Overcast skies and north winds seemed appropriate, given the somber impetus of the March for Our Lives.
But voices were strong, words passionate and adrenaline high as almost 1,000 people proceeded through downtown La Crosse on Saturday, joining hundreds of thousands of activists across the country in a march and rally against gun violence.
About 800 marches were scheduled Saturday in all 50 states and on six continents, spurred by the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Seventeen died when a 19-year-old former student entered the school with a semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle and started firing. Survivors have been vocal about the need for reform, inspiring school walkouts, protests and petitions for change, and helming the mass March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., that drew half a million participants.
Participants in La Crosse began gathering at noon for a rally, chanting “Enough is a enough” and hoisting signs reading “Thoughts and prayers are not enough” and “Fix this before it’s me texting my dad under a desk,” as they walked down from Burns Park to Cameron Park, where a lineup of 20 speakers addressed the crowd of students and families.
UW-La Crosse education major Dana Krokstrom, and fellow student Lili Sweet, huddled at the center of the crowd, distressed by school massacres in recent years and the lack of action by politicians.
“They need to pay attention to what we’re saying,” Krokstrom said. “I’m hoping politicians will see they need to step up and do their jobs and pass laws that actually protect — we’re hurting, we’re dying, we’re just trying to get help. We could be next. These assault weapons don’t need to be in the hands of everyday citizens.”
“It’s just kind of ridiculous at this point that the NRA is protesting,” said Sweet of the lawsuit filed by the organization to stop legislation from raising the minimum age of gun purchasers to 21 and banning bump stocks. “They’re not seeing it from the perspective of the people who lost their lives.”
Both were adamant that proposals to arm school officials are a step backwards, an opinion shared by many at the rally.
“I think its immoral,” said recent Westby High School graduate Austin Johnson, wearing a #Never Again T-shirt. “Teachers don’t want to carry guns. If we arm them, there are going to be more casualties. It doesn’t make people safer to have more guns — more guns cause confusion ... and chaos.”
Aprajita Singh, a UW-L student, called fighting violence with violence “stupid,” and expressed dismay some citizens and politicians seem to care more about gun rights than the lives of their children.
“It’s just not OK,” Singh said as speakers lined up to take the podium.
The Rev. Ben Morris addressed the crowd with an impassioned argument against the National Rifle Association, citing the money and political power the organization wields. Politico reported the NRA contributed nearly $6 million to Republican candidates during the 2016 election cycle, with the organization and its affiliates putting $50 million in political advertisements that year, $14.5 million of it to promote Republican supporters of the NRA, and $34.5 million to target Democrats in favor of stricter gun laws.
Morris, who is a hunter and gun owner, declared “the NRA does not speak for me,” and argued against using of the Second Amendment’s wording about “a well regulated Militia” to support the NRA’s objectives.
“There is nothing well regulated about being able to buy a gun in 15 minutes ... or being able to buy bump stocks,” Morris said as the crowd clapped and shouted in agreement. “Guns have one purpose: killing. We need meaningful gun reform in this country, and we need it yesterday.”
Mayor Tim Kabat followed, reading a proclamation and imploring citizens to continue “the incredible legacy in La Crosse of activism and action.”
Cheryl Hancock, executive director of Coulee Council on Addictions, spoke against arming educators, a view echoed by Central High School teacher John Havlicek. Teaching major Betsy Riling read a poem about her fears for her future students and herself, and the Rev. Brian Konopa discussed gun violence in the context of the Catholic teaching.
State Sen. Jennifer Shilling and La Crosse County Board chair Tara Johnson were among several officials who spoke, as did five religious figures, the organizer of Moms Demand Action, mental health professionals and professors. Central High School student Marley Richmond declared “I go to school to learn, not to be shot at,” and Logan High School student Libby Miller pleaded to keep guns out of schools.
Dr. Bob Freedland, an opthamologist, discussed guns and public health, calling for advanced research and education on the topic. Freedland said $600 million dollars a year is spent treating gun-related injuries.
“We need to research gun injuries as an epidemic or a disease,” Freedland said.
Wisconsin Assembly Rep. Jill Billings elaborated on Democratic proposals for gun safety in the Wisconsin Legislature, citing her disappointment in a package introduced by state Republican officials, calling it “anemic and weak.” The Democratic package, Billings said, includes universal background checks, banning bump stocks and funding for school safety measures and counseling.
“It’s a more extensive package that addresses people’s concerns,” said Billings, who said she has received an influx of calls, emails and letters from constituents clamoring for reform.
“They are tired of waiting,” Billings said. “They want action, and they should .... I think schools and students have done their jobs, and it’s time for elected officials to do their jobs and have a backbone and be bold on this issue.”
Many of those in attendance had young children with them, including pediatrician Mark Neuman, who said school shootings are causing anxiety in children, who fear for themselves and mourn their peers. As a parent, Neuman shared the sentiment of mothers and fathers in the crowd who are desperate to have a safe future for their children.
“My biggest fear, one I can’t even contemplate, is that my child would die before they are out of school,” Neuman said. “It would be the greatest anguish.”
“They need to pay attention to what we’re saying.” Dana Krokstrom, UW-L education major