Student organizers are still planning to lead a march on the National Rifle Association at the State Capitol tomorrow, August 4, despite a planned counter-protest, threats of violence and internal divisions within the march’s organizers, most of whom are high school and college students.
“I think this is going to be a heavily protected event. It’s important that people show up, that we continue to do what we need to do,” says Tay Anderson, a young activist who will speak at the march. “If this is the last speech I give...well, shoot straight, because there’s nothing like a wounded animal. Students need to understand that people want to threaten us just for marching.”
On Thursday morning, August 2, the Denver Post reported that student activists were considering canceling the march, and Mikaela Lawrence, a public-relations manager for Students Demand Action, told the Post that her organization would no longer be co-hosting because of threats that members had received on social media. According to Lawrence, multiple people threatened to bring weapons to the counter-protest.
But Ethan Somers, an eighteen-year-old recent graduate of Red Rocks Community College who is independently involved with organizing the Denver march, clarified later that day: The march is still on, despite Students Demand Action pulling out.
“After talking to the police and some of the survivors, they said that we have to continue,” Somers says.
The event at noon on Saturday will include a march around the State Capitol, starting at the west steps. Organizers will then stage a “die-in,” during which they will lie down on the steps to symbolize those killed in mass shootings.
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Afterward, speakers will talk about the influence of the NRA on politicians and how gun violence has affected their lives. The list of speakers includes Sandy Phillips, the mother of an Aurora theater shooting victim; Tom Mauser, father of a victim of the Columbine shooting; and Anderson, former president of another youth-led gun-control coalition, Never Again Colorado, who now says he’s joining Students Demand Action as director of outreach. Anderson adds that he is participating as a community activist, not in his new role with Students Demand Action.
Somers says he expects at least 150 people to march — and at least that amount for the counter-protest, which begins at 11 a.m.
“Going into this march, I was preparing myself to see a lot of counter-protesters,” Somers says. “Students Demand Action hadn’t seen as many before; they hadn’t had to deal with this. After talking to the police force, I’m not as worried.”
Anderson reported the threats to the Denver Police Department; DPD spokeswoman Christine Downs confirms that the department is aware of the threats and is investigating. “We take all threats seriously. We investigate them and plan accordingly,” Downs says.
The department could not release specific policing plans for the protest and counter-protest, but Downs says that police will have a strong presence.
Lawrence of Students Demand Action, a senior at Columbine High School, agrees with the other organizers: “We don’t know if the threats were 100 percent credible. They could just be trolls on social media.”
The turning point for organizers from Students Demand Action, though, was a Facebook comment from a user whose profile picture was previously a photo of the Columbine shooter. The commenter threatened to bring 3-D printed handguns to the protest and wrote: "MY RIGHTS ARE WORTH MORE THAN YOUR LIFE."
“I think that the march will be safe due to the marshals,” Lawrence says. “But Students Demand Action does not feel comfortable with putting our students’ lives at risk.”
Lawrence thinks that the name “March on the NRA” incited some people to take action. "We do understand it was due to the name of the NRA being on the march, which is a learning experience,” she says. “It wasn’t about attacking the NRA or members or anything like that, but really about how they would support politicians. ... We’re trying to protest how the NRA would block us from talking about solutions, universal background checks, red flag laws, and banning gun stocks.”
Nonetheless, Anderson says, “The message to everybody who is pro-Second Amendment is, we’re not here to take your guns away. I just want to keep kids safe. We have different ideas about how to do that, but it’s about all having a seat at a table to do bipartisan work.”
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The counter-protest is organized by Rally for Our Rights, a group whose goal is to “connect Second Amendment advocates of any political affiliation with opportunities to effectively rally together to counter the overreaching anti-gun sentiment taking over this great nation,” according to its website. Organizers did not respond to a request to comment for this article. On the event page, organizers ask that counter-protesters “not engage with those who choose to negatively engage with you.” It also urges them to keep partisan symbols like Trump flags at home, and not to open-carry, as it is illegal in Denver.
Anderson says, “I plan to walk down to counter-protesters and talk to them, trying to get an understanding and hear what they have to say so that when I go to advocate for policy, I understand both sides of the aisle.”
The march is one of many actions that these youth-led gun-control advocacy coalitions have organized in Colorado since March, when they formed in response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It is planned in conjunction with similar events on Saturday in at least twenty states.
Somers, who is in contact with the national organizers, says he hasn’t heard of violent threats in other locations.