Thousands of demonstrators demand gun-control reform at Grand Rapids’ ‘March for Our Lives’

GVL / Emily Frye 
Student leaders from Forest Hills Northern High School direct the March for Our Lives protest in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Saturday, March 24.

GVL / Emily Frye 

Student leaders from Forest Hills Northern High School direct the ‘March for Our Lives’ protest in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Saturday, March 24.

Emily Doran

In conjunction with marches held nationwide, thousands of demonstrators gathered at Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids on Saturday, March 24, to express support for victims of gun violence and demand more gun-control legislation.

Grand Rapids’ “March for Our Lives,” which featured fiery speeches, a table where participants could register to vote and a visually powerful walk through the city’s most populated streets, was organized entirely by West Michigan high school students.

“We hope … to have our voices heard and to have legislators act on sensible gun-control laws,” said Emily Dieffenbach, a sophomore at Forest Hills Northern High School in Grand Rapids who helped organize the event. “We’re going to demand action from our legislators until there’s change.”

Prior to the march, the organizers held a rally at noon in Rosa Parks Circle that featured performances from the Grand Rapids Justice Choir and speeches from students and other individuals who demanded gun-control reform at the congressional level. 

Several speakers even threatened to vote “inactive” politicians out of office in November, prompting the crowd to erupt into chants of “Vote them out” at several points throughout the rally and subsequent march. 

As part of the event, the speakers and organizers offered concrete opportunities for participants to make a difference and continue their support of gun-control reform even after the conclusion of the march.

“We’re encouraging people to participate through civic action by writing letters to their state legislators,” said Kathleen Fallon, a senior at Forest Hills Northern who was manning a table with letter-writing materials, sample wording and the addresses of state legislators and representatives.

A sophomore student from Forest Hills Northern offered a raw and emotional plea for gun-control reform from the podium, describing the fear she and other students experienced going to school.

“As high school students, it is so damn hard to process that kids our age and younger were killed,” she said. “How are we supposed to live our lives knowing that we could be gunned down at any minute? … We have normalized mass shootings. … We have normalized active-shooter drills.”

The sophomore vehemently condemned naysayers who doubted the effectiveness of teenagers participating in the “March for Our Lives” movement.

“Politicians and pundits on TV are trying to discredit us by saying that nobody will ever listen to a bunch of teenagers,” she said. “That the Parkland students are too emotional to enact change. That this organic, student-led movement will never work because we are only teenagers. We’re too emotional, too stupid, too young, … too occupied with social media on our phones to do anything. 

“So what? We are emotional. We are angry. We are disgusted with our (representatives). They claim to care about our lives, but we all know they care more about money and their jobs.”

Many demonstrators carried signs condemning assault rifles, the push to arm teachers in their classrooms and the National Rifle Association itself. Statements such as “Enough is enough,” “My thoughts and prayers include laws and change,” “Fear has no place in school” and “Protect lives, not guns” were plastered over cardboard signs and held high throughout the day.

A science teacher from Rockford High School offered his perspective on arming teachers, a potential solution to mass shootings in schools that has been proposed by some politicians, including President Donald Trump. 

“I’m a teacher, and my classroom is a sacred place,” he said. “It is a place to learn, to grow, to feel safe. It is not a place to bring a weapon. … (My classroom) is the antithesis of everything a gun represents.”

Participants at the march also addressed the potential concerns of locals who own guns and might be wary of the changes being demanded.

“National legislation affects all of us, obviously,” Fallon said. “And especially here in Grand Rapids, I know plenty of people who love to go hunting. That’s like a big thing, and I think the big push and pull here is with the people who love that recreational activity and those of us who see gun control less of taking that right away but helping kids within our communities stay safer.”

Dieffenbach offered another way to localize the national movement to West Michigan.

“Parkland is no different than the school I go to,” she said.

Despite the youth of the “March for Our Lives” organizers, the Grand Rapids demonstrators expressed their unequivocal belief in the teenagers’ ability to pressure legislators and finally achieve the gun-control reform they have been seeking for years. 

“I think that, especially this generation and this group of high school students, clearly they’ve got something that a lot of adults don’t have right now, which is anger, and they want to be heard, and they’re smart, and we need to listen,” said Cortney Kramer, a parent attending the march.

This belief in the power of Generation Z was echoed throughout the event, including by the teenagers themselves. 

“Just because we’re younger doesn’t mean we’re not involved and we’re not aware of what’s going on around us,” Fallon said. “Like, we can read the news, too.”

Following several speeches, the demonstrators, led by a police escort, marched through the streets of downtown Grand Rapids carrying their signs and chanting “Not one more” and “Congress, do your job.” Starting at Rosa Parks Circle, they marched down Ottawa Avenue and Fulton Street, ultimately turning and looping back to their starting place to create a large square.

The crowd stretched so far that marchers in front crossing the Blue Bridge could see their fellow demonstrators across the river on the Fulton Street Bridge, the two right lanes of which had been cleared for pedestrians. At one point, the marchers on both bridges even acknowledged how far they reached by cheering for each other as they crossed the Grand River at different points.

Following the march, student demonstrators were invited to engage with an interactive art piece by writing their names over the painting of an AR-15 rifle in order to cover it completely. 

Other speakers at the rally portions of the event included a naval veteran supporting gun-control reform, a woman who had been at Virginia Tech University at the time of the mass shooting there in 2007 and another woman who had suffered from two separate instances of gun violence.

“So what’s changed?” asked the Virginia Tech survivor. “Why am I here today after all of these events that have happened? … I simply just don’t have the luxury of being a bystander any longer.”