Never has silence been so eloquent.
It came from the heart and gut of an 18-year-old girl.
There were cheers when Emma Gonzalez took to the podium before hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Washington to demand stronger gun control.
She spoke briefly and forcefully about the 17 people killed on February 14th when a former student walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and started shooting. And then she stopped. She just stopped.
The crowd was baffled at first… some people shouted out slogans, others wondered if something was wrong. Then the assembled masses along Pennsylvania Avenue — the capital city’s “Main Street” — stood in silence with Emma.
In all, she was on the stage for six minutes and 20 seconds — the exact time it took for the massacre in Parkland, Florida, to unfold.
“In a little over six minutes, 17 of our friends were taken from us, 15 were injured, and everyone, absolutely everyone, was forever altered,” she said. “Everyone who was there understands. Everyone who has been touched by the cold grip of gun violence understands.
Six minutes and 20 seconds.
Emma Gonzales was the last speaker at an event unlike any ever seen before in Washington. The young survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting conceived of the “March for Our Lives”… oversaw the planning… promoted it on social media… and when the big day came, they dominated the stage.
No adults spoke at their rally. No politicians. Just twenty or so kids who have seen things that no child should ever have to see.
They aren’t old enough to buy a beer in this country, and yet in the course of just five weeks these students brought together roughly two million people in Washington, DC, and at more than 800 “sister marches” from New York to London and beyond.
They have been through so much and yet they were able, through their pain, to mobilize so many.
Cameron Kasky — who is just 17 and not even old enough to vote — knew it would happen.
“Since this movement began, people have asked me do you think any change is going to come from this? Look around! We are the change!” he told the rally.
Some staunch supporters of gun rights have referred to these kids as the puppets of left-wing minders who are using them for political gain.
Cameron — who has a boyish face and the conviction of an adult — was having none of it.
“To the leaders, skeptics and cynics who told us to sit down and stay silent: Wait your turn! Welcome to the revolution!” he said.
The diversity of the Washington crowd was striking — young and old, white, black, asian and hispanic. It was a cross-section of Americans who are sick of so many shootings and are now demanding government action.
The mix was, in a way, by design. From the start, the students from Parkland realized that gun violence is a national problem and while the massacre in their affluent town was horrific simply because so many were killed in so little time, there are many less-advantaged communities where individual shootings occur on a regular basis.
Before the rally, several of the young organizers traveled to Chicago to meet with teens who worry about getting shot while walking to school… and they talked to kids from the toughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles who have lost friends and family to gunfire.
Edna Chavez — a 17-year-old student from LA — was invited to speak from the Washington stage and told of the trauma of losing her brother to gun violence. She said in her part of town “It is normal to see flowers honoring the lives of black and brown youth that have lost their lives to a bullet.”
The crowd also got a reminder that wisdom and grace can be passed from generation to generation. It came in the words of an 11-year-old girl whose grandfather was assassinated.
Yolanda King addressed the crowd from a stage set up roughly one mile from the nation’s memorial to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. She took the words he used to galvanize a nation at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and gave them a new meaning:
“I have a dream that enough is enough and that this should be a gun-free world.”
But can this dream become a reality here in the United States where gun-rights advocates have so much political clout?
Polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans want stricter gun laws, including a ban on the military-style assault weapons used in the Parkland shooting. The real challenge now facing the organizers and participants is how to turn this one-day event —- no matter how huge — into meaningful change.
For those who wonder if it can be done, take a look at American history.
As I gazed out at the demonstrators on Pennsylvania Avenue, I noticed that not only were there a lot of teenagers, there were also a lot of grandparents.
In an earlier era, they were the young people who took to the streets in opposition to the Vietnam War. And I am sure more than one grandpa or grandma was thinking about the idealism of those days and how the baton had been passed to the teens of today.
With their grey hair and laugh lines, they were out in force at the March for Our Lives, carrying signs and holding on tight to their grandkids. One D.C. great-grandmother stood guard near a rally checkpoint with a poster that said “Grannies for Gun Control” and boxes of crackers and cookies to nourish the young demonstrators.
It was nourishment for the body and soul.
So too was an anthem of the anti-war movement that took on a new meaning, as hundreds of thousands of gun control advocates stood in the shadow of the Capitol dome:
“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is raging
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changing”
Actress Jennifer Hudson — who lost her mother, brother and nephew to gun violence — sang Bob Dylan’s “The Times they Are a Changing” with a yell and a cry in her voice that captured the moment.
From all those who took to that stage we saw passion, grief, and determination. Movement organizers say their main goal now is to organize young people to register and vote in the November congressional elections, and to keep them involved as they transition into adulthood and beyond.
Stoneman Douglas student David Hogg captured the nature of the challenge in a post-rally Tweet:
“Now that is what I call a great start to the marathon we have ahead. #JustTheBeginning”