By Anne McDarris
Austin Hahn stood at the front of the room, his hands clasped in front of him, rocking back and forth on the balls of his Birkenstock-clad feet. He stared at the 31 UNC-Chapel Hill students sitting in gray plastic chairs and on the counter to the side of the room. The members of the Young Democrats club stared right back.
“So the rally’s in two days,” he said. He glanced at the woman slouching in the front row, dead center in a red hoodie. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind.”
Shannon Taflinger, a senior at UNC-CH, looked back at him. She knew this well. After all, the upcoming rally against gun violence was her idea — the result of a Friday evening in her room, spent avoiding homework and instead thinking about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14. On Facebook, she watched a few interviews of the survivors.
Students from Stoneman Douglas have spoken out about their experience with gun violence, and many are taking their message of reform to the national stage. Students from across the country responded to this spark of activism, and demonstrations against gun violence from Texas to Michigan to California roared into existence.
Taflinger was inspired.
“They can’t even vote,” Taflinger said. “I’m 23. I can vote. I have political efficacy. I thought to myself, ‘Why? Why am I just sitting here in my room? I can do something.’”
She created an event on Facebook and emailed Hahn, the leader of the UNC-CH Young Democrats. He latched onto the idea, and together they planned a rally for Thursday, Feb. 22.
For six days, Taflinger’s Facebook event spread and reached 3,165 people. Three hundred and thirty nine people marked that they would attend.
Enough is enough
The day of the rally was sunny and warm, especially for mid-February. People gathered in front of Wilson Library at 11 a.m., standing in the grass with handmade signs: “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” in black marker, “#NEVERAGAIN” in blocky red.
Protestors faced the library, and, one by one, speakers came to stand in front of them on the low stone wall dividing the grass from the sidewalk. U.S. Rep. David Price and state Rep. Graig Meyer, both Democrats, were among those who spoke. They looked out of place in suits, addressing a crowd sporting T-shirts and jeans.
“There is something different about this time, and it has to do with the activism by people like you,” Price said during his speech. “We must respond to it… there’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers, but not when it’s a cover for inaction. We can’t let this die. We have to keep pushing.”
The people in the crowd sounded like old Southern churchgoers: they hummed, shifted restlessly, punctured the speeches with moaning, floating yeses and nos and dashes of applause. But this congregation was angry at the situation that called them together; they yelled curse words instead of halleluiahs. There were many passionate words by passionate people, but they were preaching to the choir.
Hahn spoke, Taflinger spoke, and then after a few chants and howling applause, the crowd dispersed. It was over in 40 minutes.
After the rally, Meyer stood with the students. He was well over 6 feet tall and spoke in a long Southern accent without breaking eye contact.
“I don’t know whether I can guarantee whether it will turn into long-term sustained engagement,” he said. “There’s all kinds of people who get fired up about an issue, and then you try to make a difference and it doesn’t work right away and it gets hard. But change like this is a major social, cultural change… and it’s going to take a lot of work extended over a long period of time.”
Sustaining the momentum
The next major milestone in reducing gun violence is translating student demonstrations into political action, which may be difficult in North Carolina. The state’s U.S. senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, have received approximately $4.5 million and $7 million respectively from the National Rifle Association, according to the Federal Election Commission.
An email signed by Tillis from “firstname.lastname@example.org” said, “While there are strongly-held opinions on these issues, I believe a healthy dialogue is long overdue, and I am optimistic we can find bipartisan common ground in the weeks and months ahead.”
High school students are also pushing hard. Students across the United States are organizing their own rallies and walkouts, including students at Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill, which is a ten-minute drive from UNC-CH. Eleventh grader Matti Kauftheil is leading the charge at Woods Charter by organizing the school’s walkout as part of a nation-wide demonstration.
Kauftheil, who uses “they” pronouns, who likes English and feminism and the environment, is also 16 years old — too young to vote, but not too young for political activism.
“Students carry so much power when they stand together because we are the next generation,” Kauftheil said. “And when we show legislators that we can make a change and we will vote and we are coming for their jobs, we are a threat.”
Kauftheil said that Woods Charter’s administration is in full support of the walkout, which is slated for March 14. Kauftheil said there is a buzz in both the middle and high schools about the event and gun reform in general.
“Most people think that walking out is either an honorable thing to do or is an action that will do nothing,” Kauftheil said.
Taflinger certainly hopes it will do something. She is turning her attention to supporting national protests like the March 14 walkout and the national March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington DC.
And a new organization on campus, UNC 4 MSD, is planning another demonstration for March 29.
A suggestion of hope
At the rally, two young women stood in the crowd with their signs. After a last round of applause, Niki Wasserman and Lily Skopp loitered for a few minutes, took a few pictures with Price, then started the walk toward North Campus together.
Wasserman and Skopp both graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Both knew victims of the shooting.
“It felt like time kind of stopped for a couple of days there,” Wasserman said. She is a senior at UNC-CH and graduated from Stoneman Douglas in 2014.
Skopp looked haunted. There was a subtle sagging in her shoulders and her sentences pushed and pulled, but her eyes were clear. As a first-year student at UNC-CH, she graduated from Stoneman Douglas last year.
“Every Friday, when Mr. Thompson would come on the intercom, he would sign off by saying…” Skopp trailed off and looked at Wasserman. “What was it?”
They stared at each other for a beat, thinking of their principal’s mantra, and then both began speaking, uncertain for a word or two until their memory found a foothold.
“Be positive, be passionate and be proud to be an Eagle,” they said in unison.
“And I think that this message really stands for this movement,” Skopp said, a suggestion of a smile curving the corners of her mouth.
Edited by Janna Childers.