About two hours into the March for Our Lives, I experienced multiple epiphanies. In no order of importance these were as follows: that there is a difference between a march and a rally, and what I was part of was actually a rally. I thought I was attending a march and had prepared to walk for miles, if necessary. I didn’t know that I was going to stand, with as little personal space as revelers in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, without the accompanying stimulants, for more than three and a half hours, listening to the heartfelt expressions of sorrow and hope, the voices of young people, amplified from a far-away stage.
I was lucky to be close enough to a tree, a honey locust, I think, so that when my legs began to falter — I thought it would be my back first — I had the tree to lean on. It supported me when I needed it the most.
The second epiphany was that it is fortunate that I suffer from neither claustrophobia nor agoraphobia, for, being stuffed into a mass of folks with no escape, I might have precipitated a medical emergency. I was also grateful that I had turned down that third cup of coffee, hours before, as there was not a porta-potty within range.
It could have been much worse. The weather was beneficent and the magnolias were blooming. We were crowded in the warm light of a spring sun.
Many had traveled long hours and days to be there. Retired teachers from 12 hours away in Detroit; students on epic bus trips of 36 hours from Arkansas; folks from Baton Rouge, Chicago, St. Louis, and 40 of us from the North Fork, a not so easy five-and-a-half-hour slog. Asians, African Americans, Hispanics, Caucasians, Jews, Christians, Muslims — a tapestry of America, all supporting the young survivors of gun violence and bearing witness to their pain.
I had decided when the march was announced that I would have to go; it was necessary to chip at the cynicism that accompanies getting older. It had been almost 50 years since I was last to a demonstration in Washington. That one, in May 1971, was a march led by veterans against the Vietnam War, who threw their medals over the White House fence.
A half-century later at the March for Our Lives, there were no arrests. The crowds were well behaved, the Washington police were courteous and considerate, the staff of the Metro helpful. It was no longer an Us vs. Them mentality. We were all there supporting a solution to a problem that should have no political differences. End gun violence. Period.
Now who could possibly argue with that?
Our bus ride was organized by the Southold Democratic Party. Forty of us, families, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, students, gathered in the dark in Riverhead at four in the morning. Most of us were strangers but the bus ride, an exercise in complete absurdity, bonded us.
Due to some last-minute glitches the bus assigned to us was a party bus, with disco lights on the ceiling, a bus perhaps more suited for bachelor parties, with a wet bar and perimeter seating. It would have been perfect for 15 souls. No one complained. No one balked when they saw the layout. We all seemed to understand that if this is what we got, we were going regardless. In a real way the bus ride brought us all together in a manner that might have been impossible in a bus with a more traditional seating arrangement. We were forced to engage with each other.
I was in the rear surrounded by students from Mattituck High School, graduating seniors, smart, all of them recognizing the importance of making this effort. They were pretty much glued to their phones until we began sharing snacks, then we just chatted away. One of them, a former Strawberry Festival Queen, told stories of her tenure, and her pride at being chosen.
Due to the lack of space, we had just enough room for our bodies, no room to stretch out our legs, and when we fell asleep, heads rested on the shoulders of complete strangers. It was so crazy that when we reached the rest stop in Maryland some of us gazed longingly at the other buses, the ones that had real seats.
We arrived back in Riverhead almost 24 hours after we had left. We avoided a potential crisis when the students couldn’t charge their phones. For a moment I thought there would be complete meltdown but one of them had the foresight to bring a portable charger, so the moment passed without incident.
Do I feel as if I made a difference? Yes. It made a difference for me. Do I think that anything will change? No, I don’t, but that wasn’t my purpose in going. I was there to support the children who have suffered from the spate of random killings that have become part of their legacy. To inform them that I can be counted upon, to vote, to contribute and to be part of a solution, if there is one. That is reason enough.
David Berson is co-founder of Glory Going Green Inc., an educational charity serving the children of the community since 2007.