Youths and adults packed Charlotte's First Ward Park Saturday morning demanding that politicians protect the innocence and safety of children from gun violence.
Charlotte's March For Our Lives rally was one of more than 800 student-led events worldwide calling for action to end mass shootings. Teen organizers said their innocence has been denied them, as a generation born in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine school shooting and exposed to steady reports of mass shootings ever since.
Wary of the shootings, the students made it clear: Either politicians find a solution for gun violence, or the youth will lead the way for them.
"The most stubborn generation will show you just how stubborn we can get," Hough High student and march organizer Rosemary Colen said before the rally. "This is our time."
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At noon, the crowd began to march down North Caldwell Street to 3rd Street, chanting a promise to vote out pro-gun politicians as rain fell on their signs.
They soon arrived at Marshall Park, where green and yellow pinwheels labeled with names of school shooting victims had been placed in the ground. For many in attendance, Charlotte’s march was a reminder of gun violence that hit too close to home.
Criss Berke, a freshman at Marvin Ridge High School in Union County, and her twin sister, Ella, joined the rally. The sisters survived the Sandy Hook shooting as fourth graders in 2012, when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn.
Since Sandy Hook, Criss said her family moved around from Georgia to North Carolina but the specter of gun violence followed, where her schools have experienced multiple shooting threats.
“It is time to fix this disgraceful issue, so my generation can do our very best to learn and grow,” she said.
Her sister added, “We are America’s future. Our lives are worth more than the NRA and getting elected.”
Mike Wirth, a professor at Queens University of Charlotte, said his cousin, Meadow Pollack, was one of the victims from last month's shooting in Florida.
Fighting back tears, he called on the crowd to be persistent in pursuing change on gun violence.
"It's our chance now to be proactive, instead of reactive," he said.
Organizers said they were horrified by the February shooting, in which 17 students and faculty were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla. And they were inspired by the leadership of the Stoneman Douglas survivors to speak up for change.
Maddie Syfert, a senior from Myers Park High School and an organizer of the rally, thanked politicians who support the movement but said none would speak at the event. "It is time for politicians to start listening to us," she said.
Carly Lerner, a senior at Charlotte Country Day, read the names of the victims from Parkland.
Signs at the rally included, "I Can't Study If I'm Dead," "Books are school supplies, not bullets," "Arms Are For Hugging," "How Many More?" Never Again" and "It could have been me."
One student's sign referenced lyrics in the musical "Hamilton" by saying, "I imagine death so much, it feels more like a memory. When it gonna get me? In my seat? Several desks ahead of me?" Her tweeted picture of the sign caught the attention of "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who re-tweeted it, saying, "This sign breaks my heart. Forever proud of you."
Teaching 'free thinkers'
Charlotte joined nearby cities such as Mooresville, Hickory and Rock Hill in having rallies Saturday. There also were rallies in Raleigh and elsewhere in North Carolina. At least two buses from Charlotte headed to Washington, D.C., for the biggest march, led by survivors of the Parkland shooting and supported by an array of celebrities and business executives.
In Washington, some of the Charlotte-area youth and adults sported "evil eye gloves" created by the Lib-CLT Stitch and Bitch knitting group. The gloves, which knitters across the country churned out for the march, are designed to create "a sea of eyes" that let elected officials know people are watching them.
"They are mini works of art," said Rachel Hewitt, who chartered a 54-seat bus scheduled to arrive in Washington early Saturday.
A GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $3 million for the national movement, Education Week reported.
The North Carolina NAACP also chartered buses to take marchers from Greensboro, Fayetteville and Laurinburg to the Washington event.
Amya Burse, a student at Charlotte's Rocky River High, headed to Washington with her family on Friday, hoping to be part of a historic event. She said she wants to make sure lawmakers understand the public pressure won't ease until there's significant action on gun control and school safety.
Brooke Rooker of Charlotte, who was bringing her two high-school daughters to the Charlotte march, said before the event that she has been working since the Feb. 14 Stoneman Douglas shooting to create a website, neveragainabcs.org, that will help students and adults sustain their work after the march ends. She encouraged people to create Never Again Action Teams and take part in #NotMeMondays to hold weekly planning and update sessions.
For Coltraine Palmer, it won't be a surprise to see students keep the issue at the forefront of people's minds beyond Saturday's marches.
Palmer graduated from Stoneman Douglas in 1997, and joined 15 other Charlotte-area alumni of the school for the rally. He said Stoneman Douglas breeds special students, noted by the survivors' ability to keep gun issues at the forefront of a country he said has a short attention span.
"We were taught to be free thinkers, we were taught to debate, we were taught to question," he said. "So now, you gave these kids a national stage and they were able to take advantage of it and keep it in the (news) cycle. This is very unique."