Parkland and Liberty City students plot a gun-control push in Washington

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The scene on Capitol Hill Wednesday was a familiar one.

Students from Miami-Dade, Broward and around the country recounted distressing tales of gun violence. Aggrieved Democrats demanded change, and no Republicans were there. Television cameras crammed the room.

But any measurable change on gun legislation was much more likely to come from what happened after an event organized by Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, than what happened during it.

The cameras were gone. The members of Congress all left to vote. And Charlie Mirsky, a student activist at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton was fist-bumping and exchanging contact information with Ricky Pope, a Miami Northwestern junior who helped lead a student walkout after his classmate Kimson Green was murdered while sitting outside a Liberty City apartment complex.

The pair plotted.

Mirsky and Pope discussed how they can maintain attention for their shared cause of reducing gun violence and about organizing future events in South Florida and Washington. They talked about the complex realities and challenges of coming up and pursuing policies that address a world where students in Parkland no longer feel safe at school while students in Liberty City feel school is the safest refuge from gun violence. They also complained about the AP U.S. History exam.

And while Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi showered the students with praise and bashed Republicans for two hours while the kids mostly sat in silence, Parkland student Alfonso Calderon spent his morning talking to Republicans, trying to push a gun control bill that eliminates the exemption on background checks for guns sold at gun shows. Calderon said two more Republicans signed onto the bill on Wednesday, putting the measure eight Republican signatures short of a majority.

But the March for Our Lives activists like Calderon have a national following and the Liberty City activists like Pope do not. They are working to change that.


Ricky Pope, left, a student at Miami Northwestern High School, and Devery Russell, a student at Miami Lakes Educational Center, speak during a forum with the Gun Violence Task Force on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, May 23, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Students from schools across the nation met and spoke with Democratic members of the House to discuss recent school shootings and gun violence in inner city neighborhoods.

Win McNamee Getty Images

“We didn’t get the coverage until you guys started tweeting about it,” Pope said to Calderon, thanking him for generating attention for the Miami Northwestern walkout. “It’s what’s up.”

And the two groups of students shared the bits of their day-to-day lives that have become similar since February, though Parkland is a well-to-do part of Broward County while Liberty City has long been one of the poorest areas of Miami-Dade.

“Our school is becoming like a prison,” Calderon said to Pope.

“Ours is already a prison,” Pope replied, sparking a discussion on how wearing identification at all times and requiring students to wear clear backpacks is an impediment to their school day, and their differing attitudes toward school resource officers.

Calderon also discussed the recent school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 people were killed in a community that does not share the same general attitudes toward guns as liberal-leaning Broward County. He’s been in touch with a few students from the school, but said the event was eye-opening for him because only 10 kids or so marched out of class to protest gun violence, while thousands marched across South Florida in the weeks after Parkland.

“Some kids were talking to me about how they are scared to do things like protest, because the conversation on guns doesn’t exist there,” Calderon said. He said the March for Our Lives activists are making a concerted effort not to speak on behalf of Santa Fe, because their experience and attitudes toward guns are different, and he wouldn’t like it if a more conservative-leaning community used an experience to speak on behalf of Parkland.

And Daniel Gelillo, a senior from Montgomery County, Maryland, who has led a number of demonstrations by young people in Washington after Parkland, expressed despair about the number of mass shootings since 1999, the year before he was born.

“Columbine happened one year before I was born. Sandy Hook happened when I was in seventh grade. The Pulse Nightclub shooting happened during my sophomore year in high school. Las Vegas, Parkland, Great Mills, Waffle House and now Santa Fe have all happened during my senior year of high school,” Gelillo said to lawmakers. “When events like this happen with this kind of frequency, how could we not become numb to it?”

But while any major changes on gun control are unlikely with a Republican-controlled Congress, the two groups of students separated by 45 miles are going to try to work together to lobby and inform voters ahead of the 2018 elections.

“Text me though,” Calderon said to Pope. “We’ve got to get more events set up.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

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