Thousands of students in Chicago and its suburbs walked out of class Wednesday morning, joining a nationwide protest for gun control that was sparked by a mass shooting last month at a Florida high school.
The National Walkout Day was officially timed for 17 minutes — one for every victim killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Though Chicago has been spared a mass shooting inside a school, gun violence is hardly new for its students, so their protests against gun violence with their peers nationwide also named specific friends who’d been killed by guns here.
“I guess you could say it’s just an ordinary thing, on a day-to-day basis,” 17-year-old Fabian Chavez said outside John Hancock College Prep High School near 55th and Pulaski, amid cries of “we call bull—-.”
Fabian held a “Justice for Vic” sign — a reference to a Hancock student, Victor Felix, 16, who was shot and killed two years ago about two blocks from the school, early in the morning. His name still prompts tears among his classmates who’ll graduate without him in June.
“All due respect to the 17 kids we’re paying respect to, but also I wanted to pay tribute to a friend we lost as well, so I think our lives matter as well,” Fabian said. “Everybody knew him in the school, so it was pretty devastating.”
Hancock staffers estimated that about 700 students, most of Hancock’s 950 kids, joined the march. A large stream of kids circled the entire building before stopping in front of the main doors to release 17 white balloons. Teachers, security guards, and a Chicago Police officer stood by the peaceful rally sanctioned by the district.
The students held slips of paper bearing words to a number of chants, many targeting President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, but they yelled one the most, over and over: “No more dead kids.”
More protests were happening downtown, after school, said Amal Salem, an 18-year-old senior at Hancock who organized her school’s walkout.
“It’ll be really fun, it’ll be really cool, we’re gonna get what we want,” she told the crowd, and as her classmates filed back into the building, she explained what that meant:
“We want gun control. We don’t necessarily want to ban guns, we just want more control, more regulations. Because if we can’t have those regulations and anyone can get guns, then nobody’s safe. We need to be in school, we need to be safe,” she said. “We don’t want to have to wait until something like Parkland happens to our school. That is why we are walking out right now, that’s why we are stopping our education for 17 minutes because we wants something to change before something happens.”
Though the protests generally were peaceful, students at Kenwood Academy High School said they saw five classmates handcuffed. A group had been marching toward Lake Shore Drive, hoping to block the nearby thoroughfare. A 16-year-old girl was taken away in a Chicago Police Department vehicle, a police spokesman said, after walking into the road’s traffic lanes.
“She was placed into custody for reckless conduct and transported to the 002nd District,” but was released without any charges, the spokesman said.
Kenwood students wanted to draw attention to shootings happening closer to home.
“We have a significant amount of shootings that have gone unjustified in the black community as well,” Kenwood senior Mariah Monroe said. “So basically we’re walking out to protest. We need to put the guns down; we need the police to put these guns down. We need justice for our people and for people everywhere. To see this amount of people walk out, it makes me feel good … it makes me know I’m not alone.”
Freshman Tavion Shorter wanted to “support the lives that were lost.”
“I just want to support it because if I got shot and I lost my life I would want somebody to support what’s going on so things could change,” he said. “I’ve had family members lose their lives because of gun violence, so I wanted to stand up for it.”
Eleventh grader Mia Rouse told the crowd to focus its anger into action.
“If y’all are really mad, you won’t only stop here today. After this, you will go home, you will vote, you will tell your parents what’s going on. … We’ve been dying in these streets forever. These kids in Florida, they get shot and we can relate to them so easily,” she said. “And the fact that we can relate to them so easily, it’s just heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking. The fact that we have to be here, the fact that black kids have been dying in these streets day after day, scared to go to school, scared to come home because they might get shot, that’s heartbreaking.”
Katherine Salinas, another 11th grader who helped organize the walkout, estimated that 200 to 300 students of Kenwood’s total 1,700 walked out. School leaders told kids they wouldn’t face discipline as long as they went back to class when their protests were over — echoing remarks by CEO Janice Jackson on Tuesday encouraging student participation.
“We think it’s critically important that student voice is heard at this crucial point in our history as a nation,” Jackson said. “There will be no discipline for walkouts and we’re supporting our kids so that their voice can be heard.”
But Spencer Elementary School’s principal warned teachers in an email Tuesday afternoon not to let students “miss out on valuable instruction time” by walking out.
“A reminder that student walkouts and sit-ins that interfere with school violate section 2-3 of the Student Code of Conduct. If you hear of a plan from students, please inform a member of administration so that we can talk with those student leaders,” wrote Kelly Dean, principal of the West Side school.
Dean and CPS’ press office did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
The walkouts dominated a lot of social media. A look at some of the Snapchat activity:
The morning walkout was only part of the student activism planned for the day.
Parents and students from several schools being closed to make way for a new high school in Englewood planned to hold a news conference at City Hall to kick off a voter registration drive.
Hope High School sophomore Miracle Boyd said only three students were allowed out of the school at 12:16 — the 16 marked the number of shots a Chicago Police officer fired at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, killing him as cameras rolled. Others were threatened with suspension if they left school, she said.
Miracle, 16, said instead of arming teachers with guns — a proposal President Donald Trump has supported — communities should be armed with “equity education” and quality schools.
“All students, regardless of their race or income, deserve to be protected and respected in school. We are gathered here to say that starving schools in black and brown communities, then closing our schools, is violent,” she said.
Late in the day, students stopped at Daley Plaza, City Hall and CPS, asking for more money for schools and fewer police officers inside school buildings.
Hancock senior Deon Stevenson said he was “really appalled” by a response to a Chicago Sun-Times post about Hancock students’ earlier walkout, saying students did it to get out of class.
“Over 700 students walked out. Just over 700 students came back in,” the 17-year-old said. “This is not just about us coming and asking for better gun control. We’ve been ignored. It’s not even that we’re not being heard, we’ve been ignored.”
Outside CPS, Herald “Chip” Johnson, CPS Chief of Community and Family Engagement, came outside to talk but students didn’t hand over the mic.
“I don’t have to let you speak,” Miracle told him.
And Hancock sophomore Evelyn Roman called proposals to arm teachers “outrageous.”
“How are we going to walk into a school,” she wondered, “knowing that our lives could be more in danger than they are just to walk in?”
Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick, Pete Grieve and Julie Whitehair