ST. PETERSBURG — Student activists from all over Florida came to St. Petersburg's Williams Park on Thursday to sing, chant, speak and register voters at a rally hosted by the anti-gun violence group March for our Lives.
A spirited crowd of about 200 turned out despite the time and temperature: midday and about 90 degrees with 60 percent humidity. Although billed as a voter registration rally, it was difficult to find an attendee political enough to show up, but apathetic enough to not already be registered.
Many were too young to vote. Maggie Gamson and Naomi Rappaport, both 13 of Tampa, said they've been following the progress of the student-led March for our Lives movement since it launched after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in February that left 17 dead. They got a ride to St. Petersburg from Maggie's father.
"It's the only problem with a student-led movement," Maggie said. "We can't get anywhere!"
Many of the student-activists who addressed the crowd hitched a ride on the charter bus that has taken March for our Lives activists across the state in recent weeks. The St. Petersburg rally was the second of three Tampa Bay-area March for our Lives events this week: the students held a town hall in Clearwater on Tuesday and they'll be in Tampa on Saturday for a panel discussion.
The students' speeches were wide-ranging in their call for gun reforms. Some Marjory Stoneman Douglas students eulogized the classmates they lost in the February shooting. Local student-activists cited figures to illustrate America's gun violence epidemic. And still others vented raw emotion.
"We are angry," MSD rising sophomore Ryan Servaites told the crowd. "We are angry because a child's life is worth a weapon of war. We are angry because for too long our voices have been squandered. We are angry because enough is enough is enough. You might have the right to a weapon, but every child deserves the right to live."
Despite March for our Lives' official nonpartisan stance, attendees leaned distinctly to the left. A slew of Democratic candidates and elected officials addressed the crowd, including four of the five Democratic candidates for governor; St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman; state Sen. Darryl Rouson; and state Rep. Wengay Newton. But so did Republican state Rep. Chris Latvala.
Speakers chided Republican lawmakers for what they perceived as inaction on the gun violence issue. In a particularly pointed moment, Amit Dadon, a 2017 MSD graduate, called out Florida's Republican U.S. senator, Marco Rubio, for accepting donations from the National Rifle Association.
"To Rubio, a senator who has let endless blood money make him forget who he actually works for, we'll vote you out soon enough," Dadon said to applause.
Geanne Maiks, a retired secretary for All Children's Hospital from St. Petersburg, staked out the same shady spot she nabbed at earlier progressive marches at Williams Park.
"I've been here a lot," she said. "Almost every protest we've had here. Almost every march. I've been busy."
Carmel Alshaibi, a rising junior at Melbourne High School who has toured with the Parkland activists, said the opportunity to hear from students all over the state was "beautiful."
"The young people do have a voice," she said.
Friends Bayley Edwards, 16, and Malou Baas, 18, students from Citrus County, said they made the trip because they believe in the cause. Baas said Thursday was the first time she'd ever attended an event like the March for our Lives rally.
"A lot of people want changes," Baas said.