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Protesters march in St. Petersburg for gun reform

Weeks after massacres, demonstrators rallied in North Straub Park, downtown Tampa and across the U.S.
Marchers protest and chant during a gun-safety march on Saturday, in St. Petersburg.
Published Jun. 11|Updated Jun. 12

ST. PETERSBURG — Cassie Santella wanted the crowd to know she’s frightened, she’s angry and she won’t apologize for how those emotions are spilling out of her. As a seventh grader, she’d attended her first protest calling for gun reform shortly after the shooting at a school in Parkland killed 17.

She’d held a sign that day reading, “Teachers need a raise, not a gun.” Now she’s a rising senior.

“Here I am today, with a poster board that says, ‘Teachers need a raise, not a gun’,” she said Saturday through a microphone in North Straub Park. “It’s been four years. Why the f--k am I still scared to go to school?

“While I was writing this speech I considered a few times using the word ‘sorry,’ ‘sorry for my language,’ ‘sorry for my pissy tone’ ... but I want to make it clear that I will not be apologizing. I’m not sorry for being pissed off about things I should be pissed off about. ... Human lives trump someone’s right to own a gun, and I’m not sorry.”

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered on the downtown waterfront to rally for stricter laws they hope will curb gun violence plaguing the nation. Some laid flowers at the feet of 21 wooden stakes hammered into the grass there, bearing the names and ages of children and teachers fatally shot in Uvalde, Texas. One mother listened as she held her son, due to start elementary school this fall.

Maress and Marjorie Scott, with Quis For Life Inc., speak during a gun reform rally on Saturday, June 11, 2022, at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg.
Maress and Marjorie Scott, with Quis For Life Inc., speak during a gun reform rally on Saturday, June 11, 2022, at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

A similar demonstration took place in downtown Tampa on Saturday and in hundreds of other locations across the nation.

Some who attended said they’d been through a familiar cycle of violence, protest and inaction. Sherry and Mike Duffy wore T-shirts reading March For Our Lives 2018. They’d attended a rally at John’s Pass that year, after Parkland.

“Here we are four years later,” said Sherry Duffy. “Nothing has been done that will stop this. Nothing.”

Dave Apple stood alone. He said he’d never before attended a protest. Why now?

“I have a granddaughter,” he said. He shook his head. “I can’t believe there aren’t more people here.”

The St. Petersburg event was organized by the Women’s Advocacy Movement of Pinellas. The group invited local elected officials and political candidates to the event but did not allow them to speak. Organizers felt it was a time for politicians to listen, not campaign.

“We saw this as a memorial,” said Cheyenne Cheile, one of the organizers, “and it just didn’t feel right or appropriate to have them make it about themselves.”

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A table was set up allowing people to register to vote. Organizers presented people with QR codes linking to petitions calling for assault weapons bans, universal background checks and an end to Senate filibusters.

Protesters held signs reading “AR-15s are weapons of war,” “No thoughts, no prayers. We want action” and “The founding fathers had muskets, not assault rifles.” Clearwater’s Kevin Corrigan held a sign that read “gun owners for reform.”

Protesters march during a gun reform rally on Saturday, June 11, 2022, at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg.
Protesters march during a gun reform rally on Saturday, June 11, 2022, at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

“I wish I saw more of my people here,” Corrigan said. “I own guns, I grew up as a member of the NRA, but it’s time to ban assault rifles. I own those, too, and I’d be first in line to give them up, and you don’t even have to pay me.”

The House recently passed bills to raise the age to buy semi-automatic weapons and establish federal “red flag” laws. Similar initiatives have traditionally stalled in the Senate. Democratic and Republican senators had not announced any agreement on the issue by the time of Saturday’s protests.

Also speaking in St. Petersburg was Maress Scott, who founded Quis For Life after his 20-year-old son was fatally shot in St. Petersburg in 2019. The organization has since convinced 3,000 St. Petersburg youths to sign a pledge to not commit gun violence.

“We are here for two reasons … horror and love,” Scott said. “Horrified about the things we’ve seen in Buffalo, horrified about the things we’ve seen in Uvalde, but horrified about the things we’ve seen here in our own city. ... We’re also brought here by love for each other and our families.”

The St. Petersburg group marched twice around Straub Park chanting, “Senators, hear our cries. Gun control saves lives.” There were few onlookers at the normally busy restaurant tables along Beach Drive, likely due to the drizzling rain.

The largest protest Saturday was planned for Washington, D.C., where organizers of the second March for Our Lives rally expected 50,000 people at the Washington Monument.

The crowd cheers during a gun reform rally on Saturday, June 11, 2022, at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg.
The crowd cheers during a gun reform rally on Saturday, June 11, 2022, at North Straub Park in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
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