“Our job today is to listen and to act,” Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) said as he opened the Rally for DC Lives a little after 9 a.m. Saturday morning in Folger Park. The rally proceeded the March for Our Lives, which began at noon on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Seven students shared their experiences around gun violence at the Rally for DC Lives, moving the crowd to tears as they incited them to action. They included Nehemiah Amari Sellers, Devontae Gliss, Nevin Williams, Imani Romney, Lauryn Renford and Ryan Battle, all introduced by 18-year-old Aaron King, who served as Master of Ceremonies for the event.
Mayor Muriel Bowser, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, members of the DC Council, and Attorney General Karl Racine joined them on stage, the Councilmembers appearing together with Chairman Phil Mendelson as spokesperson. “The adults have failed,” said Mendelson on behalf of the Councilmembers, “and that’s why we’re here and that’s why we’re brief.” Mendelson said that the youth were leading them in calling for an end to gun violence and an end to congressional interference in DC’s locally passed gun laws.
And students showed that they were willing to assume that role, serious as it is. “It is my job to remind you that with your voice, you have the power to give life, or destroy it,” said student Ryan Battle, with tremendous gravity in his comments delivered before those of Congresswoman Norton. “I choose life.”
“We are in a state of emergency,” said student Nehemiah Amari Sellers, “there are many forms of violence and death. Each has a different root that must be dug up.” Sellers, showing the assembled why he is a past winner of the Frederick Douglass Oratory Award, said that making schools into an environment of suspicion is not an environment where students can do their best.
Nevin Williams agreed. “There is no such thing as wrong place, wrong time when that place is a school,” she said. Children who lose their parents are called orphans, she noted, “but because of how terrible it is to lose a child, there is no word to describe it.”
But more than half the homicide victims in the District this year have been under 19 years of age, she said, and she wants it to end.
“Instead of giving input, we want a seat of the table,” said Thurgood Marshal Academy student Lauryn Renford. She called out gentrification as a factor driving violence in communities. “Living in a part of the city where people don’t have equal access to resources makes them feel they need to steal things,” said Renford, “even other lives.” Pointing out that there are no gun stores in the District, she called for a thorough investigation of gun trafficking in the District and a program to mentor youth rather than to punish them.
Renford was the girlfriend of Zaire Kelly when the 16-year-old Thurgood Marshall Academy student was shot on his way home. She said she had amassed thousands of signatures for a planned mural intended to start a conversation around violence in the community but had no place to put it.
“DC, will you help me find a wall?” she asked.
Kelly’s twin brother, Zion, will speak at the March for Our Lives rally Saturday afternoon.
Mayor Muriel Bowser and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes-Norton linked the fight for gun control to the right to self-determination, calling out Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Congressman Tom Garett Jr. (R-VA) for their interference with District gun laws.
Student Ryan Battle agreed, calling for the right to representation. Referring to a recent protest where shoes representing thousands of slain students were laid out on the grass facing Congress, grass that District residents pay taxes on but lack representation above, Battle called for “a rightful seat at the table, not just shoes on the lawn.”
The Rally for DC Lives marched together to join the March for Our Lives at 10:15 a.m. Saturday. The March for Our Lives Rally begins at noon and continues throughout the afternoon.
The names of these powerful student speakers may not be accurately captured here. We would appreciate being corrected. Please contact [email protected]