Young people in the U.S. walked out of school to demand action on gun violence Wednesday in what activists hoped would be the biggest demonstration of student activism yet in response to last month’s massacre in Florida.
More than 3,000 walkouts were planned across the U.S. and around the world, organizers said. Students were urged to leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim in the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
With a winter storm canceling classes for a second day Wednesday in many places across Maine, a number of planned walkouts were postponed — including those in Portland and Bangor — until Thursday or Friday. But others, such as walkouts or demonstrations at Freeport, Marshwood, York and Yarmouth high schools, went on as planned Wednesday.
“The time for silence is over and the dialogue needs to start now and it starts now with us,” Sophie Blanchard of York High School told Portland television station CBS 13.
Thousands of students gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, holding colorful signs and cheering in support of gun control. The students chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho. The NRA has got to go!” and “What do we want? Gun control! When do we want it? Now!”
In the last few hours, these kids from Freeport decided a school snow day was not going to stand in the way of their participation in #NationalSchoolWalkout @newscentermaine pic.twitter.com/7SuGlnLv6V
— Katie Bavoso (@KatieBavoso) March 14, 2018
President Donald Trump was traveling in Los Angeles at the time.
Stoneman Douglas High senior David Hogg livestreamed the walkout at the tragedy-stricken school in Parkland, Florida, on his YouTube channel. Walking amid a mass of people making their way onto the football field, he criticized politicians for not taking more action to protect students.
He said the students could not be expected to remain in class when there was work to do to prevent gun violence.
“Every one of these individuals could have died that day. I could have died that day,” he said.
From Florida to New York, students poured out of their schools, marching through the streets or gathering on campus to demonstrate.
Some schools applauded students for taking a stand or at least tolerated the walkouts, while others threatened discipline.
The coordinated walkout was organized by Empower, the youth wing of the Women’s March, which brought thousands to Washington last year.
Although the group wanted students to shape protests on their own, it also offered them a list of demands for lawmakers, including a ban on assault weapons and mandatory background checks for all gun sales.
“Our elected officials must do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to this violence,” the organization said on its website.
“You know it’s our lives that are being impacted by it and a lot of the people in power have never felt the type of fear students who are going to school today have to fear and so it’s important that we get that message out,” Yarmough High School senior Sage Waterson told CBS 13.
— Dan Lampariello (@DanWGME) March 14, 2018
Other protests planned in coming weeks include the March for Our Lives rally for school safety, which organizers say is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to the nation’s capital on March 24. Another round of school walkouts is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High shooting in Colorado.
“Everyone in the building was born after Columbine happened,” York High School senior Karston Rees told CBS 13. “School shootings have been a part of our education experience.”
Some students in Massachusetts said that after Wednesday’s protest, they planned to rally outside the Springfield headquarters of the gun maker Smith & Wesson.
The walkouts drew support from companies including media conglomerate Viacom, which planned to pause programming on MTV, BET and all its other networks for 17 minutes during the walkouts.
Districts in Sayreville, New Jersey, and Maryland’s Harford County drew criticism this week when they said students could face punishment for leaving class.
In suburban Atlanta, one of Georgia’s largest school systems announced that students who participated might face unspecified consequences. Some vowed to walk out anyway.
“Change never happens without backlash,” said Kara Litwin, a senior at Pope High School in Cobb County.
The possibility of being suspended “is overwhelming, and I understand that it’s scary for a lot of students,” said Lian Kleinman, a junior at Pope High. “For me personally, this is something I believe in. This is something I will go to the ends of the Earth for.”
Other schools sought a middle ground, offering “teach-ins” or group discussions on gun violence.
Meanwhile, free speech advocates geared up for a battle. The American Civil Liberties Union issued advice for students who walk out, saying schools can’t legally punish them more harshly because of the political nature of their message. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas, some lawyers said they would provide free legal help to students who are punished.
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas at the White House; Jeff Martin in Atlanta; and Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.