In response to gun violence that took the lives of educators and students in Uvalde, Texas, and Black shoppers in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and the epidemic of gun violence across the nation, the youth-led movement March for Our Lives organized nearly 500 rallies across the nation on June 11. The purpose was to demand that lawmakers act on strengthening gun safety laws to save lives.
With the flagship rally in Washington, D.C., New Jersey’s educators and students joined their voices with protestors at rallies here at home. The common thread of each rally was the cry, “Enough is enough.” NJEA’s officers joined county and local association leaders and lawmakers at rallies in Newark, Roselle and Somerville.
Spiller, Menendez speak at Newark Rally
“Enough is enough!” was the rallying cry that echoed throughout the morning from the speakers, including NJEA President Sean M. Spiller, Sen. Robert Menendez, acting New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin and members of the Newark Community Street Team (NCST). All expressed their disgust and frustration with the political inaction of our lawmakers.
Activist and organizer Elizabeth Meyer, who also coordinated the 2018 Women’s March in New Jersey, served as an adviser for the educators and students who organized the event. Meyer explained that NCST is a group that uses a public health approach to reduce violent crime and murder in the city of Newark. She said that Newark’s event sought to “uplift the voices of gun violence survivors from the city of Newark, since these people do not always have access to a microphone.”
One such speaker was NCST outreach worker Diane Jennings, who said that she was “attending for family, friends that she lost, and for her community.”
In his address, Spiller said that in addition to representing over 200,000 NJEA members he is also a science teacher, the mayor of Montclair, a husband, and a father of two young children. His concerns about the rise of gun violence across our country was palpable.
“Why is it that as an educator, I have to look to my colleagues—along with my wife who is a middle school language arts teacher—and say ‘Is this the day that I don’t see you again because you have to put yourself in front of a bullet to save a child?’” Spiller asked. “Why is it that as a mayor, I have to say to students that instead of worrying about learning to read and write, you have to fear that someone is going to come in with a gun and that you have to hide under your desk and be quiet, so that they don’t take your life?
“Too many times, we’ve been at rallies like this,” Spiller continued. “We’ve demanded action, we’ve demanded change. I think the other side is counting on the fact that we’ll just give up. We’ll become too tired, too numb, and just go back to business as usual. But we know that we will never sit down. We will never be quiet. We will keep moving forward, standing shoulder to shoulder, because too much is on the line!”
Spiller insisted that those calling for action will not give up.
“We are going to keep pushing until we see success, whether it’s at the state level with the 3.0-gun package that Gov. Murphy is moving forward or to keep fighting at the national level to say, ‘Do your jobs, take some commonsense steps for gun safety to make sure that we save lives!”NJEA President Sean M. Spiller
Menendez reminded everyone of his ardent support of gun safety going back to the original assault weapons ban in the 1990s. He also proudly noted his rating of an “F” from the National Rifle Association.
Menendez said that he passionately supports the students calling for gun safety laws and regulations. He noted two days before the rally, he met with gun control activist and March for Our Lives co-founder David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“[Student Gun control advocates] are passionate, driven and relentless,” Menendez said. “They all have something in common: they are not going to stop until sensible gun safety is the law of the land, until their friends stop dying, until schools can be a place of learning.”
Menendez concluded that students “refuse to accept a society that regulates everything from cars to lottery tickets but allows assault weapons—instruments of war designed to kill as many people as possible—to go unregulated.”
“Elected officials cannot look away when there is a groundswell of activism from students to moms and mayors and everyone in between—individuals who know in their bones that thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s time for Congress to act on measures that are supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans … such as universal background checks, bans on assault weapons, and high-capacity magazines.”
At the conclusion of the event organizers, speakers, and attendees exited the park with a police motorcycle escort and marched through the streets of Newark wearing March for Our Lives T-shirts, carrying signs, and shouting “Enough is enough!”
Beatty, Goodhue speak at Somerville rally
“Enough is enough!” was also chanted on the steps of the Somerset County Courthouse at the rally in Somerville.
“There have been close to 700 shootings already this year, and the year is not even halfway over,” said NJEA Vice President Steve Beatty as he addressed a crowd of several hundred attendees. “We have to say enough is enough!”
The Somerville rally was organized by Isabel Dutta, a Hillsborough High School graduate who is now a college junior. Dutta told the crowd that, beginning in elementary school, she and her fellow students practiced lock down drills, but no one ever told them why they were doing them.
Now an aspiring educator, Dutta now understands why the lockdown drills were established. She said that classrooms should be a safe environment and students should not be scared to come to school.
