30,000 in Atlanta march, hear emotional pleas on gun violence

Atlanta police estimated the crowd at near 30,000 for today’s March for Our Lives. People of all ages were drawn to one of the nationwide demonstrations in a movement begun by student survivors of last month’s mass killing in a Parkland, Fla., school. Some of those Florida students were among the speakers in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has four reporters and photographers and two other reporters in Atlanta and Washington to report on the events as they happen.

2:51 p.m.: As the rally at the Capitol ended, Megan May and her sister Moriah were doing something that could make a difference: registering to vote. Several groups had seized the moment, dispersing volunteers with clipboards through the crowds all morning and afternoon.

Megan May, 28, had allowed her registration to lapse and she had skipped the last presidential election. She was uninspired by the candidates but in retrospect had this assessment of her action: "shameful." It will not happen again, she added.

Her sister, 30, just moved from Tennessee. Though she was registered there, she too sat out the last election and for the same reason. Neither candidate resonated.

Now, she plans to vote not only in the next national election but also in the local and state elections where gun laws are made.

"These kids in Parkland really made me wake up to that," she said.

The man who registered them was Oscar Baza, with the group GALEO. He said he registered a half dozen people. He got a couple "nos" but most everyone else was already registered, he said, adding, "It's your voice. You should be heard."

2:43 p.m.: A crowd gathered around Joseph Guay's exhibition: 14 school desks covered in black chalkboard paint in memory of the Parkland student victims. Messages such as "books not bullets" and "not one more" were scrawled onto the symbolic chairs while the bell at Central Presbyterian Church rang repeatedly.

People examine Joseph Guay's exhibition on display in Atlanta: 14 school desks covered in black chalkboard paint in memory of the Parkland,Fla.,  student victims.

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2:25 p.m.: Jordan Parker, a 17-year-old Southwest DeKalb High School senior, greeted the crowd in front of the Capitol with a cheerful "Hey y'all."

She then gave a speech about how to use your five senses for political activism, a broad message that touched on such topics as manipulative social media algorithms, the danger of mental illness and the power of positive reinforcement.

“Use your eyes as a tool to decipher what is really happening in your communities,” Parker said.

2:25 p.m.: Alec Zaslav, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivor,  read the names of the 17 who were killed at that school as chants of "not one more" rang out throughout Liberty Plaza. Zaslav said his generation will "finally put a stop to this madness.

"While we may just be kids, we are citizens of this country. Very soon we will all be voting and we will be voting for those who believe that our lives are more important than AR-15s."

He spoke of feeling helpless and scared while barricaded in a classroom. "I will never be the same again," he said. "The victims will never be the same again. No one in Parkland will ever be the same again."

He told the crowd to take this emotion and turn it into action. And to the leaders who responded to the mass slaughter with their thoughts and prayers, he had this message: "Your time is running out."

2:11 p.m.: "I'm a freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School," Jake Zaslav, Alec's brother, told the crowd. "I'm not a crisis actor!"

That line drove the crowd wild. "The power belongs to us," he said. But he added a conciliatory note: gun-control activists must have the maturity and the "decency" to listen to people with different views.

"We cannot simply ignore them," he said, "even if they ignore us." He shared a story about speaking at an NRA event where the crowd had been heckling the speakers until it was his turn. It might take children to make people listen, he said. This approach might help to reduce gun violence while also healing what divides the nation, he said.

2:33 p.m., in Washington: Yolanda Renee King, granddaughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and daughter of Martin Luther King Jr III took the stage to deliver a message.

"My grandfather had a dream that his four little children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," she told the crowd. "I have a dream that enough is enough."

She then led in chanting: "Spread the word! Have you heard! All across the nation! We are going to be! A great generation!"

1:55 p.m.: The crowd in Atlanta reached Liberty Plaza near the Capitol to listen to more speakers.

1 p.m.: Civil rights veteran U.S. Rep. John Lewis says in an Associated Press interview that the student-led, anti-gun protests remind him of the early days of the civil rights era.

“I think it’s amazing,” Lewis says. “They will be the leaders of the 21st century.”

At the Atlanta rally, Lewis gave an emotional call to end gun violence, just before the actual march, from the Center for Civil and Human Rights  to the state Capitol, started. He referred to friends he’d lost to bullets, including national leaders such as John F. Kennedy.

“We are never too young, we are never too old to march; to speak out and find a way to do something about gun violence,” Lewis said around noon.

Police estimate 30,000 people showed up for the Atlanta March for Our Lives. They are now in front of the state Capitol. by Ty Tagami

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Lewis had been introduced as both the youngest speaker at a civil rights march more than half a century ago and the oldest to speak at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights today.

