March for Our Lives

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Disruption can be accompanied by discourse and dissonance. Rebecca Miller, Associate Professor of Art & Art History and Director of Arts Administration, shares her experiences at the crux of a current cultural conversation.

There are certain events in life when you remember exactly where you were when you heard devastating news that changed your life; be it a personal tragedy or a shared community event. I will always remember the heartbreaking day of February 14, 2018 and the horrific school shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. My stomach drops every time a school shooting occurs and there have been many in my home state of Florida, however this one shook me even deeper to the core. I grew up 25 miles away from Marjory Stoneman and currently have a nephew who goes to high school in south Florida. When I saw the first headline of “shooting at a south Florida high school,” I was overwhelmed with panic, hoping that my nephew was okay. When I realized it was another school, with so many victims, I felt guilty and sad for all of the families that would be grieving because of their loss.

University of Texas, 1966: 18 killed, 31 injured. California State University, 1976: 7 killed 2 injured. Cleveland Elementary School, 1989: 6 killed, 32 injured. Columbine High School, 1999: 15 killed, 21 injured. Virginia Tech University, 2007: 33 killed, 23 injured. Sandy Hook Elementary School, 2012: 28 killed, 2 injured. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 2018: 17 killed, 17 injured.

In the United States, the first recorded school shooting was in 1840 and the number of shootings since then has increased each decade. More than 500 people have been killed and more than 700 people have been injured due to school related shootings in our country.

I began the series Protest America March 24 - 27, 2012 while photographing protesters in Washington D.C. during the health care arguments at the Supreme Court. With a sad irony I later returned to Washington D.C. six years to the day, March 24, 2018, to photograph the March for Our Lives protest that was organized by students at Marjory Stoneman who, a little over a month prior, had lived through unthinkable violence at their school. It was an extremely spontaneous decision for me to go, but I felt compelled to do so to demonstrate my support to all students who have witnessed this type of tragedy.

I headed to the Metro station early on the day of the protest, traveling with a small bag, film, and two cameras – one medium format film and the other a DSLR. Arriving at 8 a.m., the crowds were light heading towards Pennsylvania Avenue but there was an incredible energy in the air. Music was blaring from large jumbotrons as I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue and, as I got closer to the stage, the amount of people began to grow in size. The performance event was scheduled for noon, so I walked around taking photographs until I found an area next to a guardrail and decided to stay there until the performance began. It was a pretty good location since I had a clear view across from an emergency lane so I was also able to photograph a number of people as they went through that area headed towards the stage, roughly a block away from me. Everyone was extremely nice and while there was a large presence of police officers, their side arms were concealed and they’d frequently walk by the crowds handing out bottles of water.

The crowd was extremely diverse in age, race, and gender; and it was sadly refreshing to see so many young people participating in a public protest. Some people were shouting, some defiantly holding their signs, and occasionally others were crying. A number of students near me would walk by with signs that read “Justice for Jaelynn!” in reference to a young woman who was shot and killed at her high school just five days prior to this protest. Their expressions were numb with a pain that will most likely influence their lives for many years to come. With so many signs reading “Never Again,” it was a sad reminder of how prevalent school shootings have become in our society.

I had been standing in the same area for several hours. Once the performance began, I was starting to become very claustrophobic in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd and wanted to seek out other opportunities to take photographs. It took me about 30 minutes to worm my way a city block through the crowd from 4th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue to Madison Drive NW, which parallels the National Mall. Once outside of the tight crowd, I was able to walk towards the Capitol and photograph numerous protestors on the streets.

My goal for this set of photographs was to focus on protesters (or counter protesters) with signs that contained language that was not supportive of civil, rational discourse about gun control, as was the case with so many in the health care debate crowds that I photographed in 2012. However, I found no counter protests and very few signs that compared to the obscenities of the health care protests.

The contrast of the two different protests was extreme. While I encountered large, contained crowds for the health care protests outside the Supreme Court and Upper Senate Park, those numbers were dwarfed by the 800,000+ people who showed up for March for Our Lives. The energy of the crowds was extremely different too. While those who opposed the Affordable Care Act were outwardly aggressive and angry with their signs and language, the March for Our Lives crowd had a collective sadness and weight to their demeanor; everyone was overly friendly, supportive, and upbeat, but there was an underlying sorrow within the crowd. Because of that sadness, I chose to de-saturate the final color images and put a sepia wash over them, mimicking the mood of the crowd. The scale of the final photographs is small, reflecting on the idea that this movement was created by children who have had enough of tragedy in places they should be safe, their schools.

By late afternoon, I decided to head back to my hotel in Arlington. I jumped on the Metro at the Smithsonian Station, but for some reason felt compelled to get off at Metro Center where I had begun the day and I headed back to Pennsylvania Avenue where the crowd was still large and shoulder-to-shoulder. I took a few more photographs and then headed back to the station where there were many signs left outside the station.

I had an early flight the next morning, so I skipped breakfast to head to the airport. Once there, I had enough time to eat at a restaurant. As with most airports, the seating was extremely tight and I was sitting at a table next to a couple. They were speaking rather loudly and it was hard not to listen to their conversation. The woman seemed very agitated and negative in the way she was speaking and I tried to read the news on my phone, eat, and not eavesdrop. The waitress was seating another couple and she put them on the other side of the couple sitting next to me. They were wearing March for Our Lives t-shirts, and the two couples immediately struck up a conversation. While discussing where they were from, the distraught women said that they were the parents of one of the teachers who was killed at Marjory Stoneman; My stomach dropped.

As my flight took off I had a clear view of Arlington National Cemetery. I thought about all of those who have died for our country and our freedoms, especially the freedom to an education. Then I thought about all the students, staff, and faculty who have been senselessly killed at their schools. The experience of documenting this protests was emotionally and physically draining but necessary for me not as a photographer or artist, but as a human being who attempts to make sense of brutal, senseless acts of violence and how we as a society choose to communicate with one another.