March For Our Lives, Berlin

March for our lives Berlin
Nuria Ruiz

Hundreds of thousands of people joined the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, and in cities throughout the US and Europe, to finally push for stricter gun laws after another mass shooting, this time at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, FL, had cost 17 students and staff their lives.

The crowd that had gathered for the sister march in front of the American embassy in Berlin was significantly smaller, but no less passionate about the issue. A few hundred people, many of them children and teenagers, came together on Pariser Platz to show their support for the movement in the United States. The rally had been organized by American Voices Abroad, a political organization whose goal is to amplify progressive voices of US citizens living in Berlin, and the Berlin chapter of Democrats Abroad, the expat organization of the Democratic Party.

Many of the attendees and speakers at the rally were students, parents, and educators. Adri Oldham, Volunteer and Membership Coordinator with Democrats Abroad in Berlin and a teacher who taught in Detroit and Chicago before relocating to Berlin, had brought “homework” for the crowd. The most important assignment she had for her listeners was to register to vote from abroad. She urged the American expats present at the rally to register to request their absentee ballots, especially those high school students who will turn 18 before November 6 of this year. At the end of her speech, the crowd was chanting “Today I march, tomorrow I vote.” 

Chris Sauca of the Democrats Abroad Youth Caucus called for 17 seconds of silence at the beginning of his speech to commemorate those killed in the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, one for each victim. After showing his support and admiration for the Parkland students that had started the movement, he expressed his frustration at the lack of response to these acts of violence: “Who cares if it is easier for 18-year-olds to buy an assault rifle than it is for them to vote? Who cares about sensible gun laws when we have enough thoughts and prayers to go around? Who cares about a child’s life when retweets and campaign donations by the NRA are obviously so much more important?” he asked. Like many of the prominent voices of the movement, he also brought up perhaps its strongest asset: that many students who have grown up with the constant fear of school shootings will be able to vote in the upcoming midterm elections, or, at the latest, the presidential election in 2020. A mass mobilization of young voters could assert the political pressure that is necessary to break the stronghold of the Republican party, and thus limit the influence of the NRA who has dominated the conversation on gun control until now.

As could have been expected, most of those mobilized for the March were Americans living and working in Berlin, but a handful of German and international protesters had shown up to show their support and solidarity. Korbinian Hamberger, a German scriptwriter, and Norman Vladimir, an American musician, had come to the march together. Hamberger said he wanted to be a part of the march and show support for the movement despite not being directly affected by the issue because he follows American politics closely and has many friends in the United States. Despite his good understanding of the cultural issues underlying gun control in the States, he said that he still found it puzzling that the issue of gun control is so controversial in the United States and said that from a German point of view, a complete ban on weapons for private citizens would seem like an obvious response to the many deaths caused by gun violence. “No one needs a gun,” he points out, but concedes that this perspective does not do justice to the complexity of the issue in the United States. His friend Norman Vladimir, who grew up in Tennessee, survived a school shooting at his high school over twenty years ago, an experience that still haunts him, as he said. He expressed his frustration that not much has changed in gun legislation since then. Like his friend, he acknowledged that a total ban on guns was unrealistic, but he is adamant on one issue that most of the protesters can agree on: assault weapons and “bump stocks,” devices that allow rifles to shoot hundreds of rounds a minute, need to be banned. “Their only purpose is to kill, they are not for hunting or self-defense,” he points out. He also criticizes one of the most central arguments that pro-gun advocates keep bringing up: that citizens need guns to protect themselves from a potentially authoritarian government. He points out that in a world where governments resort to more sophisticated means of control, this justification starts to seem flimsy. He says that even though he is living abroad, this issue still deeply affects him, and that he is glad the current protests are finally starting a long-overdue conversation on gun control.

Michael Shanks, a 17-year-old exchange student from Indiana, said he came to the rally because he will have to go back to finish high school in the United States next year. He described the situation in his home state – a red state – and said he could probably walk into a Walmart and buy a gun without even having to show his ID. Obviously, these circumstances would make him feel unsafe at his school and he believed it was time to end the NRAs monopoly on debates on gun control. In his view, taking guns away from civilians entirely would  not be a real solution, but he believes regulations need to be tightened significantly. It should become more difficult for individuals to acquire a gun, he insisted, and he also argued for regular check-ups to make sure gun-owners did not present a danger to their fellow citizens.

Emma Nathanson and Lena Marzona, both 15 and students at Berlin’s John-F.-Kennedy school, a German-American high school where students can graduate with both the German Abitur and an American High School Diploma, said that as Americans living in Berlin, they are deeply invested in the topic. They had come to the march because they believed it was important that students in America, and worldwide, stood together on this issue so the lenient gun laws in the US can finally change. Marzona recalled attending the Women’s March in New York City last year and that this experience had made her feel that people coming together on issues they believed in could really make a change in the world. Both of them said that it was difficult to communicate the issue to their German friends, since people in Germany take strict gun regulations and the almost complete absence of gun violence for granted. They also described their German friends’ reaction to the extent of and lack of response to gun violence as “baffled.” The political, historical, and cultural conflicts that underlie the contested issue in the United States can be difficult to communicate to Europeans.

Many of the symbols used at the rally tied the events in with other protest movements that had characterized the political landscape in the United States in the past years. Some of the protesters wore the pink pussy hats that had taken over the Women’s Marches in early 2017. One of the protesters held up a Black Lives Matter sign, and as the rally wound down, many students lay down flat on the ground, some covering themselves with their banners and pretended to be dead. Berlin had seen these forms of protest—die-ins—at the 2016 and 2017 Black Lives Matter rallies protesting police brutality against unarmed African Americans.

It is possible that these issues resonate only with the expat community in Berlin, and seem too far away, or too incomprehensible, for most Germans. Or perhaps it is the many conflicts that demand our attention these days: an even smaller protest against the war in Yemen, which takes place on the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate at the same time as the March for Our Lives, serve as a reminder of the turbulent times we live in – not just in the United States and in Germany. The passion, dedication, and solidarity of the young people who carry this movement, however, do spark hope that in the foreseeable future classrooms in the United States will be places where children are safe from gun violence.