"You're young," the Atlanta Congressman said. "And some of you are old like me."That line aroused the woman with short, white hair at the back of the crowd. "Alright!" she shouted.

John Lewis voices his support

"Yeah," added the grandmother next to her, a woman in a red track suit holding a small sign made out of yellow construction paper. "PEOPLE OVER PARTY," said the handwritten note in green crayon.The woman with that sign is Lindy Rogers. She is 74 and lives in Sandy Springs and this has turning into a bit of an activist since she attended her first march last year, the women's one, in Washington, where, she noted proudly, she saw lots of men, too.

The retired DeKalb County high school teacher was too busy studying for college during the Vietnam War, but she has three grandchildren in elementary school now and these school shootings worry her."The most trouble I ever had was a smoke bomb," she said. "This is just horrible."Her action against gun violence started less than two weeks ago at a rally outside the Gold Dome, at Liberty Plaza, also today's destination.."I'm just energized," she said. "I'm into it."

She came with her friend, Jean Zweifel, 73, a retired university librarian from Smyrna. Unlike Rogers, Zweifel is an old hand at marches, having attended them in college in Wisconsin during Vietnam and also during one of the two Iraq invasions (she couldn't recall which).

Zweifel remembers attending a gun-control meeting at a congressman's house in 1971. Yes, it was an issue back then, too, she said. "People said at the meeting said, 'I was threatened at my job for speaking out for gun control.' " Her generation didn't seem to have made much headway on the issue, she said. But it's different with the kids of today."It's this age group that's going to make the difference," she said.And at that Rogers smiled. "It's like the '60s all over again," she said.

Carly Novell, a senior who survived last month's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, was one of those "kids" Zweifel reffered to. Novel, who spoke before the march, said that before the shooting she was worried about a test in math, her crush and prom dresses. Now she worries if her friends are mentally stable enough and about the future of our country.

Novell remembered her friend Carmen Schentrup, who she met her freshman year at Stoneman Douglas. "Carmen isn't just a picture with name on a TV screen. She was a person. she was my friend."

Novell said she is done living in fear and instead looks toward change.

"I hid in a closet Feb. 14. and I'm not hiding anymore. I'm not hiding from my government, not hiding from the NRA, not hiding from guns. And most of all I am not hiding from change."

At 12:12 p.m.,  Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addresses the crowd. "I stand with you to say that the city of Atlanta hears you. The city of Atlanta stands with you, " she says. "I know that we are watching the birth of a movement and the generations will never be the same."

Speaking of her nephew, who was killed by gunfire, she says: "His life, his death, my election and every election that is to come is to make sure we have leaders who make decisions that will allow young people to grow, thrive and be all that god has created them to be."

"I declare that this generation is full of wounded warriors and I believe as a country that we will all be healed by your scars ... you are a reminder that the right to life applies to our children sitting in our classrooms."

Meanwhile, in Washington:

Before the Washington rally, a group of metro Atlanta students pulled on bright orange T-shirts that read “When youth lead we all succeed.” They picked their way through the throngs until the group had a sideways view of a large television monitor on which to watch the celebrity singers and student speakers.

Jorden Clay, 13, said he had never before been in a protest like the one that sprawled along Pennsylvania Avenue. The multi-generational crowd crammed the sidewalks and streets, danced to music that pounded through speakers, and listened to survivors of the Parkland, Fla. massacre as they called for change.

Jorden enjoyed the positivity he felt among those who shared a common goal. “I think it’s something that makes everybody come together and forget about race and now we’re like coming more toward unity,” he said. “The next generation is what we’re all worried about.

“I have cousins that are younger than me, and I want them to grow up knowing that they are going to feel safe and not be concerned about all these school shootings,” he said.

He said lawmakers should raise the minimum age for buying guns and do thorough background checks. He said too many warning signs were overlooked that allowed the Parkland shooter to legally purchase the gun he used.

1:42 p.m.: Keyondra Doston, a University of West Georgia junior from Cordele, was soaking in the scene on Pennsylvania Ave. It was her first-ever trip to DC and her first ever march.

“Instead if talking about it on social media, it’s better to be here in person and to be amongst everyone else in the crowd making a difference, using our voice to bring gun control to the forefront,” she said.“Everything happens in D.C.,” she said. “to be here, to be a part of everything, you’ll take that long bus ride to make it here. It’s worth it.”

1:31 p.m.:  Ashton Johnson, a Georgia State University sophomore from Augusta, said the Parkland shooting did not mark the first time he was moved to act on gun issues. He said the Legislature's passage last year of a law allowing people to carry guns on college campuses also got him involved. The 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, he said, "already proves that guns do not belong on a college campus, and now you're going to tell people that you can conceal a firearm? That's not a safe thing.

