When we caught up earlier this week, Shatonya Rivers, an 18-year-old high-school senior in Miami, had every intention of walking out of her classroom at 10 AM Wednesday morning. In so doing, she planned to join thousands of students and teachers across the country participating in a 17-minute memorial for the victims of last month’s Parkland mass shooting—an event doubling as a protest demanding lawmakers enact stricter gun-control laws.
“I feel like changes to gun laws need[ed] to happen a long while ago,” Rivers told me in an interview. “For kids from all over taking part in something so empowering feels amazing. At the same time, I’m sad and angry that it took this recent mass shooting and the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas rallying everybody to create this movement.”
Rivers is a student at William H. Turner Technical Arts High School in West Little River, a predominantly African-American neighborhood roughly nine miles north of downtown Miami. Last December, Miami-Dade Police found a dead 16-year-old boy riddled with bullets not far from the high school. The teen was among four children shot in Miami-Dade County during that week alone.
“I have friends, friends of friends and kids at school who have been personally affected by gun violence,” Rivers said. “It has taken something of this magnitude to rally people. Is there going to be real change to protect all schools and communities with regards to gun violence? I don’t know, but we have to try.”
The murderous rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Senior High that left 17 people dead ignited a national movement—largely driven by young people—to prevent senseless mass gun-violence at a school from ever being repeated. But for teens like Rivers and activists in Miami, where guns were an urgent concern long before Parkland, the infusion of energy has lent new hope to the prospect of reducing more routine gun-violence plaguing their communities.
Earlier this month, a group of Marjory Stoneman Douglas students traveled to Chicago to meet with student activists in that city, where they discussed joining forces to combat gun violence nationwide. In a tweet, Parkland survivor Emma González touched on the disconnect between teens who hear gunshots all the time and young adults from an affluent suburb like Parkland whose serenity was shattered by an AR-15. “Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard in their entire lives the way that we have in these few weeks alone,” González noted.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to bridge that divide, but the signs ahead of the walkout on Wednesday suggested some ground had already been covered.
“I love what these Parkland kids have done,” Romania Dukes, founder of Miami-based Mothers Fighting For Justice, a gun-violence reduction advocacy group, told me. “This is something I have been screaming and shouting about. We have to make sure people in my community get involved like these kids.”
Dukes, whose organization last year helped successfully lobby for a new state law protecting the identities of witnesses in homicide investigations, said she was encouraging her 15-year-old son and his friends to walk out Wednesday. “I’m getting him involved because he is growing up in an urban neighborhood where you hear gunshots everyday,” Dukes said. “He has to understand why this is so important.”
A mother of six, Dukes recalled losing her oldest son four years ago. She added that the Parkland survivors have inspired more African-American teens to get involved with her organization. “I have been getting calls from students who are googling for groups to join,” she said. “They are asking me what can they do. It’s motivating me to fight even harder.”
Meanwhile, there were signs of post-Parkland mobilization further afield ahead of Wednesday's walkout. Ruby Noboa, a junior at the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science in the Bronx, New York, told me she was helping organize a walkout there. “I’m confident we will have more than 300 students participating,” she said. “My school has been very supportive, but they really can’t tell me to go out there and protest.”
A 17-year-old of Dominican descent, Noboa said watching news reports of the Parkland mass shooting as it unfolded sparked an anger inside her. “We lost a student to gun violence and the sadness that his death brought to the people at my school was crazy,” Noboa said. “When I heard about the walkout, I thought it was a great idea.”
Noboa added that she was walking out in memory of her fallen classmate, but also to protest President Donald Trump’s proposal to arm teachers and school personnel with more firearms—which he doubled down on this week while backing away from stricter gun-control.
“To me, that is the dumbest thing I ever heard,” Noboa said. “That would be escalating a bad situation instead of solving it. Black and brown people have to deal with guns being waved in our faces constantly. To bring guns into the classroom will make it worse.”