Morningside Heights Students Join Nationwide Walkout Over Guns

All 400 students at the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in Morningside Heights participated in the March 14 National School Walkout to protest gun violence. | Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY TEQUILA MINSKYAs 10 a.m. approached on Mar. 14, the middle and high school students in Morningside Heights’ Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering (CSS) poured from its W. 123rd St. entrance, across from Morningside Park, and circled the adjoining school yard. They stood relatively silent for 17 minutes in memory of the students and staff killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, exactly one month before.

The high school’s dean, Arthur Puritz, looked on in approval. He confirmed that the entire high school body of 400 was participating in the National School Walkout, in which students across the country were protesting gun violence. “Unfortunately, this is necessary,” he opined.

On the sidelines, a smattering of parents looked on in support of their children. Anna Mhandgo is the mother of a 12th grader and an eighth grader in the school and, explaining her presence, said, “When they leave home, we expect them to be safe, all day.”

She added, “Guns have their place. I don’t think an assault rifle should be in the hands of 18-year-olds. We need to preserve children. Guns are not our future.”

Another neighborhood resident, who is also a teacher, held a sign that read: “Teachers need books and bathroom breaks, not guns.”

On a different side of the yard, Luz Riveros and her third-grade daughter from P.S. 125, located in the same building, and her mother — three generations of the family — stood in support with the students of CSS.

Luz Riveros (at right) her mother, and her third-grade daughter were together watching the CSS walkout. | Photo by Tequila Minsky

“Citizenship involvement begins with the parents,” the Chilean native said. “Demonstrations can push forward change.”

Also on the edge of the high school students’ gathering, a little tyke standing next to his parents held a big sign that read: “I’m old enough to know about guns and I don’t like them.” The boy’s father explained that Sammy was in pre-K and has been going to demonstrations since he was 10 days old.

Using a small microphone, student leaders addressed the outdoor crowd — emphasizing safety in schools, denouncing gun violence, and protesting easy access to guns. They noted that more than 100 children have been killed by gun violence so far this year and stressed that legislation is needed to address the availability of high-capacity weapons.

First-time demonstrators Yenifer Brown and Isaac Reeves said they are committed to continuing their activism combating gun violence. | Photo by Tequila Minsky

After the planned program of commemoration and solidarity, the energy at the rally intensified and became more spontaneous. The students next made their way a few blocks north to Borough President Gale Brewer’s uptown storefront office on W. 125th St. Their litany of chants included: “No more silence, end gun violence”; “Enough is enough”; “Hey-hey, ho-ho, NRA has got to go! We want federal gun control!” Other phrases shouted included “We are the future!” and, simply, “#Enough.”

Ten minutes after the enthusiastic crowd arrived on W. 125th St., Brewer pulled up, applauding as she exited her car. Students packed the sidewalk.

“I’m so proud of you,” she said into a microphone. “You are putting college students to shame. You are part of something so historic, there are no words to describe it.”

Clearly moved, Brewer continued,  “History will thank you over and over again.”

The Wall Street Journal reported an estimated one million students participated in the walkout nationwide.

Locally, support came from both Mayor Bill de Blasio — he said that those who walked out of public schools would not face any disciplinary action — and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who participated earlier in the day in a staged die-in in Zuccotti Park with students from the Leadership and Public Service High School in Manhattan’s financial district.

Elsewhere around the nation and even the city, other officials were not so supportive. One Brooklyn parochial high school student said they were not allowed to walk out and instead had an assembly with prayers during the action’s scheduled time. News accounts from around the US noted numerous school systems where students were threatened with detentions or suspensions if they walked out.

And, in the city’s public schools, students at different high schools had widely varied reactions.

Students at a Midtown high school showed they were well experienced in political activism and demonstrations, while those from a Brooklyn school exhibited an air of “what’s the big deal?”

“They see gun violence a lot,” said one observer about their markedly nonchalant attitude during their walkout, suggesting they experienced the issue day-to-day  in and around their homes in public housing projects.

Student government president Rusat Rampogal and vice president Savannah Harcum with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer outside her W. 125th St. office. | Photo by Tequila Minsky

For many CSS students, however, the nationwide walkout was a big deal — a chance to find their voice and express themselves with the full support of their school’s administration.

“The demonstration was put forth by the student government and principal Miriam Nightengale,” said Ethan Rubin, an 11th-grader who is on the school’s student government. The 12 student government members, he said, met a number of times to plan the demonstration.

“We also turned a tension-filled moment into a teaching moment,” Rubin explained. “Before, we talked about how social isolation and bullying can lead to possible gun violence in the schools.”

CSS, Rubin said, is a very diverse school — ethnically, racially, and socio-economically.

“We are very accepting,” he said, adding that prior to the walkout, the issue of gun control had already become a topic of study.

Some signs at the demonstration spoke to the anxiety school children face in the current climate. | Photo by Tequila Minksy

Some CSS students said they had gone on marches before — mentioning in particular climate change demonstrations and the women’s marches of the past two years — but for many the gun violence issue was their entry into social activism.

This was the first demonstration ever for Isaac Reeves, a senior from the Bronx.

“I’m really excited,” he said. “We’re showing the world we have a voice and we are the future.”

Reeves soon turns 18.

“I will be able to vote next month,” he gently boasted, adding,  “I absolutely will go to more demonstrations.”

Reeves was standing with a friend, Yenifer Brown, another first-time demonstrator who lives in East Harlem.

“We are standing up,” she said. “We believe there is a future for us without gun violence.”

Your age or skin color, she added, doesn’t affect the importance of taking a stand.

After Brewer completed her remarks praising the student demonstrators and spoke with some of their leaders, the demonstrators headed east on 125th St. toward the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., State Office Building, hoping to meet with Congressmember Adriano Espaillat. On-lookers smiled, nodding with approval, some voicing their pride about the young people taking a public stand. An occasional car honked in solidarity.

Espaillat was not in his office, but 10 students were given the opportunity to meet with members of his staff.

One demonstrator signaled opposition to President Donald Trump’s suggestion that school teachers should be armed. | Photo by Tequila Minsky

The rest of the students from CSS rallied on the expansive plaza in front of the building and posed for TV film crews.

“We came back to school around noon and continued talking about how we felt,” Rubin reported. “We want to keep the motivation going.”

Puritz, the dean, said, “The students did an amazing job of organizing and getting their message across. They are the future, and they need to be heard!”

Rubin pointed out that there are more demonstrations planned — on Mar. 24 and Apr. 20 — and encouraged other young people to get involved.

The Mar. 24 event is a nationwide gun violence protest — March for Our Lives — with the main event planned for Washington. Student organizers working in collaboration with the nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety have planned the mobilization, with sister marches taking place across the country the same day.

In New York, demonstrators will assemble at 10 a.m. Sat. on Central Park West from W. 72nd St. north, with speakers beginning at 11 a.m. After the program, the group will march south to Columbus Circle, then east to Sixth Ave., before heading south again to 43rd St., where the event is scheduled to conclude.

Students are also planning a nationwide school walkout to protest gun violence on Fri., Apr. 20, the 19th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.

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