'The Empowered Youth'
Confronting a nationwide epidemic of school violence and decades of inaction from lawmakers, thousands of Portland-area students and adults marched from the North Park Blocks to Pioneer Courthouse Square on Saturday.
There they heard the popular band Portugal. The Man and the Vernon Elementary School choir make a prediction — or maybe a promise.
"The times they are a-changin'," they sang.
Facing the stage in downtown Portland, the crowd — including more than two dozen members of the group LO Students for Change — raised their hands in peace signs, their heads bobbing in unison to the old Bob Dylan tune.
"It was so powerful. I feel so energized and hopeful for the future," said Lake Oswego High student Natalie Khalil. "I feel like it's finally our turn to make a change."
The performance in the square was the culmination of the local "March for Our Lives," one of more than 500 events that filled the streets of the nation's capital and cities such as Boston, New York, Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Oakland.
Official estimates put the Portland attendance at 12,000; regardless, media reports and aerial photography suggest it was likely the best-attended protest in the area since the Women's March in January 2017.
The day's rallies and marches came in response to a plea from the student survivors of a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students and staff were gunned down. Adults and young activists delivered a common refrain, calling for safer schools and an end to gun violence.
Emma Gonzalez, one of the first Parkland students to speak out after the tragedy there, delivered an emotional speech at the rally in Washington, D.C., urging those of voting age to take their anger to the polls. After reciting the names of her fallen classmates, she stood silent for more than six minutes, the time she said it took a 19-year-old gunman to kill them.
In Portland, students led the charge from a staging point in the North Park Blocks to Pioneer Courthouse Square. Some seemed somber or angry, though just as many appeared optimistic and inspired by an atmosphere that was part rock concert and part political rally.
"Last month was Parkland. This week was Maryland. Tomorrow, it could be us," student organizer Calum Nguyen said from the stage, referring to the massacre in Florida and another, more recent deadly shooting.
"We will no longer stand for the way our legislators are treating gun control," said another organizer, Zoe Dumm of Roosevelt High School in Portland, during about an hour of speeches.
Tatum Miller, a member of the group LO Students for Change, said she wasn't afraid to make herself heard at the march.
"We got to lead a lot of the chants. It was amazing," Miller said. "The whole crowd was responding to us. It was like nothing I have ever experienced."
Fellow Lake Oswego student activist Audrey Creevey said she was inspired by what she saw at the march and rally.
"As I watched my friends lead the chants, their faces were just electrified," she said. "We truly are the empowered youth."
Khalil was particularly energetic on the way out of the square.
"We are going to be heard," she said with confidence, "and if you're not going to listen, we're going to scream louder. We are very influential."
Khalil, who moved to Lake Oswego from Texas last year, said she is very happy to be living in Oregon during the gun violence debate.
"I feel so supported by this huge community of people," she said. "I was living in Texas during the inauguration (of Donald Trump), and it was not the most pleasant environment for me. It's nice to stand with people who are on my side."
Khalil said she's been interested in politics ever since she was young, but often felt underestimated because of her age. Now, she is beginning to feel like people are listening.
"I felt like I mattered today," she said. "People always say, 'The kids are the future' or 'The future is female.' No — I'm today!"
While students formed the heart of Saturday's protest, they weren't alone. State Sen. Rob Wagner and former City Councilor Jon Gustafson were among several Lake Oswego officials in the crowd. U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Beaverton Democrat representing Oregon's 1st Congressional District, said she joined the protest to listen to students who are saying "enough is enough."
"I hope that more of my colleagues understand people deserve to be safe in schools and in the community," the congresswoman said. "I'm very proud of the students."
Celebrities added their voices, too. Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande and others performed in Washington, D.C.; in Portland, the lead singer of Portugal. The Man argued that the day's events shouldn't be seen as a Democratic or Republican issue.
"The idea that politics should be involved in any of this, kids feeling safe — it's ridiculous," John Gormley said as the crowd chanted "Vote Them Out" and "Never Again."
"Let's come together in some common ground. Everybody wants kids to feel safe in school, right?" added bassist Zach Carothers. "Let's start there, and start spreading it out."