Sunday, March 25, 2018

What I Saw At The March For Our Lives In Newark

Yesterday I was one of the millions who turned out for March for Our Lives events in the United States and the world. I attended the one in Newark, partly because it was the closest one, but also because I'm a former resident of Brick City, a place I hold close to my heart. (I made sure to go back to my old neighborhood afterward and get a giant plate of Portuguese food and a big bag of stuff from one of the bakeries.)

I was not anticipating a huge turnout, mostly because people around here tend to go to marches like this in New York City to be a part of the bigger, more noteworthy event. I was happily surprised to see a very large crowd at Military Park in downtown Newark when I arrived, and by the time things got kicked off, it doubled in size. The event started with a half hour of speeches and performances, then we marched over to Washington Park and snaked around it to go back to Military Park to hear speeches by the big shots in attendance. I knew we were a big congregation because I was near the front, and once we got around Washington Park we had to stop because the people in the back third were blocking our way because they were still coming.

One thing I was very glad to see that while this event drew a lot of people from suburban New Jersey, it still put a lot of focus on Newark. Students from Newark schools performed music and dance, and they gave speeches that talked about gun violence more broadly. They spoke not just about school shootings, but also of the day to day gun violence in the streets of Newark, domestic violence, and police shootings like the recent tragedy in Sacramento. I came away from the event thinking that many of the white, suburban attendees might also see the issue of gun violence with a broader lens. That's necessary, and also an important rebuttal to naysayers who refuse to participate in this movement because they think it doesn't check all of their woke checkboxes.

While the students may have stumbled a little over their speeches or not have been completely polished, those things only served to highlight their courage. I did speech and debate in high school, but I could not have imagined giving a speech in front of thousands of people with the governor and my Congressman sitting in the wings. The politicians in attendance did a good job motivating the crowd and keeping things brief, at least. My representative in the House, Donald Payne Jr, has actually been out front on this issue and has crafted a bill for gun buybacks. He kept things fiery, and connected the march with the need to vote in the upcoming election. (A lot of the people there hail from purple districts currently represented by Republicans.) New governor Phil Murphy gave a very short, to the point speech emphasizing efforts on the state level. I even cut state senator (and charter school supporter) Teresa Ruiz some slack because her comments were pretty effective.

This event gave me hope because the main reason gun control has failed to be passed at the national level has less to do with the NRA itself and more to do with the extreme pro-gun minority. These people have always cared a LOT more about guns than the people who wanted to limit them. Guns for them are closely tied to their deepest identities, and so like Prohibition gun control is really an argument over what kind of country this is. Opponents of gun control have been acting desperate and attacking teenage survivors of mass shootings because they know they have been in the minority for years and have been getting by on complacency. Will this actually lead to meaningful change? I do not know, but I get the feeling that outside of deep red areas politicians who are highly rated by the NRA are going to be forced to answer for that.

On an unrelated sidenote, I briefly talked yesterday with Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo yesterday, but only realized it after he walked away. "Joe D" is one of the big political fixers in the state, with rumors of corruption swirling about him. Despite that, Chris Christie never prosecuted him during his stint as state's attorney, when he went after several corrupt politicians. Joe D paid him back by supporting Christie's re-election, despite the fact that he was a conservative Republican and DiVincenzo is a Democrat in a a county that is deep blue.Yesterday, as we were stopped on the march route, a distinguished gentleman struck up a conversation with me, and his face looked strangely familiar. I made a little friendly small talk, and when the march ended he squeezed my arm and thanked me for showing up. At that moment I realized it was indeed Joe D, but it was too late. I was going to ask him why if he cared about gun control so much he supported a governor who vetoed new gun legislation.

My hope is that Democrats like Joe D saw what was happening yesterday and got a little scared for themselves. Machines like his rely on political complacency, a complacency which has made it possible for a blue state like New Jersey has been living under austerity for the past eight years. Even if gun control does not get passed in the short term, we are perhaps seeing a political awakening from the left that will not only get Republicans tossed out of office. Just as importantly, it could also give us better Democrats. One can only hope.

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