“When you go to school you’re put under a lot of stress, you have to overcome a lot of challenges. Some people can’t handle that stress and you don’t know what’s going to happen when they break.”

Johnson took an overnight bus from Georgia to arrive in D.C. in time for the march.

Paul Johnson, a sophomore at Morehouse, said schools are starting to resemble prisons. His own high school had metal detectors and he said it did not feel particularly safer with them there.“This is not just about the gun issue,” he said, but also our education system.”

Cedric Porter, a Morehouse senior from Memphis, said he had five friends die from gun violence in the last year.

“That’s scary. It really shouldn’t be a common thing. I’m trying to stop that.”He compared the NRA to “a mafia” because of its influence in politics, and said he worried that civic activism against gun violence will fall on “deaf ears.”

“But at one point I do think we’ll have a solution sooner or later and I feel like marching and having legislation is a stepping stone,” he said.

Kayla Mitchell, a junior at the  University of West Georgia from Johns Creek, took an overnight bus  with fellow young members of the NAACP. It’s her first protest, and she plans to run for office one day.

“Parkland was just the tipping point, because we’ve been feeling like this for a while. We’ve been advocating for it in our communities,” she says.

“If the adults aren’t going to do something about it then we’re going to do something about it. In the past I feel like we’ve waited on Congress, our President and adults to step in and change the laws but that never happened. After Sandy Hook it never happened.”

Atlanta, 11:57 a.m.: Cindy Dockery, a school nurse from Cobb County said she came out today because she did not want at some future date to have to stop the bleeding. "I just want to stop the violence."

11:14 a.m. Not all those taking part are high school students, or close to that age. Moments before the March began, Tom Graham, 70, and Patricia Graham, 69, watched the crowd grow. The Roswell couple has been married for 48 years and have three grandkids — children who were referenced on the scrappy "Save my Grandkids" sign Tom held.

Tom, who protested the Vietnam war, said he called Sen. David Perdue’s office and was told the politician had no position on assault weapons or bump stocks.

“I came because I guess I’m angry,” he said.

Tom was never pro-guns, he said, but recent school shootings have reinforced his values.

“Sandy Hook ripped my heart out,” he said. “That was a big game-changer.”

Patricia wanted to participate to support the young people leading the march.

“Those Parkland students are so articulate,” she said.

The Atlanta event is one of hundreds of marches in cities across the U.S. to demand politicians act to establish gun controls.

11:25 a.m.: Noise from a helicopter circling overhead competed with the speakers' voices.

11:21 a.m.: In Washington, an NAACP group was energized and in good spirits as the march begins, chanting "I believe that we will win" and "this is what democracy looks like" as they passed the White House. Volunteers handed out snacks and water and gave high fives to marchers. Some cars honked as they passed by.

Earlier in Atlanta, two high school students took the loudspeaker at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. We march against gun violence and for mental health care,  one saying, "We march for our lives."

The crowd roared. Then, a moment of silence.

RELATED: Congressman John Lewis to speak at March for Our Lives Atlanta

MORE: Photos from the Atlanta March for Our Lives

Writer Vanessa McCray traveled overnight to Washington with a bus load of Cobb County students.

The Mableton bus arrived in Washington by about 7:30 a.m., and the students on board woke up to see the sun rising in the distance near the Washington Monument.

Here is a photo of them gathering this morning in Washington.


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Chants of “hey, hey, ho, ho the NRA has got to go” sounded in waves through the Washington crowd. After a break, another refrain began: “This is what democracy looks like.”

Anticipation grew as an announcement over the loudspeaker counted down the final moments until the rally began with a bold statement.

“Welcome to the revolution,” a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School greeted the exuberant crowd.

Shawn Parker, 13, said the huge crowd shows how much support exists for the cause. He and his fellow road-trippers camped outside the Newseum after squeezing through the tightly packed crowd to try to get a good look at one of the large monitors lining the street.

“It’s not OK for the government just to abuse all their power, and then to say they’re going to say prayers but not do any action. Because all the government does is give prayers and thoughts but never acts on the problems,” he said.

He thinks young people will make a difference.

“Kids have a very big impact on today’s society because of all social media,” he said.

Mya Wilson, a 14-year-old whose favorite subject is social studies, has participated in a Black Lives Matter march in Atlanta, a few years after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. But this is the first time she’s been part of a gun violence protest.

“It’s just like us coming together as a nation and showing our support,” she said, of the reason for trekking to Washington.

