They can’t vote yet, but they have started a political movement that is gaining a toehold in the nation’s conscience, reminding us that our children are our future voters, and ultimately our future leaders.

Lani and I wandered into a local version of the massive nationwide “March for Our Lives” rally last Saturday in Wilmington. Driving into downtown, we passed the rallying point in a park near Cape Fear Community College.

Hundreds of people waited to begin a protest march to the Lennon Federal Building a mile away, located on the banks of the Cape Fear River. Across the river lies the Battleship North Carolina, a fitting reminder of the sacrifices made for the freedoms we hold dear, including the right to bear arms.

Somewhere off in the distance was a faint chant: “What do we want?” “CHANGE!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!”

We were not aware of the planned march and rally. We were downtown to have lunch, which happened in a restaurant on a corner right where the marchers turned to make their way to the riverside. In small groups, many dressed in festive colors and holding placards, they streamed by the window on a blustery cool day of gray skies.

They came in all ages and sizes and manner of dress. Some strode confidently, others hobbled on bad knees or hips, some with children in painted faces, some holding hands in unison. We watched with curiosity until the stream ebbed out.

Lunch finished, we decided to follow the crowd to see what was happening. Rounding the corner, we saw a sizable crowd of 500 revving up. A speaker introduced special guests. Signs were everywhere and the crowd was enthusiastic, clapping on cue. It was a legitimate protest event, though a bit staged.

Carrying a laser focus on issues surrounding gun violence, the message was, “It’s time to do something about gun control.” The signs said a lot about their feelings: “Stop the Slaughter,” “When did not wanting our kids to die at school get political?”, “United Against Gun Violence,” “Books, Not Bullets,” “Congress Stop Mass Kills,” and “We Stand Together.”

The protesters were of like mind. I did not see a single counterprotest statement. Anywhere.

The Grim Reaper was present, 8 feet tall with hideous skeletal face and tinfoil scythe towering overhead. In his other hand he held a sign that read, “The NRA feeds the Grim Reaper.” Really, he was just a young man in blue jeans standing on stilts, covered with a black toga, but the effect was good.

We wandered among the protesters, taking the whole event in as an unexpected adventure. I don’t have strong feelings about guns, but this was good. Good, I thought while watching and listening, to see people use their right of free speech to protest something they feel passionate about and feel needs to be changed. Other than voting, how else can they move mountains, or even be heard?

There was quiet sincerity overall in the messages. It was not an angry event. There was no heat or passion like protests I remember from the Vietnam era. They were not asking to ban all firearms, or to take away guns from owners. The main targets seemed to be the political power of the National Rifle Association, and the banning of automatic weapons like the AR-15. There was almost a pleading tone overall.

Most of the speakers we heard were high school students. They were polished and poised beyond their years. One of them said of her part in the movement, “I am told that I can’t vote and that I am not old enough to have an informed opinion. I say, if I am old enough to be shot, I’m old enough to have an opinion.”

A minute later, she moved to the power of the NRA, and called out N.C. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis for receiving $7 million and $4 million respectively in campaign contributions from the NRA.

“We aren’t just your future voters,” the teenager asserted, “We are your future leaders. We are your future politicians.”

Then she laid the political hammer down: “I promise we will vote you out and replace you with leaders who care if we live or die.” There was not a dissenting voice in the enthusiastic response.

As another sign proclaimed, “We are not actors, we are acting.” Yes, it’s a movement. There is righteous indignation at the core. There is youth and energy. Since 9/11, we’ve put the security of the American people ahead of their liberty. We are no longer a nation of rugged individualists.

“Protect people, not guns,” said another sign.

It was good to see some live activism. One could argue that for far too long, the populace has allowed its elected officials to act without the press of public outcry.

Given the troubled state of the shooters, one is left to wonder what might happen if mental health across America ever becomes a focus issue. As Whitney Houston once sang, “The greatest love of all is inside of me.”

The children are our future, and their love is the greatest gift of all.

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