OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA — Shortly before 10 a.m. on Wednesday, students at Oakland Technical High School started walking out of the main entrance and spilling out onto the front steps and lawn.
They were joining in solidarity with students across the country, demanding action to address gun violence one month after a former student killed 17 students and school staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
But Oakland Tech students had much more than a walk-out planned. Outside the school on Wednesday morning, there was a table where students handed out orange ribbons. A booth where the Oakland League of Women Voters was pre-registering students to vote. A booth with information about gun violence in America, ready to be distributed to any interested students. And a booth where students could send a message to a member of Congress of their choosing.
Oakland may be a progressive city, but gun violence is still very much a part of student’s lives here — evidenced by the number of hands that went up when a student speaker asked how many people in attendance have been directly impacted by gun violence or know someone who has.
“I think this is a really important cause. I’m not trying to go to school and have to fear for my life one day. That’s crazy,” 16-year-old Danielle Flores told ThinkProgress. “This is supposed to be a safe environment and next thing you know we’re getting shot up.”
Fourteen-year-old Milo Vetter, who proudly held up one of the few signs spotted at the rally, said he wanted to get involved because he detected some apathy from his fellow students. “As a kid, I don’t find that much to be interested in, so I thought it might be nice to get politically active once in a while and do something important,” Vetter said.
The message on his sign? “The only thing easier to buy than a gun is the GOP.”
During the rally, students honored not only the Parkland victims, but also the young victims of gun violence who may not have received as much attention — like 5-year-old Gabriel Martinez Jr., who was shot and killed near his family’s taco truck in East Oakland in 2012.
Several students told ThinkProgress they had the full support of teachers and school staff, and were given the time and space to do more than just walk out in protest. After the remembrances, students led the crowd in chants, rapped, recited poetry, and spoke of their anger, fear, and motivation to demand that their voices are not only heard but taken seriously.
“I felt like I needed to speak some conscious words and put it into the minds of these youth, so we can know not to shoot and that gun violence is not okay and we need to do something to stop it,” said 18-year-old Alonzo Henderson, who performed his original rap “Don’t Shoot” for an enthusiastic crowd.
“The genre of rap is very relevant in our culture as youth,” Henderson said. “These are my peers so I wanted to have an impact on my peers and perform for them.”
Shannon Brandon, a physiology teacher at Oakland Tech, watched closely from the stage, alternating between taking photos and video on her phone and applauding for the students. “I was very proud of them,” she told ThinkProgress as chants of “Enough is enough!” rang out in the background. “The fact that they were able to come together and put their own personal issues to the side and create this huge, vast support system with each other, I thought was amazing.”
Brandon said she tries to convey to her students that she will do whatever she can to make them feel safe and to provide a safe environment in her classroom; students will frequently gather there to talk and play games when they don’t feel comfortable going outside during lunch.
But their fear is palpable — she said several students told her they were worried Wednesday’s rally was a set up, and that they would be lured outside in a large group and shot.
“A lot of my students have known somebody that’s been a victim of gun violence, whether it’s been a family member or a friend,” she said. “That affects them and how they come to school prepared to learn for the day — you can’t very well focus on learning about the body when you’ve just lost your best friend to gun violence.”
The student leaders reminded their peers that the threat of gun violence may not be as far away as they think. One of them told the crowd during the rally that San Leandro High School — just 12 miles away from Oakland Tech — was on lockdown due to an active shooter threat. The students were unable to take part in their own walk-out as a result.