Taking the lead of demonstrations started by people barely old enough to drive during the days of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, North Shore students marched Saturday. Their messages were clear in their rhetoric delivered over a sound system from the bed of a pickup truck and on homemade signs: lives lost to gun violence are no longer acceptable, especially in schools, and politicians who do not agree are going to have organized and audible opposition.
A local incarnation of the March for Our Lives, a movement started by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that left 17 people dead in Parkland, Florida, Feb. 14, took place at the intersection of Routes 347 and 112 in Port Jefferson Station March 24. While thousands stomped through Washington, D.C., and countless other areas across the globe, several hundred gathered locally, thanks to the organizing efforts of students from Miller Place, Port Jefferson, Ward Melville and other area high schools, to call on politicians to take action to prevent gun violence in schools and communities. Activist organizations The North Country Peace Group, Long Island Rising, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Building Bridges in Brookhaven assisted the high schoolers in setting up the demonstration.
Calls for legislative action in speeches and on signs ranged from all-encompassing bans of “assault style” weapons seen abroad, like in Australia; to the more incremental policy changes being discussed in state houses and on the federal level, such as raising the minimum age to purchase firearms from 18 to 21; to bans on modifiers that make semi-automatic weapons function like automatic weapons; stronger background checks; and longer waiting periods for purchases.
“We are infused with a passion for change — change that we hope will drain the stagnant pool of corruption in our nation,” Miller Place High School student Jake Angelo said to the crowd. “We are the hope for our country’s future — the generation of awareness, the generation of calling ‘B.S.’ and the generation of change.”
Nearly all of the student speakers directed their remarks at U.S. 1st Congressional District Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and the National Rifle Association, the powerful lobbying arm whose political contributions are often criticized as the deterrent to advancing gun legislation by those who lean to the political left. Zeldin received nearly $10,000 in campaign contributions from the NRA during his reelection campaign in 2016, according to campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets.org.
“Change does not happen when the leaders deem it so,” Ward Melville High School student Scott Egnor said. “Change happens when every day folks say that enough is enough. Change happens when every day folks draw the line. Change happens when we vote Lee Zeldin out. We will take this movement, by Americans, for Americans, and we will bring it to the doors of the capital. We will not stop until Congress is more afraid of our voice than the NRA checkbooks.”
A spokeswoman for Zeldin Katie Vincentz said in an email the Congressman has and will continue to meet with those on both sides of the gun control debate, when asked if he planned to meet with any of the NY-1 students behind the Port Jeff Station march. She said Zeldin supports banning bump stocks, fixing the National Criminal Instant Background Check System and “ensuring lunatics manifesting violent criminal intentions to murder with firearms have access to none,” among other changes widely regarded as incremental gun control steps. She did not say whether or not he would support a ban on assault-style weapons when asked.
“The more people of all ages participating the better,” Vincentz said when asked how Zeldin viewed the activism of students in his district and beyond.
A speaker who identified herself as Ariana, a sophomore at Longwood High School, also invoked Zeldin during her remarks.
“Why should 15 year olds have to discuss the possibility of dying at the hands of a mass shooter?” she said. “Why should we be discussing dying in school, a place where we’re supposed to be safe and protected? And what can we expect from politicians like Lee Zeldin? Apparently only prayers and condolences. Congress is not taking the necessary steps to keep students like me and my friends safe — or the 5 year olds in kindergarten, or the 11 year olds in middle school. That’s why we are here. We cannot wait for the adults in Congress to continue to let the NRA call the shots when it comes to our safety. These politicians are not listening to us because we are supposedly too young to know what’s good for us, but apparently their silence is what’s best. Or perhaps the issue here is special interests and the money they receive is more important to them than our lives.”
Many of the parents of student speakers and participants in attendance expressed how proud of their children they were.
“It’s honestly the most proud that I’ve ever been of them,” said Kathy Podair, whose daughter Emma and frienf Alyssa Anderson, Smithtown High School West students, were among the marchers. “I’ve raised them to be strong women and to speak out against things that are wrong and that need to change. To see them take that initiative and stand up, I feel like I did a good job. I’m very proud of them today.”
She called sending a student off to high school in today’s world “terrifying.”
“They had a lockdown drill last week,” she said. “We got an email from the superintendent in the morning letting us know that there will be an unannounced lockdown drill today, and they came home from school and told me they were in the choir room when it happened, in a room that doesn’t have a lock on the [glass] door, and they said ‘we were sitting ducks if this was real.’ There were 150 kids in this room and they said ‘there’s nowhere safe for us to hide.’”
Port Jefferson High School students Ben Zaltsman and Matt Pifko, who helped organize an indoor assembly that took place March 14 on the day a national walkout was scheduled, along with classmate Gavin Barret, also spoke during the event. The trio said they were inspired by the solidarity they felt from seeing so many of their peers in attendance. The students helped establish a station in the high school that will remain open at which their peers can get assistance in writing letters to elected representatives.
Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) were also among the attendees.
“It is amazing to see the passion, the dedication, the commitment of these students — no fear,” Hahn said. “It is wonderful. They are focused, they are determined, they are smart and they’re getting things done already. And we need to follow their lead.”
A smaller group of counter protestors stood across the street on Route 347 holding signs in support of the Second Amendment, with several Suffolk County Police Department officers and their cars positioned on the median to separate the two groups, though no violence and minimal interaction occurred.
A package of gun control bills passed the New York State Assembly in March and will require passage by the Republican-majority state senate before becoming law. All of the students asked said they intend to vote in the next election, or the first one after their 18th birthday. Organizers from the various activist groups had a table set up during the march to help register attendees to vote.