Hundreds of thousands of marchers rallied across the United States on Saturday to protest gun violence. More than 800 events were planned, one of them in Richmond, initiated by the mayor’s office. Some 400 people were expected to come—but in the end, almost 1,000 joined the “March for Our Lives,” estimated Mayor Tom Butt, showing the community’s urgency for actions against gun violence. The marchers walked through the Richmond downtown area before assembling on the steps of Richmond City Hall to hold a rally and listen to speeches.
“Living here in Richmond, I see firsthand what gun violence can do to our community,” said Raquel Chavarin, a student leader and the first speaker of the day. “It is common for people to carry guns on a regular basis or see guns on a regular basis. And it is not just adults that this is common for. It is for children, too.”
Chavarin continued to tell her own story while sobbing: Her cousin was killed on November 15, one of 17 homicides in the city last year. “She was the one I have admired so much, and that I loved so much,” she said. Chavarin said there is a reason why wanted to share her story—to make people become aware of the dangers the community faces when anyone can carry a gun. “I don’t feel safe here or in my own home, and that should never be the case. My goal is having a world where everyone feels secure without having to look over their shoulders constantly,” Chavarin concluded. Her last words were drowned out by people applauding.
The supporters for the “March for Our Lives” included parents and grandparents, families with little children and elderly people. The biggest groups of students were from Richmond Prep School and the Richmond High School leadership class. Ryan Sae-Chou, 16, led the march, holding the official banner from the nationwide organizing committee. “I feel empowered,” Sae-Chou said, adding that he has experienced gun violence himself. “I want to emphasize that gun violence is a very big issue in our world today, and I want to make a change,” he said.
Dewanda Joseph is also asking for changes. She is part of Richmond Ceasefire, a community group dedicated to reducing gun violence, and founder of the Ya-Neema healing circle for victims of gun violence. “There are way too many assault weapons in communities like Richmond. Everyone can get a rifle, go to a school and kill our children. Enough is enough!” she said. For her, Joseph said, it was not only important to take a stand this Saturday, but to continue to lobby for stricter laws, like those in Europe, where crime rates are lower. “A whole country is traumatized. It is like a war in our own backyard. I can hear the click of a gun in a movie and I can feel the trauma,” Joseph said.
The march was calm, more like a walk through a friendly community. Chants like “Hey hey, ho ho—gun violence has got to go” were rare, and were mainly heard at the start and the end of the rally. Little children carried signs reading “Protect me—don’t kill me,” and parents held ones giving the US elected leadership mid-term grades: “A+ from NRA = F from parents and children.” Others carried signs like “Arms are for hugging” or “It doesn’t have to end automatically.”
After the marchers gathered in front of city hall, to remember the hundreds of lives that have been cut short as the result of everyday gun violence in Richmond, RYSE student advocate Mikaela Wilburn read their names throughout the ceremony. The message was more than clear: Enough is enough.
Tyjohn “TJ” Sykes felt that one big group wasn’t represented well enough: black students, the community mostly affected by gun violence in Richmond. “It was not a lot of people that represented the communities where I come from,” said Sykes, who works for the RYSE Center and was one of the speakers. In a touching and intense poem, he told the story of his best friend, who was shot at age 14, who “didn’t make it home to his two brothers, one sister and mama” because “his body was left lying on the parking lot.”
Sykes also told the story of another friend, who was shot at a gas station, went into a coma for two months, became paralyzed, and died two years later. And he spoke about his brother, who he said had faced a trial for two murders and now is behind bars. “I share my uncomfortable experiences cause I know my stories are going to reach out and touch them, like a 3-D-movie coming straight out,” Sykes said.
With poems like these, Sykes wants to tell people that the healing process is collective and shouldn’t be done in isolation from the community. But, he said, “Not a lot of people in communities like mine are even open to have these conversations.”
Speakers like California Senator Nancy Skinner or Mayor Butt emphasized the positive effect the “March for our Lives” can have. “The people of my generation were not able to do this. The Baby Boomers were not able to do this. The millennials were not able to do this. But do you know who is gonna do it? It’s you, the students,” Butt said to the supporters after the march.
In her speech, Skinner addressed the student leaders: “You don’t have to do it alone. We will have your backs.”
But Skyes remained skeptical about the effect of one day of rallies. “Things like this get sparked in a moment, but then they start to die out as days go by,” he said. “As more people pass away, people start to forget about those names.” Sykes said it would be important to recognize that the battle against gun violence is an everyday fight for communities like Richmond.