“I might cry a little”: MSD students bring raw emotion to March for Our Lives

WASHINGTON — On Valentine’s Day, Tori Gonzalez was photographed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School grinning, wearing a red sweater and holding a little pink bag with a candy rose in it, a present from her boyfriend Joaquin Oliver.

By the end of the day, Oliver was dead, one of 17 victims of a mass shooting that galvanized a youth movement to end gun violence in schools.

On Saturday, Gonzalez was among hundreds of present and former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who made the trip to Washington for the youth-led March for Our Lives rally to protest gun violence, organized in the weeks following the shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“I might cry a little,” Gonzalez said as she was hoisted up onto a fellow classmates shoulders. She held a sign that showed Oliver’s face, with the words “We Demand a Change.”

The Stoneman Douglas contingent was joined by thousands of students from across the country who rallied in D.C. in solidarity, saying they were fed up with the routineness of lockdown drills and active shooter threats. There were also more than 800 sibling marches that took place on Saturday across the U.S. and in countries across the world.

Jammal Lemy, a former student of Stoneman Douglas and a friend of Joaquin’s, said he was comforted by the overwhelming support and solidarity from students outside of Parkland. “The way people are galvanizing shows that we’re not alone and gives us hope,” he said. “To see how people have come through … I hope future generations will benefit.”

“It’s been hard to think straight since it happened, and there’s been so much pressure to stay strong, be strong,” Lemy added. “Not to sound dramatic, but I’ve thought about Joaquin every day since. He was my little brother.”

Jammal Lemy, 19. Lemy graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, and says that Joaquin Oliver was “like a little brother.” “It’s been hard to think straight since it happened, and there’s been so much pressure to stay strong, be strong,” he said. (Tess Owen/VICE News)

Aside from the somber purpose of the event, the atmosphere at the rally in Washington was upbeat. Pop music blared and students held up signs saying things like “Stop eating Tide pods and start calling B.S.” and “I want to be college planning, not escape planning.”

Before the marchers set off, the crowd heard speeches from a series of student survivors and others affected by gun violence. “Welcome to the revolution,” Cameron Kasky, one of the organizers, proclaimed. “Stand for us or beware: The voters are coming.”

Among the most powerful presenters was Emma Gonzales, a Parkland survivor and organizer, took to the stage to deliver a speech, and then sat down, and remained in silence. She wanted to be on the stage for 6 minutes and 20 seconds — which was the same amount of time the Parkland gunman’s rampage lasted, kill 17 people.

There were also performances and appearances by celebrities like Ariana Grande, Common, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

People from around the country said they’d been inspired by the Parkland students to make the trip to D.C.

There were also performances and appearances by celebrities like Ariana Grande, Common, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

People from around the country said they’d been inspired by the Parkland students to make the trip to D.C.

Students with signs at March for Our Lives. (Tess Owen/VICE News)

Natalie Kincaid, 14, had traveled from Raleigh, North Carolina, with her grandmother Melanie Pope and her grandmother’s partner, Mary Jennette.

“This is my future,” she said. “It’s sad — young people are taught to trust government and police, but then something like this happens.”

“I think we need stricter gun laws,” Kincaid added.

Gun control measures like universal background checks and an assault weapons ban were common themes expressed by the marchers.

“Guns like AR-15’s? It’s ridiculous they should be around people. I think we should ban them”

“We need to change gun laws to prevent future shootings,” said Beth Smith, 18, from Springfield, Virginia. “This has been happening for two decades now and it hasn’t changed yet. It’s ridiculous that it’s become so normalized that since I was 5 I’ve been doing lock-downs.”

Jason Walters, a 32-year-old federal government worker, held a sign showing the victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

“I was at Virginia Tech when it happened. I was in the next building,” he said. “It’s horrible that it’s become so common, that you almost get scared of a numbing effect. You’re not surprised or shocked anymore.”

Walters hopes that the renewed energy around the gun control debate means that something may actually change. “I’ve been optimistic before, but I hope this time things will be different,” he said.

Jason Walters, 32, federal government worker, was in the next building when the Virginia tech shooting happened in 2007. (Tess Owen/VICE News)

Teachers were also a visible presence at the march, many of whom toted signs criticizing the Trump Administration’s support for the idea of arming school staff as a means to improving school safety.

Nancy O’Leary, a 59-year-old math teacher from Montgomery County, Maryland, was holding a sign that said “Armed math teacher < AR15.” O’Leary said she’s not the only one among her colleagues who isn’t thrilled about the idea of arming teachers to prevent future school shootings.

“It’s been 38 years that I’ve been teaching and i never thought I’d need to be dealing with regular lockdowns and being told to carry guns,” said O’Leary. “We need to ban assault rifles and have more mental health services. Our kids need someone to listen to them.”

Throughout the day, past and present students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas marched to cheers from the crowd.

“There are no words for how empowering this movement has been,” said Dominique Francis, 29, a social worker and former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Francis’ younger brother Dillon McCooty was Joaquin Oliver’s best friend. Francis had known Oliver since he was a baby. “He was an all around good kid,” said Francis. “It feels like we’re living in a nightmare.”

McCooty said he’d known Oliver since they were about three — they met after Oliver and his family emigrated from Caracas, Venezuela.

They shared a love of basketball and video games.

“He was always encouraging people, lifting people up,” he said. “The world feels different without him here.” He said that Oliver loved sports and music.Oliver’s love for sports was so much so that his parents even buried him in his beloved neon pink and blue Miami Heat jersey. “He also liked poetry,” McCooty said. “But he didn’t tell many people that.”

Tori Gonzalez hopes that her boyfriend Joaquin Oliver will be remembered by the positive changes to come, and was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a slogan from an organization his parents set up that aims to empower and educate young people about engaging in government.

“Schools need to be safer,” Gonzalez said. “Guns like AR-15’s? It’s ridiculous they should be around people. I think we should ban them.”

But when asked to describe Oliver, she paused, smiled and teared up. “He’s everyone’s ray of sunshine,” Gonzalez said, and, gesturing towards the crowds, added “we still have him.”

Cover image: Tori Gonzalez, girlfriend of Joaquin Oliver, one of the students who was killed in the Parkland shooting (Photo: Tess Owen/VICE News)