Students and young people from across the state gathered on the steps of the Rhode Island State House Tuesday. The “Student Power Rally” advocated for the end of gun violence and underscored the importance of students’ rights.
The event, organized and lead by members of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, was a call for action at the state level and also a way to debut the new Student Rights Handbook, which was created with help from the Rhode Island ACLU, Youth Empowerment Strategy (YES!ri), Young Voices, Providence Student Union, Students Demand Action, and the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence. The event was planned, organized, and led by students and young people with Warwick youth playing a major role.
The Student Rights Handbook includes tips and information on how to organize protests in public, especially in the school environment. It also gives information on developing political clubs at school. The purpose is to “educate all students about their right to protest inside school, outside school, at the State House, and what they can do to get involved in their schools and in their communities,” said Grace Reed, who recently graduated from Toll Gate High School as valedictorian. Reed, who will attend Brown this fall, emceed the event and introduced the speakers as they went to the podium.
In the handbook, the First Amendment is referenced, and it is followed by an explanation of how students can “speak freely, peacefully assemble, protest in public spaces, and photograph or videotape law enforcement in any public space in a non-disruptive manner.” Additionally, there is a six-step guide to planning protests or other forms of action in school included in the handbook. There is also a list of seven “quick ways” to get involved in political or civic situations.
Student speakers shared their thoughts and their experiences of gun violence. Angelina Hall, a freshman at Mt. Pleasant High School in Providence, told her story about a family friend who she had seen get shot with her own eyes.
“I was just talking about how my traumatizing moments that lead up to so many others, it made me want to gather up all of my courage inside and talk up there in front of all these people,” she said. “They should hear a 14 year old girl’s story.”
She said being a witness to gun violence has made her fear the Fourth of July, because “one of the fireworks might not be what you think it is.”
Tara Monastesse, a sophomore at Toll Gate, said “we are determined to make the world a safer place for students in America. Trust in both yourself and your fellow youth as we move forward with our mission to increase gun safety in both our state and our nation.”
Another speaker, Sophie Carter, salutatorian of her class at Pilgrim High School, spoke about youth and student rights and how important it is to take action against gun violence.
“When we see instances of preventable gun violence in the many distinct schools and communities across our state and country, we have a moral obligation to speak out about our experiences as one,” Carter said.
She went on to thank specific organizations that were dedicated to pushing for action against violence, such as Moms Demand Action, the Coalition Against Gun Violence, and Young Voices. She also emphasized the importance of “engaging, organizing, voting, speaking as one”.
Nika Lomazzo, a community organizer who works alongside organizations such as Breakthrough Providence, was insightful about some of the complex issues faced with gun violence and some of the specific groups that are targeted on a regular basis.
“My journey, like many privileged people, began when my bubble was popped on June 13, 2016, with the Pulse massacre,” she said. “I woke up that morning to find out from my best friend…that 49 queer bodies had been brutalized and murdered at a nightclub the night before in Orlando, Florida.”
Lomazzo went on to say that she questioned why the federal government had to find excuses as to why people of color and members of the LGBT+ community are murdered. She explained how she could no longer feel “powerless”, and that she had to take action.
“We have cowards in our State House, like House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who can’t even bring a gun bill to the floor for a vote. We have people like House Leader Shekarchi, who cannot bring a gun bill to the floor for a vote. And we have Democrats who want to run in Rhode Island and across the country and not build gun violence prevention and gun safety into their platforms,” Lomazzo said. She explained that they cannot run responsibly if they don’t bring mental health, systemic racism and inner city poverty into account while discussing gun legislation.
In an interview, Lomazzo said she has been to the State House to lobby for gun reform bills. “There are bills that I lobbied for this year that the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence put out, that Moms Demand put up, and you know, the safe schools act, which would disarm all people from bringing guns into school and on school campuses.”
Raphael Williams, 17, and involved with Breakthrough Providence, spoke of the troubles that come along with gun violence and being black in society.
“How can I not crack, when I walk down the street, knowing I could be another Trayvon Martin or Emmett Till, and how can I just stand still when my people are getting gunned down?”
Eugenie, who is also with Breakthrough Providence, said, “we grow guns. We place them in the hands of Americans and say, ‘go play’.”
Aaron Regunberg, who is running for Lieutenant Governor this year, is a supporter of youth action and anti-gun violence.
“I think the young people put it best,” he said, “we have a system where folks across our communities and particularly our young people, are going to school everyday and not feeling safe.” He also mentioned that “we know there’s common sense action” that can prevent violence.
Kat Kerwin, communications director for RICAGV, and Reed explained how the organization is currently working on the full list of endorsements of state legislative candidates. The coalition is canvassing and phone banking for multiple gun-sense candidates, including Regunberg and Jeanine Calkin, who is seeking reelection for Senate District 30 in Warwick.