A crowd of perhaps 2,000 protesters filled CCB Plaza in downtown Durham shortly before noon Saturday, joining more than 800 local protests around the nation in conjunction with the national Washington, D.C., “March for Our Lives” rally.
They listened as speaker after speaker implored them to help make the change they are seeking when it comes to stopping school shootings, especially those carried out with assault-style semi-automatic rifles.
They came together to protest and react to the deadly Parkland, Florida shooting on Valentine’s Day that left 17 students and adults dead and more wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Rally organizer ShaLeigh Comerford, who lost a dear friend to gun violence unrelated to the Parkland shooting, said she was overwhelmed by the throng people who heeded the call to gather in support of gun legislation.
"There are so many groups that helped pull this together," Comerford said. "Even though the Parkland shooting is what launched this movement, we wanted to make sure we want to talk about how gun violence is affecting people here in Durham. Gun violence here happens for some kids at home and more than just in school. We wanted to make sure all those voices were heard, too."
"It's a pain you can't undo. I wanted to make something happen in Durham because the kids have inspired me to move past the grief and to take action. Sometimes when a huge loss happens, it's hard to keep going. This is a subject I didn't think I could touch but I feel ready now and inspired. I don't want anybody else to deal with it."
Among those who spoke were Northern High School junior Lily Lehman, who was one of the organizers of the student-led walkout on March 14 to commemorate the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting. She called for changing the nation's gun laws to make it more difficult for people to buy these weapons and she reminded the adults that her generation was coming of age and getting ready to vote.
"We are going to work and not stop until we pass these laws," Lehman said. "We are the kids who will make the change. We need change. The students know it. The teachers know it. Parents know it. We need to make sure the NRA knows it."
Another contingent of Jordan High School students gathered near the front of the crowd and held signs calling for tougher gun laws.
Jack Zavaletta, a fifth-grader at Pearsontown Elementary School, said watching the news every day has helped him conclude that "you can't fix the gun problem with more guns."
Bella Daniels, an eighth-grader at Lakewood Montessori, said news of the Parkland shooting didn't faze her because there have been so many school shootings in her short lifetime. But the movement started by the Parkland students to end school gun violence has captivated her.
"In my life, this is the biggest movement students have led," Daniels said. "When my parents were in school, did they have to worry about school shootings? No. Our schools need to be safe."
She went on to call ideas pushed by President Donald Trump, like arming teachers as a way to end school shootings, "idiotic."
That brought a boisterous roar from the crowd.
Signs and banners denouncing the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the politicians who have accepted contributions from the organization were plentiful in the crowd, which swelled beyond the plaza and onto adjoining streets at its peak. There also were posters expressing support for the students leading the cause.
The age range of those in attendance went from infants and toddlers all the way to up grandparent-age protesters, many of whom likely hadn't participated in protests since the 1960s.
State Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, who served as a judge for 18 years before being appointed to the N.C. General Assembly to represent Durham last April, said she saw first-hand many cases of senseless gun violence.
"It's time to take guns away from those who are dangerous," Morey said.
State Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, recounted his brush with death after being confronted by armed robbers more than 30 years ago. He talked about nearly losing his left arm after being shot. He used his recovery story as a parable highlighting the need to never give up and that each step forward in the struggle is a great accomplishment.
"I like the motivation and enthusiasm we have here," McKissick said.
By the end of the gathering, it was apparent to Comerford that the message resonated in Durham.
"This is the first time I've ever done something like this before," Comerford said. "I was really moved by how many people came out and how many people offered to help and volunteer. It is an issue that has touched so many people and if it hasn't they really understand it in a very relevant way right now. I want to say it has penetrated more than a political debate. It has landed on our kitchen table. Today was amazing."