Hundreds of thousands of people from across the country are descending on Washington Saturday to demand action from Congress on gun control in a mass demonstration that could rival the annual women’s marches sparked by President Donald Trump’s election.
Spurred by the school shooting in Parkland, Florida last month, the “March for Our Lives” has the backing of well-funded gun control groups like Everytown for Gun Safety. They are organizing youth voter registration drives and running crash courses on activism and public policy.
More than 800 “sibling” marches are planned across the globe on Saturday.
Saturday’s demonstration is the culmination of years of inaction by lawmakers as mass shootings have continued unabated in America. Left-leaning activists, feeling stymied by the National Rifle Association’s lobbying, are wielding one of the few tools they have left: taking to the streets to demand change.
More than two hours before the start of the noon march, the crowd began chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.”
“The conversation died down after Sandy Hook, the conversation died down after Aurora,” Justin Frybergh, 19, a 2016 alumnus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said this week. “For young people, the conversation is not going to die down now.”
“And,” he added, “they’re going to be voting in the next election cycle.”
People began streaming toward Pennsylvania Avenue early. Police were everywhere, stationed at Metro stations and every few feet along the route. Signs were posted along the route notifying marchers that firearms aren’t allowed in the area, even with a license to carry.
At 9 a.m., the area in front of the stage, erected near the base of the U.S. Capitol, had already filled up. A number of signs knocked the Trump administration’s support for training and arming school personnel.
“This future teacher will never carry a gun,” one sign read. “My job is to teach, not return fire,” another said.
The demonstration comes days after a shooting at Great Mills High School in southern Maryland, which killed two students, one of whom was taken off life support on Thursday.
“What better place to demand that Congress take action than their home?” said Anna Sophie Tinneny, a 17-year old senior at Pennridge High School, 30 miles north of Philadelphia.
Tinneny said this week that she and a dozen or more of her peers planned to leave for Washington before dawn on Saturday. Tinneny recently made headlines when she and her classmates received detention for participating in a nationwide school walkout calling for gun control. They protested during detention, sitting in a circle on the floor and wearing the names of the Parkland victims on their shirts.
“The Parkland kids aren’t going away,” she said. “They’re inspiring so many kids in Generation Z,” the demographic cohort after Millennials.
Seventeen speakers — to honor the number of people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas — are expected to speak. Several celebrities, like Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, are expected to perform.
The route for the march stretches down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Trump International Hotel and stopping short of the White House. The march will be followed by mass school walkouts across the country on April 20.
Preparation was in full swing on Thursday and Friday, with D.C. officials erecting barricades, portable toilets and temporary cell phone towers. Temporary cement barriers stood in front of the Trump International Hotel on Friday, in addition to two layers of metal barricades. Inside, bartenders nervously chit-chatted with guests about the impending crush of protesters.
On Saturday, military trucks blocked off downtown streets nearly the Trump hotel as demonstrators flooded onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
The city’s public transportation system was bracing for long lines and crowds. Restaurants offered discounted meals to marchers and the ride-sharing app Lyft offered free rides to the march. Local families have been offering up their homes to students with nowhere to stay.
The marches in Washington and across the country will be accompanied by what’s expected to be an extensive youth voter registration push. Organizers have been pushing state-specific voter registration toolkits, and the Parkland students have talked up the importance of voting in media appearances. The Parkland students and teenagers nationwide, many of whom just turned 18 or are about to turn 18, have vowed to remove from office state and federal lawmakers who refuse to act on gun control.
"Get out and vote!" urged David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, on Thursday. He and several other students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School participated in a rally at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter school in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood.
Hogg and his classmates, who’ve rocketed into the spotlight with their demand for gun control, just wrapped up a media blitz to promote the march. They visited with D.C. students and held press conferences on Capitol Hill, joined by Democrats like Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal.
"If we don't make our voices heard, then they won't take action!" Hogg said, eliciting cheers and applause from Thurgood Marshall students, most of whom raised their hands when asked if they had been affected by gun violence. The school has lost two students to gun violence in less than a year — Paris Brown, 19, and Zaire Kelly, 16.
Organizers of the marches are also pushing a petition that calls on Congress to ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and background checks for the purchases of all guns — a nearly impossible political ask.
Congress has only mustered support for modest measures since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Mass shootings that killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and 58 in Las Vegas last year yielded nothing.
A $1.3 trillion government spending bill signed by Trump on Friday includes measures to improve records and information-sharing in the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System and federal grants to improve school safety. The White House has also launched a new commission, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to consider school safety measures.
Trump also tweeted Saturday morning about his administration’s move to ban bump stocks, the devices that are used to turn semi-automatic weapons into machines guns.
The National Rifle Association did not respond to a request for comment. But the gun advocacy organization’s media arm, “NRATV,” went after Hogg in a tweet on Friday.
“Will the [mainstream media] ask @davidhogg111 about his #NRA-target, profanity-laden tirade? No."
An NRATV video plays a clip of Hogg saying, “What sick f---ers are out there that want to continue to sell more guns, murder more children and honestly just get reelected? What type of person are you when you want to see more f---ing money than children’s lives? What type of sh---y person does that?”
Jennifer Bouchard arrived in D.C. early Saturday morning after traveling overnight from Boston.
When it comes to arming school personnel, she said, “It’s crazy that our teachers would need to take that on. And it teaches our kids that guns are necessary.”
Bouchard, who said she would like to see a ban on assault weapons, said this moment feels ripe for change because “the kids are taking control.”