Galesburg High School student protesters and their supporters gathered on the front lawn of the Knox County Courthouse, holding signs declaring a need for comprehensive gun reform in America. Despite the chill in the air and bitter wind, the students persevered and spoke their mind: it is time for America to address gun laws.
The rally and protest was held Friday, March 23, one day before a nationwide event known as March for Our Lives was held. The local march, organized by three GHS students, was in response to the 17 students killed in the recent Parkland, FL shooting.
As 100 protesters of the country’s gun laws from the Knox County Courthouse marched down Cherry Street towards Main Street, they held signs and chanted “Hey, hey, NRA, how many kids did you kill today?” and “No guns, more recess.” Occasionally, they would receive a supportive honk from local drivers.
The three student organizers of the march were all high school freshman. Kelvin Tyrone Hawthorne, 15, Brianna Phillips, 14, and Natalie Bodenhamer, 14, had also been part of organizing the walk-out that took place at Galesburg High School on March 14. Two days later they led Galesburg’s March for Our Lives through heavy wind and rain.
“Two hundred and ten kids walked out at the high school. Five hundred at Churchill [Junior High School,] and about 150 at Lombard [Middle School,]” Hawthorne said.
The students continued their chants as a man began shouting from his parked Chevy SUV. Director of Spiritual Life Monica Corsaro had asked them not to respond to counter-protesters during the march, and none of them did.
“Everybody honored what they were asked, they didn’t engage. But together, the community spoke their loud voice and they silenced him,” Corsaro said.
Andy Rice, 38, was the man in the SUV. The truck driver said that while the First Amendment and social activism had a place in the U.S., policies like what the students were pushing for had already been tried and failed to prevent violence.
“We have a social issue and we have a mental health issue and we have a family issue,” Rice said. “You need to have a long term goal in terms of what we’re going to do instead of trying things in the past that haven’t worked.”
Some of the protestors support the NRA as an organization, but think the organization’s policies need to change. Robbie Anno, 20, believes guns are not inherently bad, but that the Second Amendment should not be used to protect people who want to use the weapons outside of defense.
“The fact is that there needs to be a change. The NRA needs to change their policies. They really do. These laws are preventing doctors from speaking about how to save lives. A lot of people I know are members of the NRA and I plan to be once I can,” Anno said.
Before the march, all three students spoke in front of the courthouse. Some of their peers and adults also spoke, including local activists Chris King and Pamela Davidson.
The speeches focused on topics such as the need for political change, the prior work of the Black Lives Matter movement and the disproportionate effects of violence on people of color and the importance of voting. Davidson declared herself ‘mama Pam’ and lamented the effect of violence on youth while congratulating the organizers for making their elders listen.
Corsaro noted in an interview several days after the march that not only had the freshmen pulled the march together, they did most of the planning within 24 hours of the march. They had been guided by adult activist groups in the community, such as Knox County Indivisible and Galesburg United Against Hate.
“Part of the tradition I come from, wherever I am, there is a belief you should be involved with the community,” Corsaro said. “So one of my community involvements is I’m a member of the Indivisibles. So the students reached out to us.”
The march was originally planned for Saturday but concerns about the weather prompted the students to move it to Friday evening. Still, despite it being during Shabbat, Corsaro said she noticed some people from Temple Shalom there, who had come before going to their religious services.
Frank Langholf, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Galesburg, has been involved with United Against Hate and the Galesburg School District to discuss how the district could support its students without taking a political side.
“I thought the school did a really good job of doing that. I appreciated the role that the superintendent and others took in terms of setting that container for them,” Langholf said.
The students agreed, saying they appreciated the support the school was able to give.
Corsaro agreed. Both Langholf and Corsaro said the students’ leadership went beyond their speeches and that they were impressed with how the students presented themselves and focused their goals and voices.
“I was very impressed by the students who put [the walk-out] together. Particularly that they were all freshmen,” Langholf said. “I was stunned that they were all freshmen, that they took the initiative to talk to the administration, they worked with the administration to do what they had to do, the way they were careful to frame their message to ensure they monitored themselves.”
For Corsaro and Langholf, their activism is not just a part of their job and sense of right and wrong, but a part of what they see as their role as clergy. Langholf cited the Gospel of Matthew as part of his rationale.
“We’re the ones that can put a moral on this. That children should be able to go to school safely,” Corsaro said.
Langholf went to high school during the last years of the Vietnam War and said that he saw some similarities with the student leadership during the march and the activism that happened then. He hopes that this time, the job is finished.
“My hope is that it will actually happen, because in some ways, things didn’t change that much,” he said.
The reasons the adults became involved have evolved over time. Langholf said he had only really started to develop his theology of activism a few years ago.
“My own theology says there is something wrong in our society that seems to allow violence more than it should. That’s a question we’re not asking yet; that’s a question I think we should begin to ask, is why do we seem to be a culture that seems to have so much more violence than others do,” Langholf said. “And it’s probably rooted as much in my faith tradition as it is anything.”
For the students, the march and walk-out were not just a matter of activism, but were a matter of their lives. The march worked, but they disagree with Rice, seeing hope in action actually making a difference this time.
“At this point, our message has already gotten across, we just need to take action for it to work,” Bodenhamer said.