Metro Detroit students demand change with walkouts

Jennifer Chambers, and Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

By the hundreds, they walked out of school, rallied as a unified group against gun violence and raised their voices as one to fight for gun reform.

Then came a moment for high school student Thomas Wickersham. The 18-year-old left the crowd of students gathered at a rally at the Royal Oak Farmers Market, took a pen and signed up for what could be his most powerful voice yet: the right to vote.

Juliua Matthews, 15, a sophomore, holds a sign as she demonstrates along with other students at Voyageur Voyageur College Prep Academy in Detroit Friday.

Wickersham said he registered to vote on Friday at the student-led rally — where students from multiple Metro Detroit school districts organized their own efforts as part of a National School Walkout — because he was inspired by his classmates at Bloomfield Hills High School who want to prevent their school from becoming the next Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“Everyone was pretty heated this past election, and voicing your opinion was essentially taking a side, and I wasn’t prepared to, so I didn’t register,” Wickersham said at the rally, held on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre.

“I think now I’m better equipped to make decisions and talk to others about gun laws, and like them, I wanted to make a difference. It was like I was the only person not registered,” he said.

All told, tens of thousands of students left class Friday for protests that spread from coast to coast. Students were given a chance at the rally to turn student activism into political action.

Officials with Fems for Change, a nonprofit women’s organization aimed at engaging in the political process through activism, registered 18-year-olds to vote at the rally in Royal Oak. They said a total of 30 registered through the organization.

And even though many of the hundreds of high school students from Royal Oak, Berkley, Bloomfield Hills, Ferndale and Lake Shore public schools were not yet of voting age, they took action they could.

About 200 of them signed up with Engage 18, a nonprofit founded by high school students to increase youth voter turnout and spark interest in political activity.

Zack Farah, a senior at Bloomfield Hills High School and co-founder of the nonprofit Engage 18, said on Friday his organization collected more than 200 requests for information from students who wanted to get involved in the nonpartisan organization.

“As of now, we have a few hundred involved and have been reached out by the National Walkout organization to start chapters of Engage 18 in Oregon and Florida,” said Farah, 18. “We hope to keep the momentum going.”

Taylor Jacobs, a junior at Royal Oak High, led Friday’s rally, telling the crowd she’s tired of having anxiety in the hallways, worrying about who she could protect if something were to happen. Now is the time to do something about it, she said.

“We are here today to make our voices heard,” said Jacobs, 17. “We are the next generation voting. We will vote them out and make a difference. Do not let this momentum stop. Just because the walkouts are done after today doesn’t mean our fight is over.”

Richard Williamson, a junior at Oakland University who attended the Royal Oak rally, called for more significant legislation and common-sense gun laws.

“Firm stance on strict gun regulation. It would be shameful if we didn’t speak out knowing this evil is in our midst and it would be more shameful if we left here and did nothing,” said Williamson, 21. “We have to vote for candidates that support strict gun regulation and oppose the ones that don’t. Our votes matter, our voices matter and it’s time to say enough is enough.”

U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, was the main speaker at the Royal Oak rally, saying he hoped to inspire many to continue efforts and to show up at the polls.

“Civil disobedience didn’t work after Pulse (nightclub shooting in Orlando), so why will it work today ... there has to be the fullest admiration for what you are doing today because change must come,” Levin said.

“You represent the change that must come in the United States. Let’s lead with faith in democracy and be uplifted by your generation who has addressed the gun violence in this country that is threatening students in our schools.”

In Detroit, nearly 300 high school students from Voyageur College Prep Academy walked out of school at 10 a.m. for a 13-minute silent walk to honor the 13 student victims of the Columbine High School shooting.

Dressed in school uniforms, students walked quietly in pairs and in groups, some holding hands and others walking arm in arm. They took a route along Livernois and Michigan Avenue near their southwest Detroit high school.

One student carried a sign that read “One child is worth more than all the guns on Earth.”

Student Juliua Matthews said she chose to walk, rather than stay in school, to stand up to stop school shootings.

“That’s important. What if one day, somebody just decides to come to my school and shoot it up? I have siblings that go here, friends that go here. It needs to stop. It’s not OK,” said Matthews, a 10th-grader.

Juliua said on Monday students in her third-hour class will talk about the walk, school violence and what else can be done to stop school shootings.

Her principal, Jeff Maxwell, was in high school when the 1999 Columbine shooting occurred, he said.

“It’s still going on today. Somebody needs to say something,” Matthews said.

Student Cam Chambers, 17, said participating in the walkout was important to him because it allowed him to show support for other students who have been threatened by gun violence.

“I want to do my part and show I care about what happens not only in my school but their school, too,” Chambers said. “If I have the opportunity to stand up, I am taking it.”

Chambers says he feels safe in his school, compared to the other Detroit schools he has attended. He said neighborhood gun violence is a problem for many teens in Detroit.

“I hope kids take it seriously that they are blessed to come to school every day without any threats or any actual violence going on,” Chambers said.

While some Metro Detroit school districts discouraged students from walking out on Friday, saying it disrupted the learning environment, Maxwell said he gave students the opportunity to participate so they could get involved in something important to them.

“We want to empower our scholars to have the kind of school environment they want,” Maxwell said.

Being silent during the walk was empowering, Chambers said.

“I felt honored to be a part of something like this. You know it’s not every day you get to go somewhere where you feel safe and stand up for people who don’t feel safe,” Chambers said.