AFT joins March for Our Lives to say: Enough is enough

From Newtown, Conn., to Parkland, Fla., from Lansing, Mich., to Oakland, Calif., AFT members marched with the nation June 11 to end gun violence.

On the main stage in Washington, D.C., which drew at least 50,000 participants, students who survived the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland returned to demand again—as they have for the past four years—that Congress pass commonsense measures like universal background checks, red-flag laws and safe storage requirements for firearms.

Randi Weingarten meets with students at March For Our Lives rally.
AFT President Randi Weingarten, left, meets with students before the rally.

Most Americans support such measures. And, after the killings in Texas and New York last month, it seems that March for Our Lives co-founder and Parkland survivor David Hogg may have been prophetic when he declared, just days after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that “This time is different.

His call to action mobilized hundreds of thousands of protesters on Saturday to rallies in more than 450 cities. Among the marchers were thousands of AFT members from the California Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers, the Minneapolis and St. Paul federations, the Florida Education Association and Texas AFT.

At a rally Friday, Lynda Pond, an AFT member who works in healthcare, described a series of shootings in Oregon, starting in 1998, when a 15-year-old shot and killed his parents, and continuing through a 2006 massacre at a community college in Roseburg. Repercussions from these tragedies are long-lasting, starting with first responders.

“Every time a mass murder occurs, they relive their trauma,” writes Pond, president of the Oregon Nurses Association, in AFT Voices. “Every community affected by these events suffers. The nurses, doctors, anesthesiologists, social workers and ministries who care for mass shooting victims suffer. Day after day, year after year, the traumas resurface.”

“How does [Uvalde] not move a human being to see that something is wrong here?” Jeff Whittle, president of the Macomb (Mich.) Intermediate Federation of Paraprofessionals, demanded in a speech at the state Capitol in Lansing on Saturday. “We are doing something wrong.”

Minnesota teachers at March For Our Lives rally.
Minnesota members call on Congress for change.

A special education paraprofessional, Whittle said students are told to run from the building if there’s a shooter. How are special ed students with limited mobility supposed to do this? Schools don’t even have enough staff to get kids into their wheelchairs. This is yet another example of how little policymakers understand education, he said: “They think they know, and they just don’t know.”

On Sunday, U.S. senators from both parties finally reached a breakthrough agreement on gun safety that would at least begin to address America’s nonstop mass shootings and other gun violence. The House of Representatives already has passed sweeping gun reform. If the Senate deal holds, it will be the first time in 30 years that lawmakers in Washington break the National Rifle Association stranglehold on gun safety.

‘Fight like hell’

With the White House in the background and heavy clouds overhead, young people castigated their elected leaders for failing to act. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and National Education Association President Becky Pringle joined them.  

Schools should be sanctuaries, Weingarten said. “Enough is enough. Not one more student. Not one more educator. Not one more community should be ravaged by the horror of gun violence.” 

Newtown teachers at March For Our Lives rally.
Four teachers from Newtown, Conn.

For those mourning their loved ones, Weingarten quoted labor icon Mother Jones, who said, “We pray for the dead, but we fight like hell for the living.”

The NEA’s Pringle observed that the grieving speakers were “pushing past their pain toward their purpose.” She also expressed gratitude for union solidarity, saying, “I have my sister Randi Weingarten right here beside me, and I just want to say I’m so thankful.”

The bottom line, Weingarten said, is that we must get guns out of the hands of people who should not have them, and we must get weapons of war off the streets. She noted how the nation took action for airline safety. “Why, why, why do gun manufacturers get a pass?” she asked. “If you care about kids, you should care about this.”

And we need fewer guns in schools, she said, not more: “Please arm us with books, with resources, with counselors. Do not arm us with guns.”

Rage, hatred and racism

Other speakers, all deeply affected by gun violence, implored Americans to put a stop to the carnage.

Buffalo, N.Y., is still reeling from the openly racist murders of 10 people, including three AFT members, at a Tops grocery store last month. Two sons of the eldest victim, 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, demanded sensible gun legislation.

NYSUT kids at March For Our Lives rally.
Students join one of many NYSUT rallies.

Like many family members, Manuel Oliver, father of Parkland victim Joaquin Oliver, had difficulty bringing himself to speak.

“I was hoping to avoid speaking to you today,” he said. “I was hoping to avoid having to attend a march like this ever again. The reason I’m here is that our elected officials have betrayed us. We cry for Joaquin every day of our lives. We live for Joaquin. We work for Joaquin.”

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said she has survived gun violence multiple times, “and justice in our federal policies could have saved me from the trauma of those near-death experiences.” In particular, she related the horrifying story of when she was about 20 years old and her partner—who would not have owned his two guns under a red-flag law or background checks—chased her out of their apartment building firing a gun at her. He had become enraged over how she was cooking hamburgers.

That kind of violence is completely preventable, Bush said, but when a person is murdered, it’s completely irreversible.

“So, we’re here today to demand life. Freedom from intimate partner violence. Freedom from white supremacy,” Bush declared. “We demand our freedom, and we will not stop until we get it.”

Yolanda King, granddaughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., echoed the feeling that this time is different. Having lost both her grandfather and her great-grandmother to gun violence, she asked Americans if they’re ready to make themselves heard “by ballots, not bullets.”

X González, formerly Emma González and another Parkland survivor, has spent the past four years trying to suppress anger.

“This is a problem everywhere,” González said. “It happens everywhere and all the time because you, Congress, have done nothing to prevent it. This does not have to happen. We have watched other countries enact gun violence protection. … You want to be helpful? You want to make the world a better place, Congress? Then pass the f****** gun laws!”

Fellow Parkland alum Hogg expressed the hope that he’ll be able to return to college soon, right after Congress acts. Make sure that every single senator hears you, he exhorted the crowd.

He recalled the 19 tiny coffins in Uvalde, Texas, filled with tiny decapitated and mutilated bodies. “I’m here because I don’t want anyone to live this nightmare anymore,” Hogg said. “I’m here because I love America. Everyone has a right not to be shot.”

If our government can’t stop kids from being slaughtered, he added, it’s time to change who is in government. And none of us is safe until we’re all safe.

But he also held out hope: Since the Parkland shooting in 2018, March for Our Lives and its supporters have gotten 115 pieces of gun safety legislation passed, including raising the age to own guns in Florida. “You know how hard that is?” he asked. “If we did that in Tallahassee, we can do it in Washington, on Capitol Hill, right now.”

Hogg gave a shoutout to the AFT and the NEA. “We love you guys,” he said, “marching with us to November and beyond.”

He asked why it’s easier to buy a gun than it is to vote. Then he asked everyone to do two things: Vote and show up at your state legislature every year. He said that if we persuade lawmakers to act, he believes we can cut gun deaths in half over the next decade.

“Today, on June 11, we’re making history again,” he said. “This can be the beginning of the end … but this is not the end. We march and we make change.”

[Annette Licitra]