Students were at the center of the March for Our Lives rally in Atlanta. But Democratic politicians weren’t far behind.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis walked arm-in-arm with schoolchildren at the head of the march. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told the roughly 30,000 demonstrators the “city of Atlanta stands with you.” And candidates joined the rally or smaller protests around the state to show their support for gun restrictions.
The student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., organized the events in Atlanta and across the nation after a February shooting that left 17 people dead. And they’ve kept attention on the gun control debate, even as a new generation of Georgia Democrats embrace the issue.
Lewis, a veteran Atlanta legislator who long supported stiffer gun restrictions, wore a giant red button emblazoned with the letter “F” – marking his rating with the National Rifle Association.
And Bottoms, elected in December after a bitter race, spoke emotionally of a nephew who was killed by gunfire.
“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,” she said.
As the group paraded through downtown Atlanta’s streets, state Sen. Nan Orrock joined several other state legislators near the front of the march.
“I wanted to show my support, and be on the right side of this debate,” said Orrock, one of the longest-serving Democrats in the statehouse.
Just a few years ago, most Georgia Democratic leaders cozied up to the NRA and were reluctant to call for gun restrictions. Now, the party’s top candidates and figures support gun control initiatives and openly war with the gun lobby.
Stacey Abrams brought her campaign for governor to a March for Our Lives rally in Dahlonega, which attracted hundreds of people on the town’s courthouse square. The former Georgia House minority leader told the crowd of a 10-year-old she met who called himself a gun control activist.
“That is both a great thing and a terrible thing,” she told the crowd.
Her rival, former state Rep. Stacey Evans, joined the throngs of people in the downtown Atlanta event in what she described as a chance to support new voices.
“When we listen, real change happens,” she said.
As that event ended at Liberty Plaza, the park across the street from the Gold Dome, a pair of Stoneman Douglas students made clear the debate was far from over.
Alec Zaslav, a junior, pushed the demonstrators to channel their anger into political energy. His brother Jake, a freshman, told the story of hecklers at a recent event who quieted once they saw a teenager take the podium. It gave him hope, he said, for finding common ground on the debate.
“We cannot simply ignore them,” he said, “even if they ignore us.”