‘We will not be silent’

Eugene students lead community march for gun reform

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Sterling Gonzalez / The Torch
The March For Our Lives passes through the Park Blocks during the Saturday Market. People from different social, economic, ethnic and racial backgrounds came together to echo a single message for stricter gun control.

“This isn’t normal!”

High school students shouted that phrase in cities from Los Angeles to Boston as part of the March For Our Lives, a student-led movement demanding greater gun control reforms in the United States.

On March 24, well over six thousand people gathered in the shadow of the Wayne L. Morse Federal Courthouse on a chilly day in downtown Eugene to march for “common-sense gun control.” The march was held in sync with over 800 other events across the country, organized by the survivors of the Feb. 14 Parkland, Florida school shooting.

The swollen crowd braved frosty temperatures and a sharp wind to listen to fiery speeches from local high school students, teachers and a survivor of the 1998 Thurston High School shooting. The mass of bodies was dotted with handmade signs and the pink hats that have become emblematic of the women’s movement in recent years. Virtually every age was represented in the crowd, from tiny toddlers holding small paper signs to senior citizens wielding poster boards with parodic portraits of President Donald Trump and NRA leader Wayne LaPierre. The spotlight, however, was on the student organizers of the event.

“What the hell is going on?”

Sterling Gonzalez / The Torch
Students from high schools across Lane County wait to give speeches to a large crowd at the March For Our Lives rally in downtown Eugene. Across the world, student-led groups spoke out on gun control and student safety in response to the growing amount of violence taking place in schools.

Tamera Hernandez, a senior at Churchill High School, shouted that question into a dented microphone. Inspired by the outspoken teenagers from Parkland, Hernandez and her peers — their voices cracking and growing hoarse from sustained yelling — gave speeches on the steps of the federal courthouse, demanding that government officials address gun violence in schools. The students — dressed in bright orange sweaters that matched those worn by students at the march in Washington, D.C. — spoke about living in constant fear as mass shootings continue to dominate national headlines.

“The aftermath is far worse.”

Betina Lynn shuddered as she shared her personal experience with school shootings. Lynn, a survivor of the 1998 Thurston High School shooting that left four dead and injured 25 others, spoke to a crowd that stood in rapt silence, broken only by horrified gasps. She shared a poignant story about how long it took for her to recover from the attack and her continuing struggles with PTSD and chronic pain. Lynn also paid respect to the memory of the nine victims of the 2015 Umpqua Community College attack, the deadliest mass shooting in Oregon history.

“My greatest fear is dying at school, and I’m sick of being afraid.”

Sterling Gonzalez / The Torch
Protesters at the March For Our Lives rally in downtown Eugene hold up handmade signs calling for stricter gun control legislation. Some signs were light-hearted while others were more serious in nature.

Sophia Reyes, a student at Lane Community College, vocalized what many other students in the crowd were feeling. Reyes, a native of Las Vegas, first became politically active after a mass shooter killed 53 people and injured over 800 others at a music festival on the Vegas Strip in October 2017. January’s Women’s March was Reyes’ first experience with public protest, but she said that seeing students holding a successful march makes her realize the power of her own voice as a young person.

“We will not be silent!”

As the speakers concluded, the crowd took over and chanted that refrain on the streets of downtown Eugene. The mass of people — led by a group of orange-clad middle school girls, a marching band and escorted by police officers on motorcycles — wound their way through the 5th Street Public Market and past the early spring vendors at the Saturday Market. People staying at hotels along the marchers’ route hollered words of support from their balconies and motorists blared their horns as the crowd massed in intersections. Young children rode atop their parents’ shoulders and shouted alongside veteran protesters. Protestors of color held up signs with the names of Black men and women killed by police, including Stephon Clark, who was shot by police in Sacramento, California on March 18.

The march ended in front of Whirled Pies — which has seemingly become the de facto endpoint of recent Eugene marches — and the crowd slowly dispersed as the marching band continued to play. Kids, teenagers and adults embraced one another before going their separate ways, with small groups coming together with promises to continue the conversation about gun violence in America. As the crowd dwindled, Renee Worthy, a sophomore at Cottage Grove High School, repeated a phrase she had heard from a speaker earlier in the day.

“This isn’t normal.”