Tens of thousands of young people in the U.S. walked out of school to demand action on gun violence Wednesday in what activists hoped would be the biggest demonstration of student activism yet in response to last month’s massacre in Florida.
More than 3,000 walkouts were planned across the U.S. and around the world, organizers said. Students were urged to leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim in the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Students from the elementary to college level took up the call in a variety of ways. Some planned roadside rallies to honor shooting victims and protest violence. Others were to hold demonstrations in school gyms or on football fields. In Massachusetts, Georgia and Ohio, students said they’ll head to the statehouse to lobby for new gun regulations.
Thousands of students gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, holding colorful signs and cheering in support of gun control. The students chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho. The NRA has got to go!” and “What do we want? Gun control! When do we want it? Now!”
More than 2,000 high school age students observed the 17 minutes of silence by sitting on the ground with their backs turned to the White House.
President Donald Trump was traveling in Los Angeles at the time.
Stoneman Douglas High School senior David Hogg livestreamed the walkout at the tragedy-stricken school in Parkland, Florida, on his YouTube channel. Walking amid a mass of people making their way onto the football field, he criticized politicians for not taking more action to protect students.
He said the students could not be expected to remain in class when there was work to do to prevent gun violence. “Every one of these individuals could have died that day. I could have died that day,” he said.
From Florida to New York, students poured out of their schools, marching through the streets or gathering on campus to demonstrate. Some schools applauded students for taking a stand or at least tolerated the walkouts, while others threatened discipline.
The coordinated walkout was organized by Empower, the youth wing of the Women’s March, which brought thousands to Washington last year. Although the group wanted students to shape protests on their own, it also offered them a list of demands for lawmakers, including a ban on assault weapons and mandatory background checks for all gun sales. “Our elected officials must do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to this violence,” the organization said on its website.
Other protests planned in coming weeks include the March for Our Lives rally for school safety, which organizers say is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to the nation’s capital on March 24. Another round of school walkouts is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.
Some students in Massachusetts said that after Wednesday’s protest, they planned to rally outside the Springfield headquarters of the gun maker Smith & Wesson.
The walkouts drew support from companies including media conglomerate Viacom, which planned to pause programming on MTV, BET, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and all its other networks for 17 minutes during the walkouts.
— MTV (@MTV) March 14, 2018
— Mia Matthews (@miamoreorless) March 14, 2018
— Hollywood Reporter (@THR) March 14, 2018
Districts in Sayreville, New Jersey, and Maryland’s Harford County drew criticism this week when they said students could face punishment for leaving class.
In suburban Atlanta, one of Georgia’s largest school systems announced that students who participated might face unspecified consequences. Some vowed to walk out anyway. “Change never happens without backlash,” said Kara Litwin, a senior at Pope High School in Cobb County.
The possibility of being suspended “is overwhelming, and I understand that it’s scary for a lot of students,” said Lian Kleinman, a junior at Pope. “For me personally, this is something I believe in. This is something I will go to the ends of the earth for.”
Other schools sought a middle ground, offering “teach-ins” or group discussions on gun violence.
Meanwhile, free speech advocates geared up for a battle. The American Civil Liberties Union issued advice for students who walk out, saying schools can’t legally punish them more harshly because of the political nature of their activity. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas, some lawyers said they would provide free legal help to students who are punished.
Many in Hollywood praised the action from students on social media, from Katy Perry to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Actor Ben Stiller took to social media to say he was proud of his son and daughter for taking part in Wednesday’s walkout. “Very proud of my daughter and son taking part in today’s walkout to say #ENOUGH and to teach our incredibly irresponsible politicians the right thing to do and end gun violence against children now. #respect!!!” he posted on Instagram.