Chanting “This is what democracy looks like,” “Vote them out” and “Am I next?”, Naperville Central High School students lined Aurora Avenue across from their school Friday to support tougher gun laws on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.
In Chicago’s Loop, students marched to Grant Park and stood in Federal Plaza, holding signs declaring “Enough.”
At West Aurora High School, a small group of students walked around their school building shortly after 10 a.m. while carrying an orange banner and chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, NRA has got to go” and “Save the kids, not the guns.”
And at Scoville Park in Oak Park, hundreds of students from Oak Park and River Forest High School and other schools in the west suburb observed 13 minutes of silence for Columbine interrupted only by a reading of the names of the 13 victims of the gunmen at the Colorado high school. Thirteen orange balloons were released into the sky.
“Schools are becoming crime scenes,” said Elizabeth Cahill, an eighth-grader at Julian Middle School in Oak Park. “We are fighting back. We learn that mistakes made by the current leaders of the world should be fixed, lives should be saved and that we have voices to stand up to this violence.”
Cahill added she doesn’t “want to be scared, as I’m walking out the door to school, saying the ‘I love you’ that I say to my parents to be the last time I say it.”
In cities across the country, it was common to see crowds of students clad in orange — the color used by hunters to signal “don’t shoot” — rallying outside their schools or at public parks.
Nationwide, organizers said an estimated 150,000 students protested Friday at more than 2,700 walkouts, including at least one in each state. The goal was to sustain a wave of youth activism spurred by the deaths of 17 people in a Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Protests on March 14 drew nearly 1 million participants, activists say.
Many of the students who joined demonstrations across the country Friday turned their attention to upcoming elections as they pressed for stricter gun laws and politicians who will back them. Scores of rallies turned into voter registration drives. Students took the stage to issue an ultimatum to their lawmakers.
In Oak Park, students set up tables where people could sign petitions and leave messages for elected officials, including U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Reps. Danny Davis and Luis Gutierrez , all Democrats.
During the Naperville Central walkout, Becky Simon said the League of Women Voters Naperville registered 40 new voters, one of whom was senior Lili Adam.
Adam said she’s excited to have a voice in the November election. She’s looking for candidates who will support federal rules governing extensive background checks for all gun owners and routine mental health checks for police officers, she said.
“How many people have to die before we do something?” Adam said.
The focus on the November election reflects a shift after activists gained little immediate traction in Washington. And prospects for their influence remain uncertain. Congress has shown little inclination to tighten gun laws, and President Donald Trump backed away from his initial support for raising the minimum age to buy some guns.
Among those who helped orchestrate the national walkout — and the voter registration push — was the progressive group Indivisible, which formed after the 2016 election to oppose Trump’s policies.
After leaving the Oak Park and River Forest High School building, sophomore Dylan Carson headed toward Scoville Park with his classmates while carrying a sign in remembrance of the victims of the Parkland shooting.
The front of Carson’s sign read, “We stand with Parkland” and included 17 red handprints in honor of each of the shooting victims. On the reverse side, Carson had printed each victim’s name with a short biography.
“I think our generation is starting to wake up to the problems of the world,” said Carson, who noted he wasn’t alive at the time of the Columbine shooting. “When Parkland happened, it was as if it was normal. This can’t be normal, and we can’t continue to accept this.”
Protests also drew attention from nonstudent community members. Oak Park parent Laura Best waited along Scoville Avenue outside the main entrance to show her support for the high school walkout.
“This is (my children’s) future school, so I wanted to be here,” Best said. “I don’t want any of our kids to be next. They’re the ones who can hopefully fix the problem because we failed them.”
The Associated Press contributed.
Baker is a reporter for the Naperville Sun, Schering is a reporter for Pioneer Press, and Freishtat is reporter for the Aurora Beacon-News; Pratt is a Tribune reporter.