Thousands marched in Raleigh Wednesday night to remember the people killed in the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Students took center stage as they called for North Carolina elected officials to toughen gun restrictions.
The crowd in the small parking lot of the Pullen Memorial Baptist church swelled to a couple thousand, including many teachers, parents, and students. They’d heard about the event from Facebook and Twitter, spread the word through youth groups and school clubs. Students stood on a platform at the front of the lot.
"I’m in 8th grade at Martin Middle, and today I’m marching in honor of Joaquin Oliver, 17 years old," said Sophie Flynn.
Sophie was one of 17 kids who crossed the stage before the march representing one of the victims gunned down in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Each person spoke one name into the microphone, while pastor Bryan Lee lit candles in their hands and pastor Nancy Petty released a white dove in remembrance of each person killed.
The two pastors organized the event to give local students a platform to voice their concerns and feelings. They dreamt it up the morning after the shooting at Parkland.
"Nancy and I were on the phone together, and I just cried on her," Lee described. "I’d just gotten off the phone with my wife who is a teacher at North Garner Middle School, and she had been dealing with students all morning who were terrified."
The church typically holds prayer vigils after mass shootings. That day, the two pastors formed a new plan.
"We’ve all grown weary of prayer vigils that aren’t bringing any real change," Lee said. "What do we do to actually bring real change? I said we’ve got to mobilize the people whose lives are at stake the most. So, let’s mobilize students. Little did we know that students in Parkland and all across the country are doing it as well."
Lee said this march is just one of many happening this week.
"Students are organizing school walkouts, they’re organizing marches: he said. "So keep your eyes and your ears well open, because they’re speaking."
Zainab Atepli, a 17 year-old junior at Chapel Hill High, was among the speakers.
"Enough is enough, no more guns," Atepli said. "We are calling for common sense. We are calling for adults to start acting like it."
She said she has seen gun violence in her community. As a young Muslim in Chapel Hill, the 2015 shootings of three other young Muslims, not far from her home, felt very, very close.
"We are not just children who don’t know what we’re talking about. We are your future, your next generation," she said.
After Zainab finished speaking, everyone started to march, two or three wide down the sidewalks of Hillsborough Street.
Some cars honked in support, stuck momentarily in traffic as the long, long line of marchers passed through crosswalks, carrying signs that read: ”Protect kids, not guns” and “Listen to young people.” A four year-old held a sign that said, “Keep me safe.”
Far ahead, 17 students led the way, to place their candles on the steps of the Capitol Building, a reminder for their legislators.