“I might cry a little”: MSD students bring raw emotion to March for Our Lives

WASHINGTON — On Valentine’s Day, Tori Gonzalez was photographed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School grinning, wearing a red sweater and holding a little pink bag with a candy rose in it, a present from her boyfriend Joaquin Oliver.

By the end of the day, Oliver was dead, one of 17 victims of a mass shooting that galvanized a youth movement to end gun violence in schools.

On Saturday, Gonzalez was one of hundreds of present and former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who made the trip to Washington, D.C. for the March for Our Lives to protest gun violence, organized in the weeks following the shootings in Parkland, Florida.

“I might cry a little,” Gonzalez said as she was hoisted up onto a fellow classmates shoulders. She held a sign that showed Oliver’s face, with the words “We Demand a Change.”

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas contingent were joined by thousands of students from across the country who rallied with them in DC in solidarity, saying they were fed-up with the routineness of lockdown drills and active shooter threats. There were also more than 800 sibling marches that took place on Saturday across the U.S. and in countries across the world.

Read: These March for Our Lives students brought their sign A-game to D.C.

Jammal Lemy, 19 and a former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, was friends with Joaquin Oliver, and said he was comforted by the overwhelming support and solidarity from students outside of parkland.“The way people are galvanizing shows that we’re not alone and gives us hope,” he said. “To see how people have come through .. I hope future generations will benefit.”

“It’s been hard to think straight since it happened, and there’s been so much pressure to stay strong, be strong,” Lemy added. “Not to sound dramatic, but i’ve thought about Joaquin every day since. He was my little brother.”

Jammal Lemy, 19. Lemy graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, and says that Joaquin Oliver was “like a little brother.” “It’s been hard to think straight since it happened, and there’s been so much pressure to stay strong, be strong,” he said. (Tess Owen/VICE News)

Aside from the somber purpose of the event, the atmosphere at the rally in Washington, D.C., was upbeat. Pop music blared and students held up signs saying things like “Stop eating tide pods and start calling B.S.” and “I want to be college planning not escape planning.”

Before the marchers set off, there was a rally that featured speeches from the student survivors who organized the march. “Welcome to the revolution,” Cameron Kasky, one of the student survivors and organizers told the crowd. “Stand for us or beware. The voters are coming.”

Emma Gonzales, a Parkland student survivor and organizer, took to the stage to deliver a speech, and then sat down, and remained in silence. She wanted to be on the stage for 6 minutes and 20 seconds — which was the same amount of time Nikolas Cruz took to kill 17 people.

There were also performances and appearances by celebrities like Ariana Grande, Common and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

People from around the country said they’d been inspired by the Parkland students to make the trip to D.C.

Before the marchers set off, there was a rally that featured speeches from the student survivors who organized the march. “Welcome to the revolution,” Cameron Kasky, one of the student survivors and organizers told the crowd. “Stand for us or beware. The voters are coming.”

There were also performances and appearances by celebrities like Ariana Grande, Common and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

People from around the country said they’d been inspired by the Parkland students to make the trip to D.C.

Read: The NRA is attacking the teen organizers of the March for Our Lives

Students with signs at March for Our Lives. (Tess Owen/VICE News)

Natalie Kincaid, 14, had traveled from Raleigh, North Carolina, with her grandmother Melanie Pope and her grandmother’s partner, Mary Jennette.

“This is my future,” she said. “It’s sad – young people are taught to trust government and police, but then something like this happens.”

“I think we need stricter gun laws,” Kincaid added.

A focus on gun control, from universal background checks a new assault weapons ban, were common themes among marchers.

“Guns like AR-15’s? It’s ridiculous they should be around people. I think we should ban them”

“We need to change gun laws to prevent future shootings,” said Beth Smith, 18, from Springfield, Virginia. “This has been happening for two decades now and it hasn’t changed yet. It’s ridiculous that it’s become so normalized that since I was five I’ve been doing lockdowns.”

Jason Walters, 32, who now works as a federal government worker, held a sign showing the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.

“I was at Virginia-Tech when it happened. I was in the next building,” he said. “It’s horrible that its become so common, that you almost get scared of a numbing effect. You’re not surprised or shocked anymore.”

Walters hopes that the renewed energy around the gun control debate means that something may actually change. “I’ve been optimistic before, but I hope this time things will be different,” he said.

Jason Walters, 32, federal government worker, was in the next building when the Virginia tech shooting happened in 2007. (Tess Owen/VICE News)

Teachers were also a visible presence at the march, many of whom toted signs criticizing the Trump Administration’s support for the idea of arming school staff as a means to improving school safety.

Nancy O’Leary, a 59-year-old math teacher from Montgomery County, Maryland, was holding a sign that said “Armed math teacher

“It’s been 38 years that I’ve been teaching and i never thought I’d need to be dealing with regular lockdowns and being told to carry guns,” said O’Leary. “We need to ban assault rifles and have more mental health services. Our kids need someone to listen to them.”

Throughout the day, past and present students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas marched to cheers from the crowd.

“There are no words for how empowering this movement has been,” said Dominique Francis, 29, a social worker and former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Francis’ younger brother Dillon McCooty was Joaquin Oliver’s best friend. Francis had known Oliver since he was a baby. “He was an all around good kid,” said Francis. “It feels like we’re living in a nightmare.”

McCooty said he’d known Oliver since they were about three — they met after Oliver and his family emigrated from Caracas, Venezuela.

They shared a love of basketball and video games.

“He was always encouraging people, lifting people up,” he said. “The world feels different without him here.” He said that Oliver loved sports and music.Oliver’s love for sports was so much so that his parents even buried him in his beloved neon pink and blue Miami Heat jersey. “He also liked poetry,” McCooty said. “But he didn’t tell many people that.”

Tori Gonzalez hopes that her boyfriend Joaquin Oliver will be remembered by the positive changes to come, and was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a slogan from an organization his parents set up that aims to empower and educate young people about engaging in government.

“Schools need to be safer,” Gonzalez said. “Guns like AR-15’s? It’s ridiculous they should be around people. I think we should ban them.”

But when asked to describe Oliver, she paused, smiled and teared up. “He’s everyone’s ray of sunshine,” Gonzalez said, and, gesturing towards the crowds, added “we still have him.”

Cover image: Tori Gonzalez, girlfriend of Joaquin Oliver, one of the students who was killed in the Parkland shooting (Photo: Tess Owen/VICE News)

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Author: Tess Owen

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