Thousands decry gun violence in Santa Rosa March for Our Lives rally

‘I will not be silent, I will not wait until more lives are stolen and neither should you,’ one demonstrator said, urging her peers to speak out against gun violence.|

A new American generation flexed its budding political might Saturday, leading a large rally against gun violence in Santa Rosa that echoed hundreds of events across the nation and world condemning school shootings and pushing for stronger curbs on deadly assault weapons.

From a small platform on the north side of Old Courthouse Square, before a spirited crowd of at least 2,000, teens from around the county exhorted their peers to speak out and follow through at the ballot box when the time came. Booths around the square offered prospective voters the chance to sign up.

“I will not be silent, I will not wait until more lives are stolen and neither should you,” said Jacquelyn Torres, a Sonoma Valley High School junior and co-organizer of the Santa Rosa March for Our Lives event as a member of the Sonoma County Junior Commission on Human Rights.

Torres said she was “infuriated because of the shootings that are becoming normalized.”

Tallulah Lefkowitz, a Petaluma High School junior, told the crowd it was “increasingly apparent that we must fight for ourselves.”

“We are not the future of our country, we are the country,” she said. “Apathy kills: In all of our future endeavors let us not forget that.”

Rallies also were held Saturday in Sonoma and Sebastopol.

In Santa Rosa, speakers young and older - and a forest of handmade signs held high by the protesters - called on Congress to take tougher action, such as banning assault weapons and making background checks required for all gun purchases. Many assailed the National Rifle Association, a key voice in the powerful gun lobby, for opposing such measures.

Colorful signs carried slogans like “No on AR-15,” “Our Voices are Louder Than Guns,” “Kids Lives Matter,” “Am I Next?” and “Love One Another.”

Dozens of people had their silhouettes drawn with chalk on the stone pavers in the square to illustrate the number of gun deaths this year.

The event was the largest political rally to take place in the reunified downtown square since it opened last April.

Saturday’s series of nationwide protests came in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead and fomented outrage, especially among the nation’s youth.

“Red is not the color that should paint the walls of our schools!” said Rima Makaryan, a Montgomery High sophomore. A member of the junior human rights commission, she called for a new wave of youth activism on a broad array of issues. “We cannot let this be the only thing we care about in the world,” she said.

An average of 30 people a day are killed by someone using a gun, said Stephen Gale, reading a message from his boss, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.

“This epidemic affects us all,” he said.

Jonah Gottlieb of Petaluma, a sophomore at Credo High School in Rohnert Park, dismissed numerous arguments by staunch Second Amendment advocates.

If someone says the best way to “stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the person is “probably just trying to sell two guns.”

Gottlieb predicted his generation will make history with their push for change.

“One day our kids will read about this in history classes knowing we are the ones that made a difference,” he said.

“Don’t just speak,” advised Lucia Garay, a Casa Grande High sophomore and rally co-organizer, “scream until they hear you.”

The teens got plenty of support from their elders, including Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, who recalled that his generation’s protest against the Vietnam War “changed our country.”

“This is what democracy looks like,” Coursey said, surveying the crowd and describing the students as coming out “to tell us what to do to make things right in this country.”

City Councilman Ernesto Olivares called out a startling report Saturday by the Washington Post that found that since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre at least 187,000 students have experienced a school shooting, a number larger than the population of Santa Rosa.

“That is not OK,” said Olivares, a retired Santa Rosa police lieutenant and candidate for county sheriff. “Today our youth are leading. They are shaming those who have failed them.”

Dmitra Smith, a member of the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights, recalled campaigning for gun control measures as a teen and “the arrogance of the NRA” at that time.

Smith told the teens the rally “was a defining moment in your lives. You are taking your place in the arc towards justice.”

Rob Ruddell, a Petaluma elementary school teacher, came to the rally with his wife, Diane, and their two daughters.

The movement sparked by students who survived the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland is “extremely inspiring,” Ruddell said, bluntly rejecting calls by President Trump and the National Rifle Association to arm teachers.

“The idea of bringing guns into our schools is terrifying and awful,” he said. “I don’t understand why the NRA has so much power. It’s not what represents our country.”

His daughter, Madeline, 13, said “you don’t solve the gun problem with more guns.”

Tom White of Santa Rosa, attending the rally with his wife, Laurie, said no civilian should be allowed to own a military assault-style rifle. White favors banning their sale and requiring owners to turn them in.

His daughter and granddaughter were attending a March for Our Lives event in Seattle.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or ?On Twitter @guykovner.

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