Students from Excel Academy in Baltimore were ready Saturday morning to send a message in Washington about gun violence, which has claimed the lives of seven of their classmates since last year.
“It’s bad, and it needs to stop, and it starts with us,” said Raydonna Hawkins, a 17-year-old senior.
By the time they left the March For Our Lives anti-gun violence rally in the capital that afternoon — after wading through massive crowds with signs honoring their dead classmates held high — they said they felt heard. And that felt good, they said.
“It seems like it’s starting to make a difference. They’re paying attention. It’s nice to have positive attention for once,” said Arron Fleming, a 17-year-old Excel junior, of all the passing protesters who stopped to read his sign, which read, “In one school year, we lost 7 of our children to gun violence.”
“We’re trying to turn the negative that happened to these young brothers into something positive,” said Amari Alexander, a 19-year-old Excel senior, who held another sign with photographs of their slain classmates and the hashtag “#March4TheirLives” high above his head in the middle of a crowd of thousands. “We want to make these brothers known in more than just Maryland.”
Seventeen Excel students in total took the trip, after gathering outside Baltimore City Hall to catch a bus to the rally, which was organized after 17 students and faculty were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last month.
They said they want safe schools, but also safe streets — a safe community.
Their bus, No. 306, pulled off at about 10:30 a.m. for the 40-mile journey to the capital. By noon, they were walking the streets of D.C., turning heads as they went.
Geraldine Merola, 51, came from Long Island, New York, with her daughter Fiona, 10, who fears guns in schools. Merola said she was struck by the Excel students’ signs.
“I’m not surprised they’re fed up,” she said. “They’ve got a lot more friends than they know.”
Dashay McCrae, an 18-year-old Excel senior, who has lost a close cousin to gun violence, said she was ready to be heard.
“Hopefully it will change people’s minds and affect them in a different way,” McCrae said of the rally, which she hoped will make people finally listen to Baltimore kids’ calls for an end to violence. “It just feels like we could do better. The world doesn’t have to revolve around violence.”
Deaundra Fisher, another 18-year-old senior, who has lost a brother to gun violence, said she feels “like we’re making something happen, like we’re making something change.”
Leaders must listen to the youth on the issue of gun violence and the need for increased gun control, she said.
“It’s mostly happening to us young people, and we’re the future,” she said. “It needs to stop so we can have a better future.”
By the end of the day, Fisher said she felt like she’d accomplished what she’d set out to do — which was to make sure people at the rally knew that gun violence doesn’t just come occasionally in the form of mass shootings, but also routinely in sudden bursts on the streets in cities like Baltimore.
“Now they understand where we come from and how bad gun violence is for us,” Fisher said. “It’s not just one day. It’s all the time.”
The bus of Excel students was one of many loaded with kids across the city, as bus after bus began the journey — from Mondawmin Mall and Patterson Park, Lake Clifton and Cherry Hill.
The transportation, plus T-shirts and lunches, were paid for with anonymous private donations, according to Mayor Catherine Pugh, whose administration organized the effort.
Pugh announced the city would be providing 60 buses — she hoped for 3,000 kids — during a national school walkout earlier this month. She said she wanted to help city kids interested in the movement but without the means to get to D.C. to participate in the rally.
Pugh’s office has declined to identify the private donors, though basketball player and Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony, the television network MTV and the civil rights organization NAACP all said they were helping to send Baltimore kids to the rally.
In recent weeks, two Excel Academy students have been shot. Since last year, at least seven others have been killed.
Officials at the school, including Principal Tammatha Woodhouse, say helping students process the trauma of losing friends and classmates to gun violence has become a regular part of their jobs.
It would be routine, if it were not so disruptive each time.
The march, Woodhouse said, felt extremely personal — and the start of something bigger for her students.
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“They are going to go on to be great activists for their community,” Woodhouse said.