In my dreams, the first instinct I learn is to never run,
In my dreams, prayers are not pledges of allegiance
We wear graduation gowns, before hospital ones
The words of youth poet Eva Chen, a senior at Burlingame High School, echoed as she read her poem, "On Gun Violence" to a crowd of more than 100 people who stood before her listening on the plaza of the downtown library in Redwood City.
Many who listened held handwritten protest signs, each with its own words, but each with the same message: It's time for our government to act. No more lives should be lost to gun violence.
Chen's poem resonated with many in the crowd, standing on Saturday morning, without shade, in near 90-degree weather. Chen was one of several people who spoke, presented or sang on stage at the rally for March for Our Lives, a youth-led organization that demands an end to gun violence and puts pressure on legislators to enact policies for stricter gun laws. The rally was one of many demonstrations and marches across the Bay Area and the country.
Justine Rutigliano, an English teacher at Sequoia High School and the club advisor for March for Our Lives also spoke at the rally.
"Mass shootings have become a part of American culture," Rutigliano told the crowd. "This is frightening and unacceptable."
She added: "In the words of political commentator Van Jones, we have to reframe the issue. It is not pro-gun versus anti-gun, it should be responsible gun owners against irresponsible gun interests."
In Redwood City, a set of 17-year-old twins, Christopher and Nicholas Kwok, incoming seniors at Sequoia Union High School began organizing Saturday's rally in collaboration with the March for Our Lives San Jose chapter one day after the Uvalde, Texas shooting, where 21 people were gunned down, including 19 elementary school children.
The Kwoks also organized a march before the rally, which looped around past Zareen's near Broadway and Main Street before returning to the library. Demonstrators chanted, "What do want? Action. When do we want it ? Now." And, "The NRA has got to go."
"The problem with gun violence will never change unless we start making changes and speak up against this now to demand action," said Christopher Kwok. "Our students at our chapter, we all got involved in youth activism because of this urgent passion to start creating change now and not waiting for future solutions to come years down the road when it's already too late, frankly."
According to the Pew Research Center, in a study conducted in April 2021, almost 75% of Americans consider gun violence "a big problem," with 48% calling it a "very big problem" and another 24% calling it a "moderately big problem." And while the U.S. has seen a decline in recent years of people in favor of stricter guns, the majority of people still, 53%, want them.
Nicholas Kwok, Christopher Kwok's brother, said he's optimistic that youth activism could eventually force legislators into action, which could lead them to enact policies that could install universal background checks, increase the age requirement to purchase a weapon, ban automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and require a waiting period and a training period when someone buys a gun.
Politicians should especially listen to students, said Nicholas Kwok.
"Because we're inside the classroom, and especially with the shooting in Parkland and Uvalde… These affected us," he said. "We know the trauma that goes through once gun violence takes place."
The California Rifle & Pistol Association, a nonprofit dedicated "to defending the civil and constitutional rights of individuals to choose to responsibly own and use firearms" has a list of 10 arguments against gun control on its website, some of which include that these types of laws infringe on constitutional rights, don't prevent shooters from accessing guns and that by disarming civilians, legislators could potentially remove armed civilians helping "take out the bad guys" with guns. A representative for the CRPA could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
Veronica Cabebe, a full-time student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, said that the argument about infringing on constitutional rights and the second amendment needs to be revisited.
"We're one of the only countries where our constitution hasn't been altered to help what is going on currently," Cabebe said. "And I don't think that the Founding Fathers would completely agree with the idea of keeping it completely the same and not touching it. There is a time when change needs to happen and that time is now."
The change will not happen immediately, said Redwood City resident DJ Mitchell, a 73-year-old retired schoolteacher who taught for 35 years in El Paso, Texas. Mitchell held a sign that read, "Guns do kill children!"
"It's going to be incremental steps right now, unfortunately," said the 73-year-old woman. "We're going to have to do baby steps, and we're going to have to do some compromises that we don't want to."
Mitchell was not in El Paso when the 2019 mass shooting occurred at a Walmart where 23 people ultimately died, but said that she had gone back to see the memorial. Her friends, her students and her parents' graves are there. The hurt, she said, is personal.
"I needed to be here," she said.