As thousands of people flooded the two main arteries in downtown Phoenix that lead to and from the Capitol today, you’d think this was a protest that had been in the works for months — meticulously planned by some name-brand action group or political party.
In reality, Phoenix’s March for Our Lives was the work of a small cadre of high schoolers, like so many other marches taking place across the country.
The students were sick of the gut-wrenching cycle of mass shootings across the country. When the teenage students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School started speaking out after a gunman killed 17 people at their Florida school, it inspired Phoenix students to do the same.
Several of the lead student organizers of Phoenix’s March for Our Lives addressed the crowd, estimated at 15,000, from a small stage near the Capitol building. Samantha Lekberg, a 16-year-old student from Surprise, said that she had no time to prepare a speech, but spoke candidly about the moment when she learned of gun violence.
When Lekberg was 10, she arrived home from school on a Friday to learn of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. “I had never heard anything like that before, and to know that kids younger than me at 10 years old were killed, it really stuck with me, as you can tell,” Lekberg said, fighting back tears.
When the Parkland shooting happened on Valentine’s Day, Lekberg came home to the same devastating news of another mass murder at a school. She decided to join the “brave, courageous, outstanding teens in Florida” — prompting a huge cheer from the crowd at the mention of the Parkland survivors — “and so I got in contact with everyone I could to help make today happen.”
One of the other rally organizers was Jacob Martinez, who recently resigned as the chairman of the Arizona chapter of Teenage Republicans over his party’s position on guns. He told the crowd that despite the counter-protesters in the mix, their cause will win out in the end.
People are standing up to declare “enough is enough,” Martinez said. “And we are going to fight to see change all across the country, but especially here in Arizona.”
He referred to the state Legislature, just a few steps away. “The governor’s office is right there, and they’re gonna hear us,” Martinez said.
After the high schoolers, a series of speakers including Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego and Arizonans for Gun Safety founder Geraldine Hills took turns at the microphone. The crowd then marched from the Capitol down Jefferson Street, which had been blocked off to traffic.
You could feel a kind of righteous anger in the signs and speakers at the March for Our Lives rally: Anger at the endless run of mass shootings, and at the NRA and its enablers, who want to scuttle efforts to restrict the weapons that make acts of mass murder possible.
Even reliable attendees of the post-Trump era’s protests — the Women’s March, the rally outside the Phoenix convention center during Trump’s visit last summer — said the Parkland moment feels unique.
Amanda LaFollette, 31, has been to a number of different protests, but she was especially excited about this one. She said that gun control is a simple concept that the U.S. needs to adopt: “There’s proof that it works around the world, and it can work here,” she said.
Right-wing hypocrisy on guns is particularly galling to her. “If you’re so pro-life, why don’t you care about the kids that are dying by guns?” LaFollette said. “We’re not trying to take guns, we just want it to be harder to get them.”
After marching down the road with the thousands of other demonstrators, two Grand Canyon University students, 20-year-old Julia Rasmussen and 21-year-old Donovan Davis, caught their breath in the shade near the House building. Rasmussen said that she feels strongly that there needs to be change to gun laws, and joined the March for Our Lives rally without a second thought.
“It was amazing,” Rasmussen said of the massive turnout. “Because it’s Arizona — we’re a red state, so you wouldn’t expect this many people to be here.”
Predictably, a band of Trump supporters showed up to the rally waving “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, a few of them with handguns strapped to their thighs. Some of the gun fans started arguing with march attendees and ranting about the Second Amendment. Many of them are affiliated with Patriot Movement, a club of Arizona racists who regularly harass people at public events.
But the dozen or so counterprotesters were vastly outnumbered, and gradually started to slink away from the Capitol as people chanted “Fuck Donald Trump” in their direction.
In an interview after the rally, State Senator Juan Mendez, a Democrat from Tempe, said that the efforts of the high schoolers inspired him to attend. “I loved going to marches when I was young, but I never felt like they were marches led by the youth,” Mendez said. “It’s just been a whole other experience to see a youth-led protest.”
Mendez praised the students for going beyond protest to organize their peers. He said legislators are taking note of student lobbying on gun violence, especially after they went to the Capitol last week to push their ideas.
Students with the March for Our Lives committee held a sit-in on March 14 for several hours outside the governor’s office in an effort to meet with Doug Ducey, to no avail.
“They are really adamant that nothing is moving the needle unless we can do something to address the universal background checks,” Mendez said. “They are aware of this issue. It’s not just talking points to them. They know that you can’t just tinker here and there and have the effects that universal background checks would have.”
After the broad line of demonstrators had wrapped around the street, the rally ended as it had started. The small group of high schoolers who had organized it — Lekberg, Martinez, Jordan Harb, and Lindsay Schawelson — posed for the camera. They were smiling, exhausted, and ready for more.
A look at some more events from the march:
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