People of all ages and walks of life – 7,819 of them all told, according to Walkway over the Hudson State Historic Park manager Eric Hoppe – gathered at the Poughkeepsie end of the span last Saturday to join in the mid-Hudson’s version of the nationwide March for Our Lives. There were families, teachers, political candidates, people in wheelchairs, soccer-players, veterans, clergy, self-described Old Lesbians and Hunters for Gun Control alike. Even Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels anti-gang organization, was said by local Angels organizer Benjamin C. Cortéz to be in attendance, and “still kicking butt.” But ultimately, at the local level as well as the national, it was all about the young people.
The first thing this correspondent heard upon arriving were the words, “You guys registered to vote?” coming from a young volunteer. That question was asked over and over by various teams of youths with clipboards as one proceeded across the Walkway and back. Before the two-hour event was over, about 45 new voters had been registered, said Maura O’Meara of the League of Women Voters: “Most of them were between 18 and 19 – first-time voters.”
It was a bright, brisk, breezy day, with a feeling in the air that mixed excitement with resolve, outrage over the nation’s recent spate of gun violence against students in places like Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida with a sense of reinvigoration that youth was leading the charge for change. “Proud of our Youth – Ashamed of our Government,” read one sign carried by a marcher. “Bookbags, not Body Bags,” read another. One woman held a sign saying, “Marching for Charlotte Bacon, Newtown 2012,” keeping alive the memory of one six-year-old slain by a shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Most poignant of all, perhaps, were the signs scrawled in childish handwriting by the kids, some quite small, who carried them. “Will I Get to Grow Up?” read one borne by a girl who could not have been any older than six herself. Another child’s sign simply said “Guns” accompanied by a sad face. And all around, one could hear older generations explaining the issue to the younger ones, using the demonstration as a teachable moment. “What’s the NRA?” one little boy asked his mother, who proceeded to explain how some people want to make it easy to sell more guns so they can make more money.
A handful of counterdemonstrators stood on the sidelines bearing their own signs and a big American flag, but March attendees had been warned not to “engage” with opponents, and the event proceeded peaceably, buoyed by the marching-band music of Tin Horn Uprising. There was considerable good humor evident, such as when Walkway ambassadors steered the westbound line of march to one side to allow room for eastbound returnees to walk on the other: “Stay to the right, please. This is not a political statement.” The marchers laughed and complied. Among all the clever slogans carried aloft, the one that made the most passersby pause and reach for their cameras was one that joked, “Dick’s Has Balls” – an admiring reference to the decision by the Dick’s Sporting Goods chain, in the wake of the Parkland massacre in February, to ban sales in its stores of assault-style rifles and raise its minimum age for firearms purchases to 21.
The day’s anger was reserved primarily for the National Rifle Association, and most pointedly for the elected officials who accept donations from that organization. Many signs and some of the chants used by the marchers singled out 19th US Congressional District representative John Faso, a Republican, who has reportedly received nearly $45,000 in campaign contributions from the NRA and is up for reelection this coming November. “Sucks to be Faso today,” one marcher remarked as a contingent passing in the opposite direction chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, John Faso’s go to go!”
Indeed, the concept that politicians who oppose gun regulation will soon have to face public ire at the polls was a constantly recurring theme of the day. “Allowing all these people to organize together to put pressure on local elected officials to keep our children safe is the goal of this march,” noted Judy Blancher, a member of the steering committee of the local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a national organization that is one of March for Our Lives’ primary sponsors. “Either you keep our children safe, or we vote you out.”
Yvette Rogers, communications director for Moms Demand Action, added that one of the organization’s primary legislative goals in New York is swift passage of Extreme Risk Protection Order legislation (A.6994/S.5447), which is currently bottled up in the State Senate. This law would empower a family member of a person deemed dangerous to themselves or to others to petition for a court order prohibiting that person to purchase guns.
Asked whether recent threats of gun violence in City of Poughkeepsie schools had contributed to the high turnout for the March on the Walkway, Rogers said, “Definitely. I think our communities realized how close to home this is – that this is everyone’s issue. We have to make sure that our lawmakers know.”