Hundreds of Lawrence students gather in South Park for National School Walkout rally

photo by: Ashley Hocking

Lawrence students walk to South Park, Friday, April 20, 2018, as part of a National School Walkout in protest of gun violence.

Hundreds of Lawrence students walked out of classes in protest of gun violence Friday, the 19th anniversary of the deadly Columbine shooting.

The students were among countless young people taking part in walkouts across the country as part of the National School Walkout movement.

At Lawrence High School, around 300 students walked out of classes at 10 a.m. to observe 17 minutes of silence, punctuated every few moments with statistics on gun violence by student organizers Chisato Kimura and Sami Turner. Each time, their remarks were followed with chants from the crowd: “Enough is enough!”

“We are standing with our friends and colleagues and teachers and educators, but we’re standing for ghosts — people whose lives have been lost,” said Elliot Bradley, a sophomore.

A group of around 100 teens walked en masse from Lawrence High to South Park for an all-day rally against gun violence. By 11:30, around 600 students, parents, teachers and community members had gathered in the park, with students carpooling from Free State High School and several Lawrence middle schools.

Bradley, one of the more vocal student activists at LHS, wasn’t able to attend the rally. But he said leaders of the school’s SAFeR (Students Advocating Firearm Education & Reform) club had encouraged peers to leave their shoes outside classrooms Friday as a show of symbolic support.

If they couldn’t walk to South Park that morning, they’d at least be walking with their classmates in spirit, Bradley said.

As crowds of young people and their adult supporters began to pour into South Park, the sounds of a rock band performing Vietnam-era classics rang out from the bandstand. Students, ranging in age from middle-schoolers to newly registered 18-year-old voters, gathered together on the green, all against the backdrop of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.”

Later, students from LHS and Free State spoke to the crowd, urging them to continue speaking out against gun violence. Civic involvement and inclusivity were the overarching themes of the students’ remarks, with organizers frequently encouraging their peers to register to vote.

A voter registration table, parked near the South Park bandstand and supervised by the League of Women Voters, made it easy for those 18 and older.

Seth Williams, a junior at Free State High, asked the crowd Friday how many were old enough to vote in this year’s midterm elections. A few cheers broke out. Then, Williams asked how many would be eligible by the 2020 elections. The cheers grew louder.

“When 2020 comes around, I want you to make your voices heard,” Williams said. “We need to go out there, make our voices heard. We will make the future that we want to live in.”

Grace Porter, a Free State senior, issued a similar plea from the stage of the South Park bandstand. Those old enough to vote, she said, must remember to exercise their voting rights come election day — not just for themselves, but for those in their communities who are unable to vote because of age or other circumstances.

Those often considered powerless, she reminded her fellow young people, are more powerful than they may seem.

“You have the power to not give them the power,” Porter said of policymakers resistant to gun control measures.

Chisato Kimura, a senior at Lawrence High, spoke about gun violence among people of color, and how minorities have historically been disproportionately impacted by gun violence.

“Do not forget the minorities, because we are here, too, and the only way for this movement to be successful is to include all voices and fight for legislation that protects us all,” Kimura said.

Sami Turner, a sophomore at LHS, called on her peers at South Park to continue pushing for change. “Students did this,” she said, referring to the larger, national gun-control movement and the student-organized protests in Lawrence.

“And the students are here today demanding legislative action that will make our schools and communities safer. We are a greater force than most people think of,” Turner said. “We are a new generation of future voters that are intelligent, powerful, passionate and outspoken — and we will make sure our legislators are held accountable.”