A crowd estimated at several thousand marched down Congress Street and gathered at the steps of Portland City Hall Saturday. Fired-up students, fed up with gun violence in their schools, led the crowd in chants of "Enough is enough!" and "Hey-hey, ho-ho, the NRA has got to go!"
Eleven-year-old Matthew Okulski stepped up to the podium and called for better background checks and other gun control measures.
"They say we don't need gun control, well I say, 'enough!'” Okulski shouted to loud applause. "Many people say that teachers need to have guns. I cannot imagine any of my teachers having guns," he continued. "Teachers could have their guns stolen and used against students...How would, how could a teacher shoot one of their own students? They think that arming people in schools is a solution? I say, 'enough!'"
Other students urged those old enough to go to the polls this November and vote for candidates who support tougher background checks, assault rifle bans, waiting periods and high capacity magazine bans.
"Guns are second-leading cause of death among children," said Shaman Kirkland, a sophomore at the University of Southern Maine. "That is unacceptable....And I, for one, will not vote for anyone who stops us from keeping our community safe."
Hamdia Ahmed, a USM student activist who helped organize the March For Our Lives event in Portland, went a step further.
"If you are a politician that takes money from the NRA, I hope you have saved your retirement, because your career is up!" she shouted to the crowd. "Our generation, the Parkland, Sandy Hook, Columbine generation, does not have any requests from you. Oh, no, we are done politely asking," she said. "We are registering to vote and we are running for office. We don't need you anymore!"
At the start of the march, one of hundreds taking place around the country, a giant, blaze-orange piece of cloth was unfurled to symbolize the need to feel protected against being shot, the same way hunters do.
Eighteen-year-old Kelly Maguire of Westbrook said she'd like to feel safer. She lived through a scare last year when there was a report of a man armed with a gun in her school building. She and a dozen other students hid in a bathroom while their teacher lay on the floor trying to barricade the bathroom door to protect them.
"We were all texting our parents things like 'I love you,' and were prepared to be shot any second," Maguire said. It turned out to be a false report, but the experience was traumatizing. "I don't want that experience to ever happen again around here, she said. "But it's now turned into not like an ‘if’ it's going to happen but like ‘when’ it's going to happen to our school."
That's not an unusual fear for kids. At a March For Our Lives gathering in Bangor where a couple hundred people turned out, sixth grader Emilia Shawqi said she often wonders if the next lockdown drill will be real. Her sister, Elena said she's not very concerned about active shooters. She think her school is safe but admits she's not completely sure. The girls' father, Humam Shawqi, reminds Elena that she was thinking about the potential for gun violence at the Saturday march.
"You didn't want to participate because of this," he said, "Because you had that fear inside that someone would carry a gun and would come and shoot the people here because they are protesting against having guns."
At the Bangor gathering, a man named Alec, who declined to give his last name, showed up carrying a semi-automatic AR-15. He said he was there to listen to protesters exercise their first amendment rights. And when several people challenged him, saying he was scaring children, Alec apologized. "I'm sorry, I do not intend that," he said, before eventually walking off.
Back in Portland, amid a sea of signs calling for sensible gun laws, an end to "thoughts and prayers," assault weapons bans, and demanding action from members of Congress, Kerrigan Stevens, a sophomore at Gray-New Gloucester High School, told those gathered at city hall that she can't understand why some people still don't think it's time for a change.
"Look at this as if you are a high school student who wakes up every morning hoping to return home that evening," she said. "Look at it as if you are a teacher who thought you'd be educating young minds, not potentially sacrificing your life. Look at it as if you are a parent who sends your child to school everyday, wondering as you say, 'I love you,' to them, if this might be the last time..."
"After looking at it from the viewpoints of people who may be impacted the absolute most, I don't understand how anybody could believe now is not the time," she said.
Additional reporting for this piece by Jennifer Mitchell and Patty Wight.