“We have to hold lawmakers accountable,” said Hillsborough Education Association President Henry Goodhue. “We have to stop having a moment of silence and have a moment of anger. We have to vote!”
The crowd responded with the chant, “Vote, vote, vote!”
The microphone was also made available for anyone who wanted to address the rally, leading to some of the most powerful and compelling speeches of the day. Students and educators spoke of the cascade of emotions they endure every time a mass shooting happens, especially when it happens in a school.
Teachers spoke of how they are always looking for places to hide their students, the location of the nearest exit, and about how their students are hesitant to leave when they hear a fire alarm because they fear what may await them outside.
Students discussed how when they hear something as innocuous as an unexpected ball bounce, they jump. The talked about their fears that a lock-down drill might be just a drill but could be something real. They talked about what it would be like to make their last call to their parents to tell them they loved them. Both educators and students said that after every school shooting, their thoughts turn to “That could have been me”.
While the Somerville rally was well attended, most participants were students and educators. One sign at the rally read, “Who in your life would have to die from gun violence in order for you to care about stricter gun laws?” Signs like these expressed the hope that another life does not have to be lost for people other than educators, students and those who have lost someone to gun violence to finally take real action for change.
Robertson, Lesniak speaks at Roselle rally
March for Our Lives held a peaceful rally for justice outside of the Warinanco Park Ice Skating Center in Roselle. A young boy named Alex opened the program, leading the crowd in a call-and-response chant. He led with “No more silence!” and the crowd answered, “End gun violence!”
Former Sen. Raymond Lesniak, now president of The Lesniak Institute, spoke about his work to ban assault weapons and strengthen New Jersey’s already tough gun laws. He has urged Congress to reinstate the ban on assault weapons that was allowed to expire under President George W. Bush.
NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Petal Robertson spoke about how distressing it is that students had to create the March for Our Lives organization.
“To know we still live in a society where we have to discuss whether it is OK for people to own guns to obliterate our children is heartbreaking,” Robertson said. “So when we talk about what we march for today, remember we are not just marching for our lives, but for the lives of every student who never had a chance to walk out of their school building. You’re walking for every victim of gun violence who doesn’t have the opportunity to march today. You’re marching for every teacher who had to make a decision on whether to go home to their own children or put their life on the line. We signed up to teach Shakespeare, not to be armed guards at school doors,” Robertson said.
Robertson’s remarks, and indeed many of the speakers moved marchers to tears. Norma Bowe, director of Be the Change NJ, shared the story of a young victim named Emily, a story written by Emily’s mother who questioned many things about the day her daughter was killed.
“Did she scream?” Bowe read. “Did the blood run across her Girl Scout uniform?”
Bowe shared how Emily, her sibling and her mother loved to sing songs from “Encanto” and wondered if the killer had ever seen the movie. It was heartbreaking to hear the thoughts that go through the mind of a grieving mother who doesn’t understand why her child was shot and killed in school and will never return home.
Patricia Perkins-Auguste, a councilperson in the city of Elizabeth, shared a traditional Masai greeting with the marchers: “How are the children?”
“The children in American are not doing well,” Perkins-Auguste answered. “People have decided to spread their anger and grief onto children as young as 7 and 8. What are we going to do about it? The classroom, one of the most protected places, has now become a battlefield for our children. No person needs a semi-automatic weapon—those are war weapons. Why are we selling those guns?”
Perkins-Auguste urged marchers to take part in our democracy to force change.
“In order to make democracy work, the people have to work it,” Perkins-Auguste said. “If we don’t work it, we are going to lose it.”
One marcher’s sign pointed out there have been more mass shootings than there have been days in 2022. As of June, 252 mass shootings have occurred across the country. The Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are shot or killed, excluding the shooter.
Jeff Feldman, director of Advocacy and Communications for National Association of Social Workers-NJ said that it has been 25 years since the mass shooting in Columbine, and we have yet to bring an end to gun violence.
“We’ve grown more accustomed to it rather than more outraged,” Feldman said. “We’ve become accustomed to ‘thoughts and prayers’ from our elected officials. Thoughts and prayers do nothing to prevent the issues before us or absolve our leaders for allowing these atrocities to continue.”
Feldman called for elected officials to take real action, emphasizing this is a nonpartisan issue that needs a resolution.
After the last speaker, Alex, led another chant. He began with “The people…” and marchers responded “…united, will never be divided.” Marchers began to walk repeating that chant and other chants along the route.
To learn more about March for Our Lives and take action in support of ending gun violence visit https://marchforourlives.com/.
NJEA Communications Consultants LeShaun Arrington, Angel Boose, and Sharon Milano contributed to this article.