ITHACA, N.Y. – Roars of the crowd at the Bernie Milton Pavilion in Ithaca were heard from blocks away as hundreds of students and community members rallied on Saturday afternoon to participate in the worldwide “March for Our Lives” to protest gun violence.
The march, organized by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, follows the recent tragedy where 17 people were fatally shot at the Parkland, FL high school on Feb. 14.
Tompkins County Legislator Amanda Champion, with the help of other legislators and activists, began organizing the local rally shortly after the worldwide march was announced.
“With a child in middle school and another in college, I myself feel the constant fear that someone will pick up a gun and enter one of their classrooms and forever change life as I know it,” Champion wrote in the Facebook event page. “Here in Ithaca, there are student activists who are changing the culture of their school for the better. However, some of them have now become the target of racist, ignorant bigots who are threatening their lives. This attack on our children in our community is not acceptable.”
As plans for the march moved forward, Champion said local students took initiative in most of the march organization. From both Cornell and Ithaca College, students planned marches down the hills from each campus to convene in The Commons for the rally.
Clare Nowalk, a sophomore sociology major at Ithaca College, said she reached out to Champion as a volunteer when the march was first announced.
“I started thinking that the actual march in Ithaca was more of a rally,” Nowalk said. “I was looking at other events like ‘Take Back the Night’ and started thinking about marching from campus to the commons.”
Nowalk said she began collaborating with other groups on campus such as IC Futures, IC Democrats and IC Hillel and combined their efforts into one.
As a student-driven movement, Nowalk said it was important for student voices to be heard and represented throughout the march and rally.
“It’s really important for students to take a stand because oftentimes, especially on college campuses, people get sucked into the idea that you don’t have agency,” Nowalk said. “It can get rhetorical and theoretical, and we’re stepping back and realizing that these changes can be made from college campuses, we can call senators and protest or rally and continue to have discussions.”
On the opposite hill, Nikhil Dhingra and Liel Sterling, both students at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, also reached out to Champion as volunteers and began planning their own march down the hill.
Dhingra said the overall tone at the university reflected an interest in getting involved and many students showed interest in participating in a march which would later merge into the rally downtown.
“I think that it’s really important right now that we all have a unified front,” Sterling said. “We have to show politicians that it’s a huge issue to the public – this is a problem that’s taking children’s lives.”
Both Sterling and Dhingra said the march was to instill a sense of urgency and a way to promote discourse around comprehensive gun control policies.
“It is appalling to me that the one place in our communities that is supposed to be the safest is under fire,” Dhingra said. “This march is a great opportunity to encourage discourse.”
The problem solving doesn’t end when the march was over and everyone headed home. Nowalk, Sterling and Dhingra all said that groups at both colleges have plans to set up forums, panels and discussions to keep students involved in the continued the dialogue around gun violence.
Members of Ithaca High School’s Students United also joined the stage at the rally, discussing the violence they encountered after speaking out about the lack of diversity in Ithaca City School District’s theater department.
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Prachi Ruina, Maddi Carroll and Eammon Nunn-Makepeace, three of the IHS students who began the discussion around the flawed casting of the school play, took a stand on the stage on Saturday afternoon. The three played a large part in protesting the ICDS theater system later led to the cancellation of the production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
“It took young people raising their voices in Ithaca to make real changes,” Carroll said, reflecting on their recent activism. “It took young people raising their voices for this march to happen.”
Tompkins County Legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne helped kick off the rally as she took the stage before the hundreds of people who marched through Ithaca to gather on the pavilion.
“We are here because we want to take a stance against this unspeakable violence that’s occurring and hatred against our children,” McBean-Clairborne said. “We want our children to know that collectively we stand strong to protect them. Our children are living and growing in an era of trauma. Every day people are seeing families, friends and people who look like them gunned down in schools, colleges, churches – places they are supposed to be safe.”
McBean-Clairborne, also the Deputy Director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, said that in one of its forms, violence has also materialized as the lack of proper mental health care and counseling.
“It is is a travesty that access to assault weapons and other weapons of mass destruction is so easy,” she said. “For those of you here who like their guns, let me be clear – we are not stepping on people’s second amendment rights. Instead, we are standing for the protection of human life – we are standing on this day, at this time, to say ‘enough is enough’.”
Following several speakers who took their place on the stage, Dr. Nia Nunn stood before the crowd as the rally began to wrap up. Known for her work as the Director at Southside Community Center, Nunn is also a professor at Ithaca College in the Education Department.
“Young people are continuing to realize the power of organizing, the power of demands,” Nunn said. “They are learning to critically challenge and examine authority and structure – many of our youth are eager to interrupt perceived truths and social myths that are ultimately detrimental to humanity. Even if gun violence is not our daily reality, let this moment be the beginning of a confronting opportunity.”