TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Holding hand-scrawled signs and wearing black “Parkland Strong” T-shirts, the 40 teenagers filed warily into a committee room at Florida’s state Capitol on Wednesday. They hadn’t been invited and the lawmakers they were intruding upon were in the middle of a meeting. Timid yet determined, they stood their ground.
And they got what they wanted: a chance to speak.
It was perhaps the first act of civil disobedience ever by the high school students whose lives were turned around just one week earlier by a shooting that left 17 of their friends and teachers dead. The teens politely stood up and told their stories to the politicians, some of whom a day earlier had voted against a ban on assault weapons.
“I had to run for my life,” said Erika Rosenzweig, a slight, dark-haired 15-year-old sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. “I had to listen as the dead were reported. … I didn’t know where my friends were. This cannot happen again.”
When organizers first announced that they would bus students to the state’s capital to lobby for stricter gun laws, there was only room for about 100, and the bus quickly filled up. So Rosenzweig and about 44 others made the roughly seven-hour drive to Tallahassee with the support of their Parkland synagogue. Kol Tikvah lost three of its congregants in the shooting.
By the end of the day Wednesday, the teens would meld in with their other classmates who organized the “Never Again” protests. But when they first arrived, they were on their own. Eyes still weighed by sleep after the long trip, the students walked down the long corridors of the capital building. Staffers quickly moved out of their way to let them pass, many thanking them or cheering them on.
They stopped in at the office of state Rep. Robert “Bobby O” Olszewski, an Orlando-area Republican who had voted against a debate on an assault-weapons ban the day earlier, helping to kill the bill. They surrounded his desk.
Grant Cooper, a 10th-grader from South Broward High who accompanied the Stoneman Douglas students, was fidgety and ready to pounce. “What logical reason is there for anyone to have an assault rifle? Why would you vote a ban down?” Cooper asked. Authorities say the Stoneman Douglas shooter used an AR-15.
Olszewski shifted in his desk chair, his aide nervously looking on from the doorway. He told Cooper it was complicated, that people have a Second Amendment right to bear arms and that he wasn’t against a ban for people of certain ages. He said he was new to Tallahassee, had taken no money from the National Rifle Association and would work on some kind of change, but couldn’t offer specifics.
The students were not impressed.
“Can you tell us names of other Republicans who we should meet with who will support us?” Cooper asked.
“I won’t name names,” Olszewski replied. “But anyone you visit on this floor I can tell you, you’ll be batting a thousand.”
The group walked out, eyes rolling.
“It’s disheartening,” Cooper said afterward. “But honestly, I didn’t expect much better.”
The students stopped in the labyrinthine hallway to consult a schedule and map of the building, then crammed into the office of state Rep. Barrington Russell, a Democrat who supports gun control.
Aria Siccone, a 14-year-old freshman at Stoneman Douglas, held a sign that said “Ban Assault Rifles Now.” Her nails were painted black, and she wore a small heart pendant around her neck. She was in a classroom targeted by the shooter, identified as 19-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz.
“I saw three of my classmates from that period on the floor and they didn’t make it,” the girl said, barely making it through her story.
The lawmaker, a Jamaican native who said he’d been held at gunpoint more than once in his life, rose from his chair and put his arm around Siccone.
“For some reason the NRA has a very strong hold on some of my colleagues that prevents them from doing the right thing,” he said.
After the meetings with Russell and Olszewski, the group headed for the committee meeting. Later in the day, they would lie down and pose as corpses in a silent protest outside Gov. Rick Scott’s Capitol office. And staffers wouldn’t disturb them.
Ira Jaffe, a parent whose son couldn’t make it to Tallahassee because he was attending two of his classmates’ funerals, held the door as the students filed into a room.
“What are we doing now?” one asked.
“We’re interrupting a committee meeting,” Jaffe said matter-of-factly.
“That’s awesome,” the teen replied.
Rabbi Bradd Boxman, who had chaperoned the teens, was boiling with anger and sadness when he interrupted the meeting to announce the students’ presence.
Rep. Shawn Harrison, the committee’s vice chair, told the students they could speak briefly. “We will never doubt your impact on this debate,” Harrison said. “We know your hearts are in the right place.”
Rosenzweig told of her terror, and Cooper repeated his earlier question about the assault-weapons ban.
Moments later, the students, brimming with confidence, gathered outside the Capitol, raised their signs, and marched straight ahead, yelling, “We are MSD! We will make history!”
And then they disappeared into the crowd, joining with other protesters and the thousands who had gathered to support them.