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‘It doesn’t have to be this way’: gun violence protesters rally in Oakland

Erin Simard asked the people who gathered Saturday in Oakland to rally for gun control measures why nothing has changed since she and other Pittsburgh students organized a movement against gun violence in 2018.

“What I can confidently say is that the only thing which will lead us to avoid another march against gun violence in this city is national gun reform … the one thing we lack,” said Simard, who was a Shady Side Academy student in 2018 and now attends a university in North Carolina.

Simard called for laws ensuring safe gun ownership and a ban on semi-automatic weapons. In front of her, several dozen people sat on the lawn holding signs and applauding chants of “stop the violence” and “enough is enough.” Behind the crowd, several children flew kites and threw Frisbees as speaker after speaker echoed Sinard’s pleas for keeping children safe in their schools.

The rally came together in about two weeks and was one of many local demonstrations held across the country Saturday as part of a national movement. Survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, organized March for Our Lives four years ago. The students marched on Washington, and groups across the country held local marches.

The movement was back in action Saturday as thousands were expected to rally in Washington, D.C., following shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y and the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Organizers said they plan to call on Congress to pass legislation to curb gun violence: “Our children’s lives depend on it,” they said in an event announcement.

In Oakland, several organizations including Ceasefire PA, the New Pennsylvania Project and Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence helped people register to vote and instructed them on how to contact their legislators.

The Rev. Eileen Smith with the South Pittsburgh Coalition for Peace, Hadley Haas with Pittsburgh Moms Demand Action Chapter, Justin Blatney with Westmoreland Racial and Social Justice, Hanna Vaandering with the National Education Association and Miri Rabinowitz — whose husband Jerry Rabinowitz was among the worshippers killed in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018 — urged the crowd to call their legislators and demand change.

“And vote like your life depends on it. It just might,” said Miri Rabinowitz.

Abigail Horn (left), Lydia Mcshane and Chip Myers with Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence.
Abigail Horn (left), Lydia Mcshane and Chip Myers with Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence.

In 2018, Pittsburgh students organized a downtown march and a rally in Market Square. They called for gun control measures, and many speakers recalled then how they were impacted by gun violence. Months later, a gunman shot and killed 11 people at Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill.

At the 2018 March for Our Lives rally in Market Square, then-state Rep. Ed Gainey implored young people to vote for candidates who support their fight and values.

“Let us not forget the lives that have been lost in urban neighborhoods throughout the United States of America. Let us not forget the fight of African Americans who have been fighting for sensible gun legislation since the '80s so we can watch our kids grow up,” he said at the 2018 march.

Four years later, Gainey — now mayor of Pittsburgh — spent early Saturday morning walking the business corridor of the South Side to speak with residents, police and patrons about ongoing gun violence in the neighborhood.

Gainey has a new plan for combating increased gun violence in the city. He says he will soon reboot the Disruptive Properties program, although he hasn't provided a timeline for it. Property owners will be considered “disruptive” if they receive three notices within a year. They will then be charged for any further public safety calls to their property.

As for the March for Our Lives organizers, they say they’re frustrated that they’re back four years later.

“I don’t want to be on stage talking about children who have died anymore,” Simard said. “It doesn’t seem like something that we have to keep talking about.”

Organizers say they will prioritize highlighting proposed gun safety legislation this summer.

“As laws start being proposed as they have been on the federal level we’re going to really try to get the national attention to focus on that and to not let the spotlight move further away as it usually does,” Simard said.