Maija McManus

MassLive: 50 Miles More: Students to march from Worcester to Springfield with a message for Smith & Wesson

Maija McManus
MassLive: 50 Miles More: Students to march from Worcester to Springfield with a message for Smith & Wesson

 

By Kristin LaFratta | MassLive

Students who flooded city streets across Massachusetts to demand better gun laws last March have not gone away. They have been working quietly, planning and collaborating for several months to keep the conversation on guns ongoing. 

This Thursday, roughly 45 students will set out on a four-day march, walking about 50 miles from Worcester City Hall to the Smith & Wesson manufacturing facility in Springfield.

Among them will be David Hogg, a teenage survivor-turned activist following the Parkland, Florida shooting in February, and Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin died in the Parkland school shooting along with 16 others. 

The protest, known as "50 Miles More: Massachusetts march," has been in the works for three months.

Student activists say their immediate goal is to stop Smith & Wesson from producing assault-style weapons and convince the historic gun manufacturer to take the lead on gun control.

Here's what to know about the upcoming march:

Where and when is the march happening?

Students from across Massachusetts, as well as people from Parkland, Wisconsin and Connecticut, will participate in the march. 

The march begins at Worcester City Hall at 9 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 23, and will end in Springfield on Sunday, Aug. 26. Marchers will rally at Blunt Park in Springfield shortly before noon before finishing their final mile to Smith and Wesson where they will make their demands. 

Those involved said they do not wish to share the route publicly to ensure the safety of the marchers, who will be staying at various lodgings along the route. Organizers say they have seen some nasty things said online about the protest. 

"You see outrageous statements about the kids," said John Rosenthal, who co-founded Stop Handgun Violence in 1994 and later Gloucester's Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (or "angel" program).  

There are multiple student organizations, including individual "March for Our Lives" chapters in Boston and Springfield, as well as national activists with "50 Miles More" who have orchestrated Thursday's march. 

Rosenthal's "Stop Handgun Violence" organization is the fiscal sponsor of the march.

Rosenthal, together with the late Michael Kennedy (son of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy), founded Stop Handgun Violence in 1994 after learning some of the devastating statistics behind fatal shootings of children. Rosenthal said his work had an impact, helping push Massachusetts to ban assault weapons and, more recently, copycat assault weapons.

The activist owns guns and enjoys skeet shooting, but is firm on his opposition to assault-style weapons. After 2.5 decades working against gun violence, Rosenthal said he has seen the problem grow worse on a national level.

"What I do know is the student movement, the March for Our Lives movement, if sustainable, will change Congress," Rosenthal said.

"There will be 3-4 million new voters this November who may just vote on this issue. It may become a single-voter issue, just like gun rights."

In this Jan. 19, 2016 file photo, handguns are displayed at the Smith & Wesson booth at the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Why are activists targeting Smith and Wesson?

In Springfield, the gun manufacturer has been involved in raising funds for the community. It has donated thousands of dollars to city schools for museum field trips, and raised thousands more at annual dinners that help local charities

But as one of the country's largest gun manufacturers, Smith & Wesson has long been a target for gun control advocates -- especially those in Massachusetts.

Since the Parkland shooting in February that killed 17, some demonstrators have unsuccessfully pressured Smith & Wesson CEO P. James Debney for a sit-down meeting to discuss making changes.

Those participating in the 50 Miles More march are asking, firstly, that Smith & Wesson seize all production and sales of weapons outlawed under the assault weapon ban in Massachusetts (as well as any copycat assault weapons), and secondly, that the manufacturing company donate $5 million to gun violence research.

"We really believe that Smith & Wesson can become a leader in the industry this way, an important role for the manufacturers to play," said Jack Torres, a rising junior at Somerville High School.

Organizers like Rosenthal call those who work at Smith & Wesson in Springfield "hypocritical" for living in Massachusetts -- which has some of the strongest gun laws and lowest gun death rates in the country -- but producing the weapons used in mass shootings like Parkland, San Bernardino, Aurora, Colorado and others.  

Chinaly Chanvong, a 17-year-old student organizer from Sabis International Charter School in Springfield, said she grew up practically in Smith & Wesson's backyard.

"I really want to see them be held accountable and say, 'yes we did contribute to the mass epidemic going around.' That 'we did manufacture these weapons that were used in numerous mass shootings,'" Chanvong said.

"Just because they're a gun company, they can be in favor of gun control, to take responsibility and be part of a change now."

Why walk 50 miles?

The 50-mile march was actually born in Wisconsin last March, when roughly 50 students marched from Madison to Janesville, the hometown of Speaker Paul Ryan.

But the idea for the protest has longer roots: organizers said the movement was modeled after the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 in the fight for civil rights. 

In Wisconsin, students pleaded Ryan, a Republican, to take action on gun reform. Several weeks later, Ryan announced he would resign from his position, a move that protestors saw as a win.

Some organizers from the Wisconsin march will join the Bay State protestors this Thursday. 

The dozens of students walking in the Massachusetts 50-mile march will be led by police escorts in each community they pass through and will sleep in different places along the way. At each stop there will also be educational sessions like non-violence training, according to Somerville's Jack Torres.

The group has been fundraising and reaching out to local communities to try to secure food and lodging. Some regional businesses like Stonyfield, an organic yogurt maker in Londonderry, New Hampshire, donated funds and yogurt, said Torres.

 

 

 

Youthful protestors line the barriers in Boston Common at the March for Our Lives protest on March 24, 2018. (Kristin LaFratta/MassLive)

What is motivating students to do this?

When did gun violence protests become the work of teenagers?

Parkland teenagers like David Hogg, Emma González and Cameron Kasky, who all survived the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, have sparked a movement. 

For some students in Massachusetts, the main drive is voter turnout and showing other teens that action is not just for older people.

"I think it's important that if the youth see this, they can see that all because you're not 18, doesn't mean you don't have a voice in the government in this country," said 18-year-old  Treyvaughn Smith, who graduated from Sabis International Charter School last spring.

Smith helped organize the 50 Miles march despite the fact that he can not participate, as he is moving to Hartwick College in New York this week.

"The voting turnout between the ages of 18-34 is extremely low in America, even lower in Springfield."

Chanvong, also a Sabis Charter School student, said she felt shocked during a lockdown at the school, which occurred after a student made a threat.

"I really didn't want any other student to feel that fear I felt," Chanvong said.

"I didn't want any other student or any young person to have their future ripped away by a bullet."