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N.J. teens lead Newark gun reform rally
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N.J. teens lead Newark gun reform rally

Sadness tinged with defiance over senseless deaths

As the 19 organizers of the Newark March for Our Lives were assembling on stage at Military Park on March 24, Darcy Schleifstein, a sophomore at Randolph High School, held aloft a color photograph of Alex Schachter, her close friend from summers spent at Camp Echo in Burlington, N.Y. Alex was one of the victims of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. 

“A sweeping of sadness was going through my mind,” she told NJJN of the moment she held up his picture to a half-dozen photographers and several hundred rallygoers in the park. 

She wasn’t alone. All of the organizers, who coordinated the 6,000-person rally, had been affected by shootings. But what brought these disparate teens teenagers together was the communal need to feel safe from violence in their schools, their streets, and their homes.

The thousands who attended the Newark rally — and 716 others like it in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., as well as nations in Europe, Latin America, and Asia — were there to urge lawmaker at all levels to enact common-sense gun regulations … or face the consequences when the young people are eligible to cast their first votes by November 2019 or 2020.

“Enough of the Second Amendment,” said the first speaker, Tiffany Watkins, who lives in Newark. “Supporters care more about the Second Amendment than they do about their constituents. It is time that they do their job.”

After reading the names of the dead at Stoneman Douglas, Samantha Levy, a sophomore at Columbia High School in Maplewood who was also friends with Schachter, excoriated politicians of both parties who are beholden to the National Rifle Association (NRA), and urged her peers to punish them when they reach voting age.

Later, Levy said she and her fellow students would have to take on the NRA and the powerful gun lobby a little at a time.

“I think that maybe not every single one of our demands will be met within our lifetime, but one reform could be enough to save one life,” she said. Referring to urban black and Latino youths who fear gun violence on a daily basis, she said, “There are differences between school shooters in places like Parkland, and the ones in Newark and Chicago and D.C. Both are just as important and people of color and people in cities are often ignored, but they shouldn’t be ignored.”

On that point, Princess Sarbroche, a senior at Newark’s North Star Academy, reminded the attendees that “the pain that the people of Parkland are feeling is the same pain that the citizens of Newark go through on a daily basis,” and then led the crowd in chanting “gun violence has no color.”

Hip-hop music blared on loudspeakers for most of the two-hour event, though interspersed within the playlist were such politically motivated songs of then 1960s as Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, and “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye.

Amina Baraka, the mother of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, offered her recipe for preventing gun violence, which included a ban on teachers carrying guns in classrooms, social workers stationed in every school, and a security guard “armed” with a cellphone to call the nearest police precinct. 

Said Sarah Baum, a senior at Marlboro High School, “The Parkland shooting was not the start of gun violence. It was the catalyst for change. We are done being cannon fodder for politicians too incompetent or too self-absorbed to pass the laws we need to save our lives.”

To the chant of “Hey hey, Ho ho, NRA has gotta go,” the marchers headed east on Broad Street for a brief walk to the Newark Museum before returning to the march area, where they heard from Gov. Phil Murphy, who said, “our generation, particularly in Washington, particularly in the Republican Party, has failed us. These young students are going to proves that we can make a difference. They can unlock this crazy frustrating NRA lock on Congress. 

“Let’s remember that elections have consequences,” Murphy continued. “We must bottle this energy to change both the House and the Senate, and hopefully, the White House. You will wake up tomorrow morning and feel good about what you did today, but don’t take your foot off the gas pedal for one second.” 

After the governor spoke, Schleifstein took to the stage and said, quoting one Parkland survivor, she had come to “kick some ass.” 

“We are your children,” she said. “We should not have to live in fear that we will be the next victims of school violence.”

Even though the rally and the month-long build up to the worldwide March for Our Lives protests was winding down, Levy vowed to continue the fight for gun reform.

“I don’t want to mourn the way I had to for Alex,” she said.

Kira Edgar, a Somerville High School sophomore, believes the rally is the jumping-off point. “It is the beginning of great change,” she said. “I think our generation will end gun violence.”

Many adults also took part in the march. Among them were 55 members of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel who bussed in from South Orange, though their decision to attend was not borne out of religious beliefs. “I don’t necessarily see this as a Jewish issue. It is a human issue,” said Alison Oxman, a congregant from South Orange.

After the rally, the delegation from Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, comprised of approximately 50 teens and 70 adults, attended a lunch-and-learn organized by federation at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark. 

Rabbi Avi Friedman of Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit Jewish Community Center provided source sheets and led teens in chavruta-style conversations in small groups on Jewish approaches to commonsense gun legislation. 

Mindy Opper from National Council of Jewish Women, Essex County, spoke to the adults about gun control advocacy. 

Temple Sharey Tefilo’s cantor, Joan Finn, told NJJN she had opted to forgo services to attend the rally because “our people and our kids think it is important that we stand up for this. Our kids have the right idea.”

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