An estimated 4,000 West Michigan residents, young and old, braved the cold and gathered at Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids to march through the city and send a message to Congress about gun laws.
This march, like many others across the nation, was organized by a group of high school students. Before the rally started, one of the organizers addressed the crowd.
“We want to thank everyone here for coming to have your voice heard,” Emily Dieffenbach, a sophomore at Forest Hills Northern High School said. “We are here today, not to debate politics, but to ensure that never again a student won’t return home because they have been shot.”
Before the march, seven speakers, including gun control activist, Kim Harris spoke to the crowd.
“Together we exercise what democracy looks like,” Harris said. “This is a beautiful and monumental occasion today… Quoting what Oprah (Winfrey) said during her Golden Globe speech, ‘There is a new day on the horizon’ and so, I say – and she said – time is up!”
Eric Pilko, a science teacher at Rockford High School also expressed his concerns and anger concerning gun violence.
“My classroom should be a sanctuary for my students,” Pilko said. “And when I hear our political representatives discussing arming our teachers, I wonder if we’ve lost our collective minds. I wonder if we’ve lost our courage. How have we come to a place where the only answer to gun violence is more guns?”
While speeches were going on, marchers could write or turn in pre-written letters to legislators. There was also a banner depicting an assault rifle next to the stage where participants were encouraged to sign their names.
“We need to cover that picture of a rifle in our names to show that we can be the change,” Dieffenbach said. By the end of the march, it looked like the rifle wasn’t even there.
After more passionate speeches from other activists, friends of victims and a Virginia Tech University shooting survivor, the crowd took to the streets.
Chants of “Vote them out!” “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the NRA has got to go!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” could be heard across the city and echoing between the tall buildings.
Marchers never failed to keep their signs raised high above their heads. Some signs read, “WTF NRA?” “My generation had Columbine, why has nothing changed for my children?” and the movement’s trademark “#ENOUGH.”
The march moved from Rosa Parks Circle to Fulton Street and then crossed the bridge before turning the corner under the freeway underpass and crossing the Blue Bridge.
Even though it was windy and cold, the marchers happily marched on until they were back at Rosa Parks Circle and many stayed when four more speakers came to the stage.
Retired Navy veteran, Amanda Brunzell was one of the closing speakers. Brunzell says that she and her fellow soldiers volunteered to risk their lives so that the citizens of America could be safe from harm.
“But here were are now,” Brunzell said. “We can’t continue to let these shootings happen ever again, and what you are doing now is how we make a difference.”
The organizers were thankful for those who came to march and support the movement.
“The organizers and I headed the march and it was the most amazing thing to see when we were crossing the bridge, there were still a lot of people still passing over the first bridge,” said organizer, Emily Masternak of Forest Hills Northern.
The last speaker was Kathleen Bruinsma. Bruinsma has two children in East Grand Rapids schools, is a member of a few gun safety groups and is a member of the Grand Rapids Community College Board of Trustees. During her speech, Bruinsma listed off a few accomplishments that have been made since the Parkland, Florida shooting.
“Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart have stopped selling high-capacity magazines and assault-style rifles,” she said. “They have also raised their gun buying age to 21. Another great thing is that the state of Florida has raised its gun buying age to 21.”
Bruinsma goes on to acknowledge the National Walkout that happened on March 14.
Bruinsma wants the younger generation to know that they can do anything that they put their minds. She encourages millennials to keep fighting and being the change.
The marchers demanded change with their signs and chants. Lisa Degarld, a Grand Rapids resident, and parent, wanted stricter gun control laws.
“I’m not a fan of the movement that some people want to arm teachers,” she said. “I think that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. We need to do gun control. Arming our teachers is not the answer.”
As far as her hopes for the march, Degarld wants “politicians (to) realize that they need to stop taking money from the NRA… They need to listen to the people who elect them.”
Also in attendance was Rachael Eerdmans, 37, of Grand Rapids who carried a sign that read, “Guns have more rights than my uterus.”
“I just feel like more people want to talk about women’s reproductive rights than they want to talk about gun regulations,” Eerdmans said. “I’m not anti-guns. I grew up in a house with guns. I’m fine with people having guns, but it’s just silly to think that we shouldn’t regulate them so they’re not in our schools.”
For 16-year-old Liam Votpel, a senior at East Grand Rapids High School, the march was an opportunity to voice his concerns about guns in schools.
“I don’t want to be going to school avoiding crowds and making sure to get to class fast and having to leave school fast,” Votpel said. “They’re finding the wrong fixes to these problems.”
Votpel also had some suggestions on how to fix the problem.
“Much more regulation on guns,” he said. “I’m hoping that more rights will be enacted for us – all kids, all parents – being able to go to school and not have to avoid crowds. You shouldn’t have to be afraid of that.”
Daniel Inguez, Votpel’s mother, echoed her son’s concerns.
“It’s time for a change,” she said. “I’m sick of sending my child to school every morning and not knowing if I will ever see him again alive. It’s not fair. As they say, you go to school to build your future and not to end it.”
For marcher Jana Norlin, a teacher at a local school district, the movement was personal.
“When I was in seventh grade I walked home from school with one of my classmates and his parents had given him a simple gun, and a couple of hours after we walked home from school together it went off and he died,” Norlin said. “So, as a student, I experienced losing a classmate to a gun… We need to have less guns.”
Norlin expressed that the march was part of a bigger call for action.
“This is not a march,” she said. “This is an ongoing movement for gun control. Today is one step in the movement, and we have to make sure that these gun control legislative pieces pass.”
To view the opening speakers and part of the march, visit the Collegiate Facebook to view the Facebook Live.