Winston-Salem’s ‘March For Our Lives’ organizers believe the march is just the beginning
By: Jennifer Zeleski
On March 24, roughly 1,500 students, educators, and community members gathered at Corpening Plaza in Winston-Salem to attend a march and rally for the March For Our Lives.
The movement, recent school walkouts, and Saturday’s nationwide events were a direct reaction to the mass shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed on Feb. 14.
Snow and rain fell throughout the afternoon, but attendees were determined to carry umbrellas alongside handmade signs, some of which directly called out the National Rifle Association and North Carolina legislators.
The event featured several speakers on the main stage, spearheaded by local high school students, and followed by mass shooting survivors and family members affected by gun violence.
The event hosted Ira Guttenberg, a Davidson County resident and uncle of Jaime Guttenberg, a 14-year-old student that was killed in the Stoneman Douglas shooting. His speech told the chronological story of how he received the news of Jaime’s death and caused a palpable silence across the crowd.
He questioned the audience, and his story brought tears to the eyes of students lined in front of the stage, each of whom held poster-boards with images and names of the Parkland victims.
“Could you imagine having to give or receive such terrible news,” he asked.
The crowd’s demeanor was somber, much like the wet weather, but occasional cheering in agreement would contrast their emotional heaviness.
Eventually, after poster-boards and socks were soaking wet, the crowd dwindled, tents were taken down, and the plaza went back to its evening vacancy.
But upon packing up the event, two questions remained unanswered.
How did those who planned the event feel about it, and where did they see the community going from here?
Lisa Mayo Cockerham was one of the first to act on hosting a locally-based event in Winston-Salem, with her inspiration stemming directly from the Parkland students and the #NeverAgain movement.
“They were so articulate and heartfelt, I really felt like this time would be different,” Cockerham said. “These children have to live with active shooter drills and the fear of this happening in our schools daily. They deserve a voice.”
Cockerham imagined maybe a few hundred people attending, but once the Wake Forest student community got involved, she said the idea transformed into something bigger. She, as well as Stephanie Bailey and Sloane Johnson, became the three facilitators responsible for the event’s logistics, even changing the location after increased interest.
“We got the venue, the insurance, and the sound system, but the students brought all the content,” Cockerham said. “During our many planning meetings, their discussions would get so intense. They were articulate, passionate and eloquent. We need to give them credit for being committed and involved at such a young age, and learn from their example.”
One of Cockerham’s key takeaways was that the students had started a revolution.
“As adults, it is up to us to support them. We’ve let them down for far too long,” Cockerham said. “If these students can continue to keep this issue from fading in the headlines, I believe that we are going to see a revolution at the polls. They are using the horrific platform that they were given to push for change, and I don’t see them slowing down anytime soon. Their lives and the lives of students all over this country are at stake.”
Where Cockerham saw the spark of change, Stephanie Bailey, one of the event’s volunteer organizers, noted the raw emotions of the students involved.
“[Being involved in the event] felt incredibly inspiring and heartbreaking,” Bailey said. “Through the entire experience, one thing has been very clear: the fear and distress the students feel is absolutely real.”
She was grateful that many were able to speak publicly about their experiences to drive home the overwhelming emotions many have experienced.
“It was an emotional day. People came out in the most awful weather to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and march,” Bailey said. “I truly believe every student who spoke did an amazing job, and it’s so impactful to hear the emotions and thoughts from anyone who has been personally affected by gun violence. It was so humbling to be apart of.”
Although the handmade signs from the crowd have since been put away, Bailey noticed they were as heartbreaking as they were creative.
“There was a sign with holes poked through it that read ‘The number of bullet holes in this poster are the number that can be shot in the time it takes to read it.’” Bailey said. “There were at least 40 holes.”
Sloane Johnson, a fellow organizer of the event, brought her 6-year-old daughter with her pink poster-board, designed with her handwriting. Cockerham found it to be one of the most memorable.
“Her sign came from an actual conversation she had with her mom after an active shooter drill at her elementary school,” Cockerham said. “It said ‘No matter what I see or hear I must stay quiet, so they don’t find me.’ It breaks my heart that this sweet child has to live with this fear daily.”
Both echo that the next step is getting the community to vote in upcoming elections, and keeping community members invested in the cause.
“We can make our voices heard loud and clear at the polls,” Cockerham said. “Our lack of engagement has played a role in this issue, and we can no longer afford to sit on our couches and let the politicians run the country with impunity.”
Bailey believes this is only the beginning.
“The students and community have no intentions of stopping. We have so much work to do,” Bailey said. “Students have expressed an interest in holding more rallies and forums soon, so we will be planning and moving forward from here.”
Although the initial event has concluded, she wants students to know that they can carry the hope and support of the community with them.
“Use that fear and distress to fuel your momentum. Don’t stop talking, organizing, and get out to vote,” Bailey said. “Never forget you have an army of adults both young and old standing behind you. We love you, we hear you, and we support you.”