Gun reform advocates line Pennsylvania Avenue while attending the March for Our Lives rally March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - A sea of youth took over the streets of Washington D.C. as hundreds of thousands of activists chanted "WE WANT CHANGE" during the March For Our Lives, hoping to send a direct message to Congress and the nation.
Holding signs that read "Never Again," "We Demand Change" and "Enough Is Enough," protesters marched along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the March For Our Lives main stage as the U.S. Capitol sat in the background. According to Metro officials, more than 550,000 trips had been taken on Metrorail Saturday. Many activists arrived via buses, ride-sharing services and by carpooling.
Survivors of the school mass shooting in Florida and those impacted by gun violence joined forces with celebrities to demand action from Congress.
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"Welcome to the revolution," said Cameron Kasky, a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida. "It is a powerful and peaceful one because it is of, by and for the young people of this country."
"Fight for your lives before it's someone else's job," said Emma Gonzalez, another survivor of the Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School shooting. Gonzalez held an emotional moment of silence for the 17 victims of the shooting, which was the deadliest school mass shooting in U.S. history.
While most of the students from Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School are not old enough to vote, drink alcohol or even rent a car, they've captured the attention of the nation and were able to mobilize the massive demonstration in less than two months following the massacre.
The demonstration on Saturday featured several powerful speeches from students across the nation. One of those students, 11-year-old Naomi Wadler of Alexandria, Virginia, electrified the crowd as she denounced gun violence.
“I am here to acknowledge the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper,” said Naomi as the crowd roared. “These stories don’t lead on the evening news. I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant beautiful girls full of potential.”
The 11-year-old, who attends George Mason Elementary School, began to trend on Twitter as her speech went viral.
“My grandfather had a dream that his four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” said Yolanda Renee King. “I have a dream that enough is enough and that this should be a gun-free world. Period!”
Another emotional testimony came from 16-year-old Zion Kelly, the twin brother of Zaire Kelly. Zaire was gunned down while he attempted to defend himself during a robbery in Washington, according to officials. The 16-year-old was described as a scholar, athlete, friend and beloved classmate at Thurgood Marshall Academy, where he had just entered his senior year and was the team captain on the track team. His friends said he was looking to attend Florida A&M University after he graduated.
"We went to the same school and shared the same friends. We even shared the same room," Zion said to the crowd. The teenager spoke of sending the last text messages with his brother while he walked home. "Can you imagine how it would be to lose someone that close to you? Sadly, too many of my friends and peers can. This school year alone, my school lost two students to gun violence."
"He was a person. A leader. An inspirer, not just another statistic," Zion continued. "Just like all of you, I've had enough."
Zion announced his family was proposing the Zaire Kelly School Zone Amendments Act, which would create safe passage zones for students to and from school and expand the definition of "student" in the District to further protect students and ensure their safety.
As story after story resonated with the scores of youth in attendance, the crowd chanted "VOTE THEM OUT" multiple times as the attention was turned toward forcing action on gun violence from Congress.
"We stand at a moment where our nation's laws are not guided by what is right or wrong, what is morally sound by the many, but instead is limited by the insatiable greed of a few," said Matt Post, a student of Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Maryland. "We know that to only focus on school safety, instead of American safety, is to dismiss the thousands of tragedies in between the massacres."
"It ignores the people, disproportionately people of color, who die by bullet without even making a headline," Post continued. "It's not difficult to diagnose the moral health problem of this country. Our nation's politics are sick with soullessness, but make no mistake, we are the cure."
The movement has already led to a sweeping gun bill in Florida being passed and has even the most seasoned of politicians taking note. The students said they have one ultimate goal: to harness the support into actual voters, with their sights set on November's midterms.
Following the outcry after the shooting, support and donations poured in from several organizations and some of Hollywood’s most powerful names. The grass-roots movement raised more than $4 million, receiving major donations from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, George and Amal Clooney and Steven Spielberg.
Several superstar celebrities took the stage to perform during the event, including Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, Common, Vic Mensa, Andra Day, Miley Cyrus, Lin Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt.
As D.C.'s rally featured a star-studded list of names, more than 800 sister marches took place across the U.S. and globe. Organizers said they had expected more than 1 million to collectively participate in the protests.
While hundreds of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were in the District for the March For Our Lives, many students from the school remained in Parkland, Florida for a sister march there. More than 20,000 demonstrators participated in the rally in Parkland.
Protesters at the Florida rally took aim at the National Rifle Association, handing out shirts that said, "Let's finally break their hold!" and "Keep our kids safe, common sense gun laws" on the back. The shirt featured a strike-through of the NRA and a strike-through of an image of an assault rifle.
Officials had expected the protest in D.C. to rival that of the Women's March on Washington in 2017, which saw an estimated 500,000 demonstrators march in the nation's capital in response to the election of President Donald Trump. The president left Washington on Friday and was at Mar-a-Lago during the March For Our Lives.
A national school walkout held by the organizers on March 14 saw an estimated 1 million students storm out of their classrooms in protest of gun violence.
Historians said the demonstrations were shaping up to be one of the largest youth protests in decades. The student protesters have dismissed criticisms that they don't have the credentials to change laws, noting that, historically, many political movements have been sparked by youth.
"Historically youth have led all the major movements in America, whether it was the civil rights movements, whether it was the movement against the Vietnam war," explained 17-year-old Winter Minisee from New York, who helped spearhead the student walkouts.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.