Four years ago, hundreds of thousands of people marched in Washington, DC, to protest and mourn following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, during which 17 people were killed. Millions of other Americans joined in solidarity around the country. The collective moment morphed into a student and youth-led organization, March for Our Lives, which is still fighting for stronger gun reform action from political leaders.
In 2022, March for Our Lives is honoring this anniversary with a bold piece of public protest — 1,100 body bags laid out along the National Mall, spelling out the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” It’s an emotive, physical representation of the organizers’ frustration with their political representatives, who continue to balk at passing legal reform, and a not-at-all subtle call-out to the government: This lack of action is killing people.
Each body bag is meant to represent over 150 deaths since February 2018, which total more than 170,000 people killed by gun violence in the last four years in America, according to the organization. The organizers and participants of Thursday’s demonstration include youth activists, Parkland survivors, and family members. Those on the ground for the demonstration, including youth advisory board members and founding organizers Kelly Choi and Bria Smith, want to make it clear that this is not just an art installation.
“We’re bringing that exposure, that violence we see every day on the streets, that we see in our schools, our churches, and our malls. We are bringing it to politicians who have the luxury to ignore it,” Smith said. “In order to get our politicians to hear us, we have to come down to their streets. They won’t come to our spaces and listen to what we have to say.”
Credit: March for Our Lives
Credit: March for Our Lives
Choi explained this means calling out the meaningless platitudes shared across social media and beyond with every new shooting: “Those words — just saying those words — have caused so much pain and devastation and death all across the country.”
In the demonstration’s press release, Daud Mumin, college student and board co-chair of March for Our Lives, said the fault of so many gun violence deaths lies explicitly with Congress. “Body bags. That’s what thoughts and prayers get us because these empty words do not stop bullets,” Mumin wrote. “This crisis is completely preventable if only politicians in Washington who have the power to make change took their jobs seriously and actually valued our lives.”
The current presidential administration has yet to enact large scale gun reform. In his State of the Union address on March 1, President Joe Biden announced an initiative to reduce rates of gun violence, focused on supporting local law enforcement and community violence intervention, and simply called on his fellow legislators to enact life-saving gun reform at the congressional level. Many activists, including those with March for Our Lives, thought that was not enough.
“These politicians have created their own divides. So many young people around me are jaded and don’t want to take part in the political process because these politicians made promises that they still aren’t following through on. They just want to use our images. If they want a photo op today, they’ll have to take a picture of these body bags,” Choi said.
On the February anniversary of the Parkland shooting, March for Our Lives and its partners Change the Ref and Guns Down America launched ShockMarket.org, a tracking and advocacy tool that lets visitors monitor how many gun violence deaths have occurred since Biden took office. According to the site, which includes data from the Gun Violence Archive, there’s already been 52,263 gun deaths since Biden took office. The organization is also working toward midterm season, putting pressure on current leaders and galvanizing young voters. “We’ve had a re-shifting of voter culture,” Choi said. “It might sound corny, but we’re making voting cool. Young people are entering these political spectrums, and in the future they’ll possibly be taking these roles from these leaders.”
The organizers hope that the congressional leaders viewing the 1,100 body bags know that activists are not going to back down, and they urge those watching across the country to get involved themselves. March for Our Lives asks everyone to sign their petition calling for immediate legislation requiring background checks on all firearm sales, which will be sent to U.S. Senator and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has previously committed himself to commonsense gun reform and authored the original bill requiring background checks. You can read more about the demonstration at marchforourlives.com/thoughtsandprayers.