Wake County

Thousands are expected to attend student-led March for Our Lives in Raleigh

Students lead march in Raleigh against gun violence

VIDEO: Hundreds of mostly students marched from Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh to the North Carolina State Capitol on Tuesday, February 20, 2018 in response to a mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Schoo
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VIDEO: Hundreds of mostly students marched from Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh to the North Carolina State Capitol on Tuesday, February 20, 2018 in response to a mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Schoo

Saturday's March for Our Lives Raleigh, a sister of the national event in Washington, D.C., began with a no.

"I wanted to go to Washington, D.C., for the march, and my mom said no," said Lauren Smith, a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Wake County. "So I told her I would start my own, and here we are."

"Here" is a rally and march from City Plaza to Halifax Mall in downtown Raleigh that Smith expects to draw anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 participants.

"We are hoping to bring awareness to the community about gun violence," Smith said. "We also want to put pressure on people in power to push for sensible gun regulations."

March for Our Lives Raleigh, one of more than 800 planned marches worldwide on Saturday, began with an event page on Facebook and an appeal for donations on gofundme.com. It has grown into a march with at least 16 speakers, live music and a host of sponsors, including the NAACP, North Carolinians Against Gun Violence and a number of political candidates.

"I never thought it would get this big," Smith said.

Or this flush with donations. As of Wednesday morning, the online campaign had raised more than $18,500, well past its goal of $15,000.

"When we got our first thousand, it was amazing," Smith said. "Now we’re at $18,000; it’s just crazy."

The money will cover event expenses with the rest going to the survivors of the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead.

Smith is among about 10 organizers of Saturday's event. The other student organizers are Amber Mitchell, a 15-year-old sophomore at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, and Katy Futrell, a 20-year-old sophomore at N.C. State University.

"Lauren has been my best friend since seventh grade, and we have been very interested and passionate about politics and social injustices," Mitchell said. "So when Parkland happened, we just knew we had to try and do something."

Like Smith, Mitchell hopes to send a message through this weekend's event. "I hope the march on Saturday spreads the word to our representatives that what happened in Parkland isn't going to be something that we will forget, that we will continue to push towards legislative change because that's the only thing that will really save lives," she said.

Mitchell also wants lawmakers to know that "youth are a force to be reckoned with and that we cannot be silenced."

Mitchell said she had never taken on a project of this size. "The main thing I've learned from this experience is that big things can't be accomplished without a team of people," she said.

For March for Our Lives Raleigh, that team includes about a half-dozen adults who have been invaluable in making the event happen, Smith said. "Logistics have been complicated, but we were able to work through it," she said, referring to rental agreements for sound equipment, portable toilets and the like. "Mostly the adults have been handling it because contracts need to be signed, and because we are minors, we cannot sign or commit to those contracts."

The teamwork has been great, Mitchell said. "This experience really taught me that when people unite under a common goal to achieve something bigger than themselves, things will get done and fast," she said.

Futrell said she hadn't planned to sign on as an organizer. "I'd commented on a post about reaching out to local colleges for help, and they asked me to help organize volunteers," she said of Smith and Mitchell.

Futrell is glad she said yes. "I've always wanted to actually do something that would make an impact," she said.

She remembers when 20 children and six adults were fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 in Newtown, Conn.

"As a student, after Sandy Hook, I was terrified to be in school," Futrell said. "Every loud noise and bang would make me and other students jump out of fear that it was us this time.

"I don't want my children to know that fear or to be in the position myself and those around me are in today."

Dr. Aaron Wolff, one of the scheduled speakers on Saturday, knows that fear well. He was a first-year veterinary student at Virginia Tech when 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and injured 17 more before taking his own life on April 3, 2007.

"Our building, like all others, went into lockdown," said Wolff, now a veterinarian in Garner. "The cellphone towers went in and out as they tried to handle so many calls and we couldn't communicate with our loved ones.

"As did most on campus, I knew a victim that day. But what most sticks with me is the grief, fear and inability to return to normal that gripped campus for weeks. The effects of gun violence are wide ranging, deep cutting and fade slowly, if they ever fade at all."

Wolff heaped praise on the students organizing Saturday's march. "I am amazed by their energy, their organizing ability and their maturity," he said. "I think their leadership is a spectacular gift to our communities."

He just wishes adults had acted so that young people wouldn't have the need to. "The fact that our society is leaning on teenagers to drive the change we so desperately need has exposed the absurdity of the whole gun debate, and now we are ready for a new, more effective conversation," Wolff said.

Saturday's march will begin at 9:45 a.m. at 400 Fayetteville St. and proceed to Halifax Mall, where Smith expects speeches to begin around 11:30 a.m.

Scott Bolejack: 919-829-4629, @ScottBolejack
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