Three teens from Lake Geneva were in the crowd at Janesville’s Lower Courthouse Park on Saturday holding a sheet covered with their thoughts about recent school shootings.
They had drawn colorful cartoons and slogans:
“Protect children, not guns!”
“Am I next?”
“We won’t back down!”
They were Desirae Lopez and Lucy Brewer, 15, and Cassie Kramer, 14, and they were among approximately 425 people who came to downtown Janesville for the “March for our Lives.”
A lot of students at Lake Geneva Badger make jokes about school shootings and don’t think they will have to face one, Brewer said.
“It’s not likely in our community, but there’s still a chance, and that’s what scares me,” she added.
People from around southern Wisconsin were there, including Stephanie Wang, a Janesville Craig High School senior who told of recent drills in which students learned where to hide and how they might have to fight if someone started shooting at school.
“We live in a reality where preparing for mass shootings in our schools is as commonplace as any fire or tornado drill,” Wang told the crowd. “So today we take a stand. Together we demonstrate to representatives that we are committed to the safety of our children and our community. Today we march for the security of our nation’s future. ... Today we take the first step in ending gun violence in our community.”
Several other local students also spoke. A majority of the marchers were older, but many were children, teenagers and young adults. All were inspired by the teenagers who became activists after the massacre of fellow students and teachers on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, by a former student with an AR-15 rifle.
Army veteran Paul Angnello of Janesville addressed the crowd, saying he was one of the first soldiers in the United States to fire the M-16, on which the AR-15 is modeled.
“I’m not in a hurry to take other people’s guns away, but I must tell you, the AR-15 is a military rifle. It’s used in combat, and its only purpose is to kill people,” Angnello said to cheers of approval.
More than 800 similar events were held around the world, according to news reports. The local march ended peacefully, lasting just over an hour.
“This is a worldwide movement, and we are grateful to the young people who have the courage to step up and get us going on this,” said Kathy Holcombe of Rock Valley Fellowship of Reconciliation, which organized the local event.
State Assembly Rep. Deb Kolste, D-Janesville, and Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, also spoke.
Kolste said a nationwide youth movement has arisen in the wake of the Parkland shootings and has changed the conversation about guns, and she expects related changes at the ballot box.
“If legislators do not act now, they will be removed from office,” Kolste said.
Kolste and Ringhand both complained about getting shut down by the majority Republicans last week when Democrats tried to amend school-safety legislation with measures that included universal background checks, a 48-hour wait for gun purchases and banning large magazines.
“We were basically told we could not solve this issue in the state Senate. I disagree with that,” Ringhand said.
“When it comes to violence and the horrors of mass shootings, enough is enough,” Kolste said. “When it comes to politicians who act in the best interests of a political donor and not their citizens, enough is enough.”
After speeches in Lower Courthouse Park, marchers stayed on sidewalks but stopped traffic as they crossed intersections. They crossed the Rock River on Court Street, turned north onto River Street and re-crossed at Milwaukee Street, returning to South Main Street, ending in front of the constituent services office of Rep. Paul Ryan.
Ryan, speaker of the U.S. House and a Janesville native, has been criticized, along with the rest of the Republican Party, for not doing enough about school shootings and being beholden to the National Rifle Association.
Asked for comment, Ryan spokesman Jordan Dunn said: “The congressman appreciates those making their voices heard today.”
The Ryan-led House this week passed the Fix NICS Act, which backers said strengthens the background-check system and adds resources for the Stop School Violence Act and mental health programs.
“End the violence! No more silence!” was the chant as marchers lined both sides of the street in front of Ryan’s office.
One Janesville man showed up with his AR-15 rifle and followed the marchers, often on the opposite side of the street.
He said he was Garrett Peterson of Janesville, and that he was there to make his own political statement about gun rights but wanted to keep a respectful distance from the marchers.
Peterson said he told police about his intention, and they checked out his rifle before he proceeded. He said he also had a handgun and a concealed-carry permit.
Peterson said the scarf that covered his nose and mouth was to keep him warm, not to intimidate people. Asked if his gun was loaded, he said, “I’ll leave that up to the imagination.”
Holcombe said police told her that the gun was not loaded.
Peterson said gun-rights people are at the point of being overwhelmed by anti-gun people.
“We’re at the point where any sort of law we add to the books is going to be infringing on our rights as gun owners,” he said.
Ian Hill of Monroe who said he came “to stand up for people who can’t necessarily talk for themselves, ... who can’t vote yet.”
Hill said news of gun violence that has surrounded him all his life sickens him.
“It just happens way too often,” Hill said.
Tandy McConkey of Monroe said she graduated from Columbine High School in Colorado 10 years before the 1999 school massacre in which 15 died.
“Those kids were never the same,” McConkey said of the survivors. “The PTSD and the anxiety, those things never go away.”
Carmen Puentes, a Mexican immigrant from Janesville, stood on the curb, holding a sign over her head that said “#Never again”
“I have a daughter at school, and what happened in Florida, it made me fear for my daughter’s life when she goes to school,” Puentes said.
“We came here for a dream, and I’m afraid I can’t protect my daughter and complete the dream,” Puentes added as a tear rolled down her cheek.
“We think it’s wrong that all of us are getting shot down because there aren’t proper laws against gun violence,” said Aria Wagner, 15, a homeschooler from Milton. “If we can get the whole country to start caring and all the kids to start protesting, eventually they’re going to do something.”
Marilyn Eyster, a retired teacher, was at the local march at the same time her husband, John, was at the one in Washington, D.C.
“I like to think that our students are getting excited about what’s going on and are going to start rising up, like the students from Florida,” Marilyn said. “I was impressed with some groups from the churches,” she said, noting a large contingent of Episcopalians.
John Eyster, meanwhile, said what he saw in the nation’s Capitol was an expression of what he taught for many years as a AP government teacher at Janesville Parker High School—participation in American democracy.
“Now the test is, do they vote?” John Eyster said. “That’ll be the bottom line. But there’s hope.”