March For Our Lives gun protest draws support across the suburbs
Recognizing the power of peaceful protest in times of turmoil, longtime Vernon Hills resident Gayle Tavares decided she needed to march with others to end gun violence and demand safety for students.
Where to do it was the question. Instead of traveling to participate in what has become a national effort March 24, she decided to stick close to home.
So have many other moms and dads, students, teachers and regular folks in big cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, medium-sized communities like Elgin and Rockford, and small towns like Huntley and Downers Grove.
They are among hundreds of sister March For Our Lives events worldwide in support of the primary one planned in Washington by the survivors of the 17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Marchers are uniting to demand student safety as a priority and an end to gun violence and mass shootings.
"I wanted to march and I thought it was (in) Washington or Chicago, and I said, 'Why not here?'" Tavares said. She floated the idea on the neighborhood Facebook page and has been overwhelmed by the response.
Through social media and word-of-mouth, word spread quickly and Vernon Hills is expected to a clearinghouse for participants from other Lake County communities, including Mundelein, Grayslake, Gurnee and Deerfield.
"It's been a whirlwind," said Heather Rabbitt, a stay-at-home mom and gatekeeper of the local Facebook page who jumped at Tavares' request and has become her organizing partner. "We have a lot of heart and we will make our presence known."
The march comes 10 days after students in high schools in the suburbs and across the country walked out of class to protest gun violence in schools.
"These students are trying to make a difference and I want to support them," Tavares said.
Like other organizers, Fremd High School senior and Palatine resident Gretchen Coleman wants to sustain the protest momentum and pressure on lawmakers. She is planning a march tentatively for 9 a.m. in Schaumburg, so participants can also attend the Chicago rally at 11 a.m.
"We have a Facebook event, an Instagram page and we're talking to local activist groups," she said, saying organizers hope for 200 participants.
In Vernon Hills, speakers are lined up, permits approved and portable toilets secured for an expected 1,000 marchers who will follow a 3.5-mile route.
Other suburban events likely won't be nearly that large, but those involved say that isn't the point.
"People are tired. They're done," said Lisa Arvanites, who is organizing a march/rally at Riecke Park in Huntley.
"People are very affected by this last shooting," she said. "This is an outlet where people can come together as a community. I think it's therapeutic for people."
Elgin resident David Manuel said he was in Florida when the shootings in Parkland occurred and decided to raise awareness by organizing a sister event.
"This time, with all the students getting involved, people are starting to listen," Manuel said.
He said he had dozens of email replies to his posting on the March for Our Lives page but has no idea what to expect at noon March 24 at the Gail Borden Library, 270 N. Grove Ave.
Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, said he understands marchers' frustrations but said safeguards are in place. Because Illinois requires firearm owners identification cards and mental health background checks, the person accused in the Parkland shooting would not have been able to buy a weapon here, he said.
"Illinois, first of all, is not Florida," he said. "It's very important to point that out."
Arvanites, a Huntley resident who is running for precinct committeeman, said she comes in contact with many people through her work with the Democratic Party in McHenry County, but the motivation isn't political.
"We've become so isolated in our day-to-day (lives). This pulls people out of their neighborhoods," she said. "It's going to pull in the seniors, pull in some of the kids, pull in the moms -- connect people overall."
In Woodstock, the Democratic Party has joined with the recently formed Huntley chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America to rally in the town square. Kathleen Larimer, whose son, John, was among 12 killed in the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, is scheduled to speak.
"It's the high school kids we want to pull in. We want to show them there is power in numbers and they have a voice," said Cathy Johnson, a member of the party's executive committee.
That's also the aim in Downers Grove, where experienced protest groups Friends Who March and The Brady Campaign are organizing a sister march at Downers Grove North High School. The groups have been in contact with several high schools and hope to draw interest from Hinsdale, Naperville and other communities.
"We really want students to take over and organize and run it, and we'll just advise them," said Jill Goodman, with the Brady Campaign.
"It's just starting," she said. "But they do seem very interested and they seem very thrilled to have an option to be able to voice their concerns."
Interest in gun control has grown exponentially in the weeks since the Florida shooting. For example, membership in the Chicago North Suburbs Moms Demand Action group nearly doubled to 4,201 from 2,422, according to Elise Hauptman, an events leader.
A common theme among the marchers is students shouldn't have to worry about getting shot at school. Rabbitt says her 4- and 6-year-old kids have their entire educational lives ahead of them.
"That's too long for them to be fearful," she said. "For me to have to think about that for 14 years -- that's no way to live."