Thousands of students, teachers, political activists and others staged a massive protest Saturday at the state Capitol, expressing anger at gun violence, particularly in schools, and frustration that Congress has not enacted tougher restrictions.
Across the state, as they did across the nation, demonstrators gathered for the national day of protest called March For Our Lives, rallying in Enfield, Guilford, Old Saybrook, Roxbury, Shelton, Stamford and West Hartford.
In Stamford, singer Paul Simon entertained demonstrators by singing “Sounds of Silence.”
The protests were, for the most part, led by high school students anxious about gun violence.
“I fear that one day I’ll walk into school and not walk out,” Isabella Segall, a Wilton High School student who has organized anti-gun violence actions, told the Hartford crowd that extended from the state Capitol into Bushnell Park. “My fear is seeing my friend taken out in a body bag.”
Since 1999, the year of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, 26,000 youngsters 17 and younger were victims of firearm deaths in the U.S., according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Demands for stricter gun control, which typically pick up steam after mass shootings, have taken on renewed strength following the Feb. 14 shootings at a Parkland, Fla., high school that killed 17 students and teachers.
Protests began with students organizing walkouts from schools and grew into community protests and now mass rallies.
In Connecticut, home to one of the deadliest school shootings in the U.S., in Newtown in 2012, activists have taken particular aim at what they say is inaction in Washington. Team 26, a group of 26 cyclists representing the 20 children and six educators killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, attended the Hartford rally.
On Saturday, Alex Audet, a ninth-grade student at Ellington High School, came to the Capitol with several other students from Ellington and Stafford. He said he was motivated by “what’s been happening” in his school: lockdowns and drills in preparation for a possible shooting.
Hilary Bareiss, a 10th-grader at Stafford High School, said that after the shootings at Parkland, she and other students mapped out speedy exits in case of violence in their school.
“My parents shouldn’t have to tell me to plan escape routes,” she said.
Rick Carisiti, an East Hampton resident who served with the Marines in the Vietnam War, compared the anti-war movement of the 1960s and ’70s, kicked off by college students, to the current efforts by youngsters seeking stronger gun laws. He said he believes the “only solution to saving lives” is to ban assault weapons.
“I slept with an M-16 for most of a year,” he said. “The cowards in Congress have no idea what it can do.”
Frank Blackwell, a writer and photographer, was one of several organizers of a March For Life rally in Guilford, expected to draw people shoreline towns, including Branford, Clinton, Guilford, Killingworth, Madison and Stratford. He said he woke up on a recent Monday morning “and decided to do this.”
Annette Richmond, a Norwalk resident who participated in the Stamford protest, said the “primary focus” was on student speakers. Her involvement, she said, grew out of the Women’s March in Washington organized to coincide with President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
An appearance by Simon, who sang “Sounds of Silence,” was a surprise, she said.
The day’s message in Hartford had a partisan tone, the result of a potent election-year issue — gun control vs. gun rights — and the split between Democrat-dominated Connecticut and Republican rule in Congress and the White House.
“I have a message for Donald Trump,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said at the Capitol. “This is what democracy looks like. This is what America looks like. Mr. President, lead or get out of the way.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy said Americans angry about gun violence have been frustrated by Congress that refuses to enact gun laws and are will act accordingly on Election Day Nov. 6.
“If we don’t get what we want, we get rid of you,” he said.
Democrats hope to capitalize on Trump’s unpopularity in their party’s base to boost turnout in congressional and statewide elections in November. Voter registration forms, provided by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, were available at tables set up at the rally by the Connecticut Education Association, a union backer of Democrats, and by at least one local Democrat, a volunteer from Stratford.
Barbara Heimlich, a member of the Democratic town committee in Stratford, was struggling to hold on to voter registration forms as a stiff breeze threatened to blow the paperwork away.
“I have five grandchildren. It’s important they know of their civic duty,” she said.
Three grandchildren live in Florida, and Heimlich said she feared the worst when she heard about the shootings in Parkland.
“I’m tired of anxiety attacks,” she said.