She said she felt frightened after the Parkland, Fla, shooting and didn’t want to go to school.

But, she thinks her generation can make a change.

“If we try, and put our minds to it we could. We absolutely could,” said Mya, who added a protest of this scale shows that more people care. “Other people are like, oh, ‘We’ll send our prayers…,’ but now it’s like a lot of people look at it the same way that I do.”

As she cut her way through the crowd, Mya halted briefly to hug a couple of strangers offering "free hugs." One shouted out "Arms are for hugging, not shooting." She knows she’s not alone, and she’s not stopping.

“I’ll do anything to let my voice be heard. Since I can’t vote, why not march?” Mya said.

Decatur's East Lake MARTA station was crowded in the morning as people boarded trains for downtown before the march.

You can see below a photo of the crowded platform.

"Jeez," said one middle-aged woman boarding at the next station, with an older couple. They joined a train car filled with a cross-generational crowd: teenagers, moms and dads, grandparents. "This idea of arming teachers is crazy," one man says.

Something you never see: lines at the MARTA ticket kiosks at Decatur's East Lake station. An even rarer site: crowds on the platform pushing onto the downtown-bound Atlanta train. "Jeez," said one middle-aged woman boarding at the next station, with an older couple. They joined a train car filled with a cross-generational crowd: teenagers, moms and dads, grandparents. "This idea of among teachers is crazy," one man says.

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The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., February 14 sparked this high-school generation to find a cause and its political voice.

From student-led Florida marches, which helped politicians in Florida pass some gun-control legislation, to the marches in hundreds of cities this weekend, young people are hoping to influence politicians at all levels to hear their concerns.

In Washington, the event launched Friday night.

Thousands of people gathered in the Gothic-style sanctuary of the Washington National Cathedral on Friday night for an interfaith prayer vigil to kick off the weekend’s events.

Among the speakers were April and Philip Schentrup, whose daughter Carmen was killed at school in Parkland last month. They shared childhood stories of their daughter, read a poem she wrote about April for class and urged decision makers to pass policies to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

“If we do not act, if we do not work together to end gun violence, we are condemning more of God’s children to desolate despair and gut-wrenching tragedy,” said April Schentrup. “My husband and I pray you never have to feel the devastating English our family has endured, an all-too-real tragedy that can be prevented.”

Lucy McBath,  a 6th District Congressional candidate from Georgia, was in Washington in her capacity as an outreach leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown for Gun Safety. She became an activist against gun violence after her 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed while sitting in a car with friends in November 2012.

The gunman, Michael Dunn, was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for opening fire following a dispute with the teens over the volume of their music.

She recalled singing the Temptations classic “My Girl” with her late son Jordan in the car, the necklace he bought her one her for Christmas and snuggling with him and his dog.

“For 17 years I was blessed to experience his great zest for life and beautiful ability to simply love others as they were,” she said. “As a ”surrogate mother to the children who will march tomorrow... I will be with you. In faith, Jordan will be with you.”

About 40 students and chaperones from the South Cobb County house district of State Rep. Erica Thomas, D-Austell, boarded a bus Friday evening bound for Washington D.C.

By 7 p.m. Friday, their parents began pulling into the strip mall parking lot of a shuttered Mableton K-Mart, and three dozen excited kids clambered aboard the bus. They set about the important business of finding a seatmate and testing out the reclining seats and devouring boxed dinners.

Moms gazed up at the bus windows, snapping photos and worrying about Washington’s chilly weather and how much time the kids would spend on their cell phones.

Chioma Anyanwoke, 14, from Cobb County on a bus to the March for Our Lives in Washington.

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Quennisha Harris of Mableton stood outside for several moments after her 12-year-old daughter Ariana had disappeared into the cavernous bus.

Her reservations about letting Ariana go on the trip melted away when she realized that the march represented “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Harris was proud of her daughter for wanting to go.

Ariana settled into a seat next to her friend and fellow Lindley seventh-grader Amaya Alexander, 13. The two girls said they’ve followed the Parkland, Fla. school shooting on the news, and Amaya said the number of people who have guns makes her feel “kind of” unsafe.

“It makes you think if our school is next,” she said.

Thomas coordinated and secured funding for the trip through the national March for Our Lives. She said she wanted to show that children can bring about change.

For many of the students, this trip marked a first foray into activism. Several said they had never participated in a protest before, but they approached the marathon, up-and-back, roughly 1,300-mile round trip with the enthusiasm of kids who knew they had been given a rare opportunity to be part of something big. And also a chance to sightsee.

“I just really want people to actually listen to us and make a change,” said Chioma Anyanwoke, a 14-year-old eighth grader at Lindley Middle School.