Voices From The March For Our Lives

Hudson-Valley-march-for-our-livesA crowd of more than 8,000 tramped across the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie Saturday to protest American gun violence in the wake of last month’s Parkland High School shooting.

The cross-generational crowd hoisted acerbic protest signs slamming the NRA and pro-gun politicians for what was seen as their complicity in the attack, and eddies of protestors constantly spun off the march to ask each other, with fingers pointing and raised voices: what’s to be done?

The march, sponsored by a plethora of activist groups, was part of the nation-wide “March for our Lives” protest.

More than 8,000 people had crossed onto the walkway as of 12:15 p.m., according to park staff, at which time protesters were still trickling in.

Liam Mooney, Rowen Kuzminski and Luca Van Dommele, students at Haldane Middle School in Cold Spring, sat around a picnic table while displaying a sign reading “What Part of ‘Well-Regulated’ Don’t You Understand?” a reference to the language of the Second Amendment, which states “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The contemporary interpretation of the amendment leaves the “well-regulated militia” part out, Mooney said.

“The NRA doesn’t understand that,” Van Dommele said.

“So, we’re asking what part they don’t understand,” Mooney followed.

Since gun technology has evolved since the Bill of Rights was penned, the laws should be updated, Mooney said, adding there were no cell phones in the 1700s, but laws have been written to regulate them, just as there should be stricter laws for semi-automatic weapons, another piece of technology not available to the founding fathers.

The precocious trio agreed there should be more of a vetting process to purchase a gun, such as taking a test for mental stability.

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Liam Mooney, Rowen Kuzminski and Luca Van Dommele (from left to right), students at Haldane Middle School in Cold Spring, question an interpretation of the Second Amendment during the Hudson Valley March for Our Lives March 24.

Van Dommele pointed to the lack of school shootings in the United Kingdom and Australia. The countries drastically tightened gun laws after their own mass shootings — the Dunblane School Shooting shooting in Scotland and the Port Arthur Massacre in Tasmania.

“It’s funny how mental health doesn’t kill anyone in Australia,” Kuzminski said.

Claire Norman, a student at Stissing Mountain Senior High School in Pine Plains, also said there should be more stringent background checks, and that she didn’t see the purpose of “weapons of war” being legal in the U.S.

I heard the term “weapons of war” several times during the march, a term that seems to be politically synonymous with “assault weapons,” a term used around the now-extinct 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, and New York’s SAFE Act. Politicians are using the term too, including local congressional candidate Pat Ryan in a recent editorial.

Norman called her generation, “the generation of mass shootings.” She speaks from experience. In 2009, before she was a student, a man held the Stissing Mountain Junior High School principal hostage with a shotgun for more than two hours, according to the New York Daily News.

Norman participated in a nation-wide school walk-out to protest gun violence March 14, which she said was “pretty well-attended,” though many in the conservative town were against it, she said.

The march was peppered with clipboard-welding folks registering protestors to vote, and several political candidates were in attendance. Dave Clegg, who is running in the Democratic Congressional Primary in Republican John Faso’s district, arrived donning an orange sash.

The sash was a reference to the orange clothing worn by sportspeople warning other hunters not to shoot, Clegg said.

“We want to send out a statement that people should not be in the line of fire,” he said.

Gun manufacturers should be held accountable and made to make safer guns, Clegg said, suggesting “smart gun” technology, where guns can only be fired with the purchaser’s fingerprint. The technology, which has yet to gain a foothold in the U.S., could arguably eliminate the illegal gun trade and accidental shootings by children.

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Congressional Candidate Dave Clegg

Clegg cited the NRA as a huge roadblock to Congress making meaningful changes to gun laws and said he would like to ban the AR-15 — a civilian version of the M-16 that was used in the Parkland massacre — and other assault weapons. The sale of these weapons should be illegal, Clegg said, but he does not think owning the weapons should be illegal if they are already possessed.

“No, you can’t make guns that are owned by law-abiding citizens illegal,” he said.

Antonio Delgado, also running for a chance to unseat John Faso, was in attendance.

The young people leading the movement after Parkland were forcing a complacent Congress to actually address gun violence and gun laws in a meaningful way, Delgado said, who added there was “broad consensus” on “common sense” reforms, including the banning of bump stocks, making private sellers conduct background checks, and funding the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence.

Delgado said the country should look at the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban — which expired a decade later and was never renewed —  to see what in it worked, but he added the issue was larger than that.

“We always rush to the question of assault weapons, which is a good question, which we should be able to talk about, but there are several other things we should talk about as well that we could get…agreement on.”

Delgado said conversations need to be had about mental health issues, the ability of domestic abusers or young people to purchase guns, and the influence of the NRA.

Danny Hairston, the program director of SNUG, a state-sponsored anti-violence program, also marched in solidarity with Parkland, but his work to end gun violence was much deeper and more direct than most of the marchers’.

Hairston and other SNUG members, who have their fingers on the pulse of Poughkeepsie, intervene to mediate conflicts before gun violence erupts, and, in cases where shootings occur, work to calm tensions and prevent retaliation, he said.

“We do a health-based approach, which means we interrupt the transmission from one shooting to another, and we take those individuals who are a higher risk, and then we provide case management to get them out of those situations,” he said.

“You see this march going across the bridge?” Hairston said, nodding to the crowd. “We do that every time someone gets shot (in Poughkeepsie). We bring attention to it to let people know that it’s not normal. It’s nothing we should see as normal.”

Conversations about guns bypass black communities affected by violence, he said.

Banning the AR-15 might stop another Parkland but would have little effect on the gun violence in some black communities, Hairston said, where “when I was growing up…you wasn’t getting a [gun] from the gun store, it was a dude pulling up who had them in the trunk of his car.”

To address gun violence, people had to stop thinking about it as “a binary conversation,” and discuss things like gun laws, poverty, sub-par schools and mental health issues, Hairston said.

“I tell people, we marching here today, but our kids march for their lives every day…walking to school, walking to the gym, walking to mom and dad’s house,” he said. “So, we dealing with this on a daily basis. We can come together and do this one time, but when everybody leaves this bridge today, our kids will be marching every day from here on out.”

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Protestors stream onto the path leading to the Walkway Over The Hudson at the beginning of the Hudson Valley March For Our Lives March 24

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