Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
People from all walks of life gathered on that rainy Saturday morning, March 24, to bring attention to the killing sprees taking place on school campuses across the nation. Spurred on by the Feb. 14 tragedy at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Honolulu gathering attracted over 4,000 people. They began their march at the State Capitol building and then proceeded along Beretania Street, down Richards Street, until they reached the Prince Kühiö Federal Building. The marchers then swept back up to the offices of the state Department of Education on Punchbowl Street. Organized and led by Hawai‘i high school and college students, the event was only one of 800 other protests that day that attempted to draw attention to the problem of gun violence in America.
They began gathering in the soft morning light, coming in out of the rain alone or in small groups. They carried with them homemade cardboard signs hastily drawn or stenciled out in simple letters and primary colors. Some had pictures of individual Parkland students taped to their placards; others had written elaborate messages detailing their rage. “My anger cannot fit on a simple sign,” said one silver-haired grandmother surrounded by her friends to no one in particular. Most carried nothing but an urge to come together and find comfort and common cause with like-minded neighbors and other strangers. They were a blend of different ages, races, genders, economic means and political tribes. Many had never participated in a protest march of any kind and wandered about the crowd, looking for a familiar face to anchor themselves to while others looked like veterans of movements and marches past. They peered into each other’s faces, hoping to find the answers to questions they struggle to articulate.
The speeches began by mid-morning, as the rain turned into a fine mist and the crowd listened politely with little reaction. They’d heard the awful facts before, repeated after every school massacre like a familiar dirge that always revealed the same, terrible refrain: Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack in 2012 that left 20 children and six adults dead, there have been 239 school shootings in America, resulting in 438 people wounded or killed. In 2018 alone, there have already been five school shootings that have taken 20 lives. The names change, but the terrible heartbreak remains the same.
Eventually, the speeches ended and the people who now numbered in the thousands moved forward patiently along the slickly puddled streets of downtown Honolulu. There was no sense of rush or urgency in this crowd — only senior citizens chatting quietly, mothers and fathers slowly wheeling their baby carriages forward, and young people of all ages talking excitedly in pairs and small groups. Onlookers across the street peered at the marchers with gentle curiosity while other passersby simply ignored them and strolled indifferently in the opposite direction.
“I never thought I would ever be doing something like this,” a young university student said to his companion. Both of them laughed nervously.
Occasionally, cars drove by blaring their horns in raucous support. Intermittent cheers erupted from the crowd in response. The march came to a dead stop as streets were crossed and traffic lights navigated. But like an ancient river, the long line of protestors eventually resumed unabated with each walker carried along by the momentum of the people around them. Every so often, individuals dropped out and simply wandered away, satisfied that they had made their statement, but they were few and the ranks closed quickly with every departure. Most were carried along by the power of their convictions and the idea that they had come too far to turn away from what they felt to be true.
Eventually, the protest came full circle, ending close to where it began. The marchers were treated to more speeches, but the crowd was already energized. Surprisingly, there were no histrionics, no fireworks, no fiery debates, no yelling, no angry words, no grandstanding, no confrontations. Only a feeling of muted resolve. An indelible firmness. A sense of ordinary citizens trying to take back a country they don’t quite recognize or understand anymore.
Eventually, even the speeches came to an end and the crowd began to filter out into the early afternoon. Some lingered on the sidewalks while others hugged and promised to see each other soon, at the next march, maybe, and then they all disappeared, each one fading away into the anonymity of the rain and the quiet hope of a better day.
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer.