‘What do we want? Safety!’: Iowa City students protest political inaction in the wake of school shootings

Students from City High marched to the Pentacrest during a walkout to protest gun violence and government inaction in the wake of the most recent school shooting in Florida. Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

On Monday at 11 a.m., students walked out of classes at two Iowa City schools, City High School and South East Junior High School, in response to the mass shooting at a Florida high school last week and the failure of politicians to enact effective gun laws in the wake of previous school shootings.

The students marched through damp and foggy streets to the steps of the Old Capitol building on the University of Iowa Pentacrest, where the flag was flying at half-mast in memory of those killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas School in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday.

As they marched, the students chanted slogans such as, “What do we want? Safety! When do we want it? Now!” and “Say ‘no way’ to the NRA!” They carried signs, some of which denounced the influence of the National Rifle Association, the country’s largest pro-gun lobby. Other signs listed the names of schools where shootings have occurred in the past two decades and the names of the 17 people killed in Wednesday’s school shooting.

City High Senior Miles Morrow holds a sign displaying the names of the 17 victims of the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

“This walk is a way for us students to show our administration, our school board and, most importantly, our politicians our support for gun reform,” Bihotza James-Lejarcegu, a City High senior and the first speaker at the protest, told the crowd of approximately 100 students.

The crowd booed loudly as James-Lejarcegu cited the large contributions the NRA has made to both of Iowa’s U.S. senators. Although Sen. Joni Ernst is a relative newcomer on the national scene, she is already number seven on the list of biggest recipients of money from the NRA, having taken $3,124,273 in contributions from the gun lobby since 2014.

The crowd also booed as James-Lejarcegu described an action by Sen. Chuck Grassley.

“In February of 2017, almost exactly a year from today,” she said, “our very Iowa senator, Chuck Grassley, sponsored legislation that blocked an initiative that Obama had taken to prevent shootings like the one that happened in Florida and so many others.”

The bill Grassley introduced overturned an Obama-era regulation that required the Social Security Administration to inform the National Instant Criminal History Background Check System of people receiving disability checks for certain mental illnesses and people determined to be unfit to handle their own finances (and therefore have their Social Security checks delivered to a third-party). Federal law prohibits people adjudicated as having certain mental illnesses from owning guns. The application to buy a gun by anyone reported to the background check database under the regulation would have likely received more thorough scrutiny than an average application.

As James-Lejarcegu and other student leaders spoke, the number of students on the Pentacrest continued to grow. After the last group of students, mostly from South East Junior High, arrived, there were roughly 200 people attending the student-organized protest. A number of West High School students were in attendance, though West students are reportedly planning their own future demonstration.

According to James-Lejarcegu, who was one of the protest’s organizers, the idea for the walkout originated among the seventh- and eighth-graders.

“It’s admirable that junior high students are taking initiatives to speak out and show the administration, the school district, and most importantly our politicians where they stand with gun violence,” James-Lejarcegu told City High’s The Little Hawk, which was the first news site to report on plans for the protest.

Students from City High marched to the Pentacrest during a walk out to protest gun violence and government inaction in the wake of the most recent school shooting in Florida. Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

After 30 minutes, the protesters marched down Clinton St. to the Ped Mall, where they gathered at the Weatherdance Fountain Stage, to listen to more student speakers for a further 45 minutes.

Being tired — tired of being afraid, tired of politicians refusing to act, tired of the dominance of the NRA in national politics — was a common theme of the speeches, but so was the importance of remaining active in pushing for change. Several speakers mentioned that City High will host “a call and letter station” after school on Friday to make it easier for students to contact state legislators to encourage them to support gun reform. Students 17-and-a-half years old or older will also have the opportunity to register to vote.

But those students didn’t need to wait until Friday, because a group of volunteers from the Johnson County League of Women Voters was circulating through the crowd of students, passing out voter registration forms. One of the volunteers explained the League had been contacted by a parent of one of the protesters, who thought it would be a good idea to make voter registration available during the protest.

Max, a freshman at City High, was too young to register to vote, but told Little Village he was still determined to make a difference in changing how politicians deal with gun violence.

“Previous tries in the past have failed, but I think this time there’s a good chance for change, now that people our age are taking a stand,” he said.

The protest in Iowa City, which had the tacit support of the Iowa City Community School District, was one of several independently-organized student protests across the country on Monday, including a lie-in in front of the White House, in which 17 students silently lay on the sidewalk in memory of the Parkland dead.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have announced plans for a protest march in Washington D.C., on March 24.

Additional reporting by Emma McClatchey.

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