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'I don't want to be next': US youth march on Washington to end gun violence

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP | People take part in the March For Our Lives rally against gun violence in Washington, DC on March 24, 2018.

Hundreds of thousands, many of them teenagers, took to the streets of the US capital on Saturday to demand politicians take action on gun control and put a stop to the school shootings that have become a tragically regular occurrence.


Organisers said they expected the March For Our Lives rally to attract some half a million protesters, angered by the lack of progress on curtailing a long history of gun violence in the US that has claimed dozens of young people's lives, most recently at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in Florida last month.

By noon, crowds thronged Pennsylvania Avenue under the shadow of the US Capitol Building in the early spring sunshine. Demonstrators were so densely packed that the march had become more of a standing protest.

'I don't want to be next'

"We just don't want anyone else to lose their lives over something that should have been solved 19 years ago after Columbine," said Kathryn, a 15-year-old high school student from Virginia, referring to the 1999 Columbine High School massacre that claimed 13 lives.

Since then, active shooter drills, armed guards and metal detectors have become an increasingly common part of daily life for many of America's school pupils and young marchers said they had had enough of living in fear.

"It's horrible not to feel safe in your own school. We should be worried about exams, not about getting shot," said Kathryn.

"I don't want to be next," added her school friend, Mia, aged 14.

Sister protests were also held in hundreds of cities across the country and across the world, as far away as London, Paris and Tokyo.

Washington DC is no stranger to protests, including the vast Women's March just over a year earlier.

But the youthful faces of the demonstrators made Saturday's march unlike any the city has seen before. Many were high school students and younger who had come by bus, car and plane to make their voices heard.

They included Eli, 14, and Ana Sofia, 15, who had taken a 14-hour bus trip from Tampa, Florida, with close to 30 other students from their high school, to join the protest in the capital.

"The government right now is not representing the entirety of the population. Young people like us can't vote obviously, but it's important that we came here to represent ourselves," said Eli.

The principal feeling among the demonstrators appeared to be one of frustration: that despite tragedies like the one at Parkland and others before it, very little seems to have been done by those in power.

"Other countries have had mass shootings in the past and their governments took action so that they didn't happen again. That doesn't happen here," said Ana Sofia. "It feels like every week there's another mass shooting."

'I didn't become a teacher to shoot children'

Students were joined at the march by older protesters including parents, grandparents and teachers.

Among the latter, fear for the safety of their students was coupled by outrage at one of President Donald Trump's proposals for reducing gun violence at schools: arming teachers.

"It's the most ludicrous idea I've ever heard," said Seth Furlow, a 39-year-old high school science teacher from Detroit, one of the many teachers to turn out for the march.

"I became a teacher to protect children, not to shoot them," he said as he marched with his wife, Heather, a kindergarten teacher, and their two young daughters.

"It's the worst idea in the world," Cathy, a 70-year-old first grade teacher from Maine said as she held a sign reading: "Would you trust this teacher with a gun?"

At the front of the march, the crowd cheered as survivors of the Parkland shooting, where 17 people lost their lives, implored politicians to take note.

"If you listen real close, you can hear the people in power shaking," said Parkland high school student David Hogg.

"We're going to make sure the best people get in our elections to run not as politicians, but as Americans. Because this - this - is not cutting it," he said, pointing at the Capitol. "We can and we will change the world!"

Baby steps

But with Trump voicing his support for pro-gun lobby group the NRA, who backed his 2016 election campaign, other demonstrators were less hopeful of any major changes coming soon. Instead, some said, they would settle for some relatively modest steps towards greater control.

"We need to ban assault rifles, we need to get rid of NRA influence," said 17-year-old Justin, a high schooler from Jacksonville, North Carolina.

"But I think things are so bad right now we just need to take baby steps. Banning bump stocks is a good start," he said, referring to an accessory that effectively allows semi-automatic guns to fire like automatic weapons, the banning of which Trump has supported.

Nevertheless, in a sign of the division that even limited controls on guns provokes among the US population, a small counter-demonstration was held by gun rights advocates outside the FBI headquarters in Washington Saturday. "Stop violating civil rights," one demonstrator's sign read.

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