NEWTOWN, Conn. — Natalie Barden was in fifth grade at a nearby middle school when her 7-year-old brother, Daniel, was killed along with 19 of his classmates and six educators in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School here on Dec. 14, 2012.
“We were on lockdown all day,” Natalie recalls, rather matter-of-factly.
When she got home from school, Natalie’s parents broke the news to her and her other brother, James. “My parents had to sit us down and tell us our brother had been murdered in his first-grade classroom,” she says.
Her father, Mark Barden, later co-founded the gun violence prevention group Sandy Hook Promise with Nicole Hockley, the mother of 6-year-old Dylan Hockley, who also died in the massacre at Sandy Hook.
Back then, 10-year-old Natalie penned a handwritten letter to President Barack Obama that read: “I wanted to tell the president that only police officers and the military should get guns. If people want to do it as a sport [then] they could go to a shooting range and the guns would not be able to leave there.”
That was more or less the extent of her activism — until Feb. 14, 2018, when 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida.
Natalie told Yahoo News she was inspired by the students in Parkland, Fla., to speak out against gun violence.
“For a long time it was too difficult for me to think about gun violence and participate in this conversation,” she says. “They are the ones that give me the strength to do this. The students from Parkland showed me we have to use our voices.”
Natalie met some of those students for the first time on Sunday in Newtown, the last stop on the Road to Change summer tour. The organizers of the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington, D.C., have been touring the country on a bus, visiting more than 50 cities in an effort to register and mobilize voters ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
“All forms of gun violence need to be recognized for this to become a movement,” says David Hogg, a Parkland survivor and one of the most recognizable student faces on the Road to Change circuit. “If there’s any parent out there right now, if you truly care about your kid and their future, you have to go out and vote on Nov. 6.”
Throughout the tour, students from Florida have been meeting with communities affected by gun violence, including Chicago; Columbine, Colo.; Sutherland Springs, Texas; Charleston, S.C., and now, Newtown, where nearly 2,000 people turned out on a sweltering late-summer day at a park about 2 miles south of Sandy Hook Elementary to hear young activists and their message of gun reform.
“It’s so, so surreal to be here,” Jammal Lemy, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas graduate who has been traveling all summer on the bus tour. “I remember being in my classroom getting updates on social media.”
Matt Deitsch, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas graduate who has helped lead the March for Our Lives organizing efforts, says Newtown and Parkland are now part of a “club” that no one wanted.
“We are ending our summer in a place that is too much like our home,” Dietsch says.
Deitsch and Lemy say that seeing the turnout of young people, most not yet old enough to vote, has energized them and that they are confident their movement will continue regardless of who is leading it.
“We have built a coalition,” Deitsch says.
“We are the now, they are the future,” Lemy adds. “We are passing the mic down.”
At the end of Sunday’s rally, students from Parkland and Newtown took the stage behind three of the youngest speakers, two of whom needed to stand on a milk crate to be seen by the standing-room-only crowd.
Each child activist dismissed critics of their age.
“This is not a one-time thing; we’re not going to sit back and let this happen,” 11-year-old Naomi Wadler, from Alexandria, Va., told the crowd. “We don’t need your thoughts and prayers.”
Langston Saint, a fifth-grader from Sioux City, Iowa, was next.
“It should not be common for someone to walk into a school and shoot people with an AR-15,” Langston said. “I won’t be able to vote for another eight years, but I still go out and I speak on every occasion I can and I find candidates who support the same ideals as I do.”
Yolanda Renee King, the eldest granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr., then led the crowd in a call-and-response.
“Spread the word!” she said, stomping on the milk crate as she spoke. “Have you heard? All across the nation, we are going to be a great generation.”
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