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Parkland Students: It All Comes Down to Voting

Road to Change | March for Our Lives | Politics

By JOHN GREGG, Correspondent, Tampa Bay Reporter

Four survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and four Pinellas County students spoke about gun violence and the need to go to the polls in order to make changes during a Road to Change event in Clearwater.

CLEARWATER – A standing-room-only crowd of about 500 mostly adult Pinellas residents kicked off the evening Tuesday (July 10) by giving eight high school students a minute-long standing ovation.

Four high school students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and four high school students from We the Students, a Pinellas County-based student nonprofit, had come to talk about gun violence, gun control and voting. While the students fielded a wide array of questions from audience members who fanned themselves with foam plates left over from the free pizza supplied by organizers, their message could be summed up in six words: It all comes down to voting.

The event, at the Athenian Academy in Clearwater, was the first stop on the Tampa Bay leg of the Road to Change tour, a nationwide expedition launched by March for Our Lives. The tour will move to St. Petersburg on Thursday (July 12) and Tampa on Saturday (July 14). Panel members at Tuesday’s event laid out the goals of the tour: :Register youths to vote. Educate youths on the candidates and issues they will be voting on,. And, importantly, they said, to see that youths actually go to the polls once they are registered and educated.

“Looking at data from past elections, at the 2014 midterms, only about 12 percent of 18 to 25 year olds actually went to the polls and voted. In the 2016 presidential election, I believe those numbers were 18 percent and that is absolutely pitiful,”  said Alex Wink, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas student and March For Our Lives project strategist. “We have a civic duty to go out and vote and people don’t do it because maybe they don’t like the options. But at the end of the day, I feel that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain if you feel our country is going backwards.”

Road to Change | March for Our Lives | PoliticsRoad to Change | March for Our Lives | PoliticsThe panel took every opportunity to say that gun control is not a partisan issue and that support is needed from both Democratic and Republican legislators to enact reform. They also cautioned against voting strictly along party lines and urged the crowd to vote for whatever candidate represented their interests, regardless of party affiliation.

Panel members also clarified some common misconceptions regarding the March For Our Lives movement – the movement is strictly non-partisan and organizers firmly believe in inclusion and are not advocating that the government take away guns from registered gun owners.

Wink, who, to the delight of the audience, said that he had registered to vote earlier in the day, also  called out legislators around the country for not taking a firm stance on gun control.

“A huge issue with, not only our Florida legislators but our national legislators, is that they don’t come out with a public stance on this issue. They won’t answer questions about it. They won’t say anything about it. They’ll just say it’s not their problem. When in reality this is a public safety problem, because it can happen everywhere. So it’s our job to not only focus on our senators but to focus on the entire country. To make sure that everyone comes out with a public opinion on this issue,” he said.

The panelists from We the Students, who are all Pinellas County High School students, expressed frustration with some teachers and administrators whom, they believe, are not supportive of March For Our Lives initiatives for fear of negative backlash.

“But it’s a human issue, not a partisan issue,” said Madison Vogel, CEO of the non-profit.

Vogel got the biggest cheer of the night from the crowd when she told of the group’s planning and execution of a “die-in” at Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s Tampa office last month.

Road to Change | March for Our Lives | PoliticsRoad to Change | March for Our Lives | PoliticsThe March For Our Lives movement has confronted Rubio and other legislators who take contributions from the National Rifle Association. Wink didn’t mince words when he called the NRA a “fear-mongering hate group,” but also stressed that the organization itself was the problem, not its members, whom, he said he believes, are mostly responsible gun owners who have been failed by leadership.

While the crowd was overwhelmingly supportive, the panelists said that they welcome dissent from people who disagree with their stance on gun control. They also encouraged crowd members to listen and engage in meaningful dialogue with those with differing viewpoints on social and political issues.

The Parkland students also discussed some of the online trolling and threats that they contend with as the “faces” of the March For Our Lives movement. Lauren Hogg, who had her family home “swatted” last month, said that negative backlash “only gives legitimacy for what we’re doing” and that threats have the opposite effect from what is intended, instead hardening one’s resolve to continue with activist work. “Swatting,” according to the Urban Dictionary, is “an internet prank/crime where someone finds your address either through your IP or because your name and location is known.Then they call 911anonymously and report a fake emergency.”

Responses to most questions were quick and well-informed, but the panel only offered opinions on subjects they had experience with. They declined to answer a question about “smart bullets” citing a lack of knowledge on the subject, while pledging to do further research for future panels.

Road to Change | March for Our Lives | PoliticsSeveral gun control advocacy groups were in attendance, including a contingent from Moms Demand Action who chatted and took photos with the panelists at the end of the event. Erin Wiley, a mother of three and a Tampa local group co-leader, came away from the event impressed and encouraged.

“I think that overall it was really positive. The students had quick answers to just about everything, the crowd seemed to be loving what they were saying and they made some really interesting points. I heard Lauren [Hogg] say, ‘A bullet doesn’t care if you are a red or a blue.’  I heard other students from We the Students in Pinellas talking about how important inclusion is in this movement. I’m really proud of all of them tonight,” she said.

The March For Our Lives Road to Change bus tour makes its next stop in St. Petersburg at 11 a.m. Thursday in Williams Park, 350 Second Ave. N, for a voter registration and gun violence awareness rally. Among the scheduled speakers are four Democratic Florida gubernatorial candidates: Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham, Chris King and Philip Levine. The event is open to the public.


Photos by John Gregg, Tampa Bay Reporter Correspondent.


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Parkland Students: It All Comes Down to Voting
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Parkland Students: It All Comes Down to Voting
Four survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and four Pinellas County students spoke about gun violence and the need to go to the polls in order to make changes during a Road to Change event in Clearwater.
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