a gun violence panel discussion held by editors of Virginia Commonwealth University's student newspaper, the Commonwealth Times, political science assistant professor John Aughenbaugh reminds both sides of the debate that change is slow.

"No civil liberty is absolute, it can be regulated," Aughenbaugh says. "And for those who want gun control, remember that [the U.S. government] is a system designed to produce incremental change. If you're looking for broad, sweeping change, the U.S. ain't it."

click to enlarge “I know how it is to live in an area dealing with guns.” — Thomas Jefferson High School senior Ta’Quan Grant - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • “I know how it is to live in an area dealing with guns.” — Thomas Jefferson High School senior Ta’Quan Grant

Looking Ahead

Lori Haas, the state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, the sister organization to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, also will attend the march, both as an organizer and someone with her own story to share.

She's been an advocate for stricter gun laws since 2007, when her daughter, Emily, was shot during a college French class. Emily survived the shooting at Virginia Tech, which killed 32 students and faculty, and every time a mass shooting hits the news, Haas is transported back to the day she answered her phone and heard "Hi Mommy, I've been shot" from the other end.  

"I came to this movement for a lot of emotion-based reasons," Haas says, adding that she's stayed involved all these years because of what she's learned. "What a public health problem it is, just what the number are, how two-thirds of gun deaths in Virginia are suicides and those are concentrated in rural areas, and how gun homicides disproportionately affect communities of color. And my goal is to work on all of the above."

One of the fund's most successful legislative efforts, Haas says, is the passing of extreme-risk-protection-order laws, known as red-flag laws, across the country.

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After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, the organization looked at two "little-known laws" in Connecticut and Indiana, which give law enforcement permission to remove firearms from someone who's exhibiting violent, threatening behavior. In Connecticut it's a risk warrant, which means law enforcement can go in front of a judge with due process similar to a protective order and remove a person's guns. In Indiana, officers can remove the guns first and then go to court after the fact. The organization has aggressively promoted this law and it's been passed in California, Washington and Oregon, and introduced in at least 20 other states.

"Family members and law enforcement need a tool to separate a person who's at risk of self-harm and possibly harm to others," Haas says. "It's a brilliant law that tries to catch people slipping through the cracks."

Last week, on the same day that students from kindergarten through college walked out of class for stricter gun laws and safer schools, the National Rifle Association released a video calling on Congress to provide funding for states to adopt risk-protection orders.  "It's monumental, it's huge news," Haas says.

Florida passed its own version of the law last week, and Haas says she hopes the NRA's endorsement will help get more Republican legislators on board. Similar bills have been introduced and killed twice in Virginia, and she says she's optimistic about the one that will appear before the General Assembly in 2019.

"With the environment changing so drastically with regard to the gun violence prevention movement as a whole," Haas says, "And the student voices that are becoming the leaders in this movement, practical solutions like this one, that are narrowly crafted and full of due process, will pass." S

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