Berkeley High School (BHS) students and staff walked out of class to honor victims of the Parkland shooting in Florida and all victims of gun violence in America on March 14.
Before 10 AM, students walked out of class and congregated in the courtyard, where the ten clubs that organized the event each spoke shortly of what the walkout meant for the people they represent.
Then, there were seventeen minutes of remembrance for the seventeen victims of the Parkland shooting. Seventeen volunteers each read short tributes for each of the victims. Other scheduled speakers also recited poems, speeches, and otherwise expressed their solidarity and remorse. Many also called for action in the form of calling representatives and registering or pre-registering to vote.
Zev Marx-Khan, a junior at BHS, delivered a speech by the hip hop artist and activist Guante on the topic of toxic masculinity, a factor that he believes contributes to the culture of gun violence in the United States.
“I want to be free, to express myself. Man up. I want to have meaningful, emotional relationships with my brothers. Man up. I want to be weak sometimes. Man up. I want to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical power or dominance. Man up. I want to talk to my son about something other than sports. Man up. I want to be who I am. Man up,” he said.
BHS senior Ruby Spies delivered a speech denouncing the widespread idea that mental illness is the driving force of the gun violence in America. She discussed her own struggle with mental illness and the fact that only three to five percent of gun violence is attributed to those struggling with mental illness. “A white man with a history of domestic abuse? He can buy a gun much easier than I can. And that’s the group most likely to commit mass shootings by the way. The suggestion that mentally ill people are inherently violent is stigmatizing and prevents people from seeking help,” she said. Following the speeches, shortly before 11 AM, the students left the courtyard and formed a peace sign on the football field. After more speakers, including teachers and members of administration, the group dispersed. As students left campus for lunch, tables were set up to allow students to call or write letters to their representatives and register to vote.
The walkout was primarily organized by Students Demand Action (SDA), a Berkeley High club whose mission is to “advocate for common sense gun laws and raise awareness about gun violence in America.” In addition to SDA, nine other BHS clubs contributed to the organization of the demonstration: the Muslim Student Union, Black Student Union, Women’s Student Union, HAPA, Chicanx Latinx United Voices, BHS Stop Harassing, Amnesty International, Gay Straight Alliance, and Best Buddies. Each of the student organizations spoke to recognize how gun violence pertains to the group they represent.
“The purpose of the walkout was to stand in solidarity with the students of Parkland, who took this tragic event that would have been pushed aside and stood up to make sure there was action,” said Sadie Flieg, co-president of the BHS Amnesty International Chapter. Maren Frye, co-founder of SDA said, “[The Parkland students] are becoming a huge, forceful power across the nation.” Matthew Meyer, a BHS teacher and speaker during the peace sign portion of the demonstration said, “It is together that our voice will be loudest.” Internationally, schools across the world had walkouts on March 14.
SDA is currently working on an ordinance to present to the City Council, requiring “all Berkeley residents who own a firearm to store it in a gun safe or with a gun lock when not in use.” Roni Weissman and Maren Frye, the founders of SDA, stated, “Safe storage is incredibly important because there are currently 1.7 million children living in homes with guns that are unlocked and loaded.”
“It is so crucial that youth are a part of the gun regulation movement because we are the ones who will be affected by the regulations,” Flieg said. In fact, 88 percent of teen homicides are carried out by guns.
SDA was founded in August 2016, and since then has given presentations on gun safety and safe storage to the community, and persuaded Mayor Jesse Arreguin to join Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a national coalition of more than one thousand mayors committed to keeping their communities safe from illegal guns.
In addition to the March 14th walkout, the same clubs are planning an event in mid-April which will focus on “taking action and promoting change.” This includes setting up voter pre-registration and registration booths, and possibly including an educational event like a speaker series or assembly.