Saturday’s celebrity-funded March for Our Lives in downtown Washington demands 2,000 portable toilets and 20 Jumbotrons, and is expected to draw as many as 500,000 people.
In Greensburg, Pa., Emma Skidmore, the 16-year-old organizer of a sister march on the same day, will be happy with much less.
Her friends are coming, she said. Or at least, some of them — about 10, she hopes. Then there are people she knows, but isn’t “super close” with, reposting the march information on social media. Some of them might come.
Unless they don’t.
“In the hundreds would be amazing,” she said. “I’m going to be happy with whatever we get.”
According to the March for Our Lives website, more than 700 “sibling marches” will be held around the world as demonstrators show solidarity with survivors of the Parkland, Fla., massacre speaking out against gun violence. Large cities such as left-leaning New York and Los Angeles have events.
In Virginia and Maryland, would-be marchers have about a dozen events to choose from. In Virginia, there are marches in Richmond, Charlottesville, Blacksburg, Fredericksburg and Staunton, among others. Maryland events include marches in Baltimore, Annapolis, Chestertown and Cumberland.
But then there are marches deep in Trump Country: Salina, Kan. Fort Smith, Ark.
And Greensburg. Although Democrat Conor Lamb pulled off an upset in a special congressional election here, Greensburg is the seat of Westmoreland County, which went 64 percent for President Trump in 2016. Lamb, a retired Marine, campaigned with an ad that assured voters he “still loves to shoot.”
This region’s gun culture is best explained by referring to its calendar: At Greensburg Salem High School, where Skidmore is a junior, the first day of hunting season is a holiday.
“When I was in junior high and high school, kids would bring rifles to school in the back of trucks,” said David Zilli, a former student who is now the principal. “It was a different mind-set, a different culture, a different time and place. I wouldn’t want to grow up today.”
Greensburg students did participate in last week’s national walkout against gun violence. They didn’t just walk out; instead they gathered to release 17 balloons in honor of Parkland’s 17 victims. That was a memorial, not a rally.
“Believe me, as soon as they thought our walkout was about gun control, parents were calling us,” Zilli said. (He also said he has an opinion about Trump’s proposal to arm teachers that he’s “not willing to share.”)
Skidmore, a military child who moved to Greensburg from Japan when she was 10, said she doesn’t always feel like she fits in. She’s a Democrat. Her friends are Democrats. And they’re a political minority.
“I was never into hunting,” she said, recalling that she was the only youth not allowed to shoot a rifle at a camp retreat in sixth grade. “It’s not something I’m interested in. I honestly never want to shoot a gun or hold a gun.”
Skidmore’s mother is part of a progressive group called Voice of Westmoreland that worked on the Lamb campaign. The group wanted to charter a bus to Washington for the March for Our Lives main event, but the local charter companies were booked. Rather than go to Pittsburgh — about an hour west — they wondered: Should Greensburg have its own rally?
Angela Aldous, a 37-year-old hospice nurse and member of the group, wasn’t sure.
“We tiptoe around environmental issues,” she said. “We’re trying to be purposeful, careful how we frame issues. Guns — there didn’t seem to be a careful enough way.”
But, Aldous said, the Voice of Westmoreland contacted students, and students took the lead.
“People have their own very strong opinions about what’s going on right now,” Skidmore said. “We’re all students, and we all want to see students and teachers stay safe.”
Not all students are on board, however.
Brooke Smith, an 18-year-old Greensburg senior headed to college to study international relations in the fall, said she’s a conservative. Despite what Skidmore said about the school’s politics, Smith said she feels like an outsider, too.
“I feel like it’s very split down the middle,” she said of the school. “Definitely the Democratic people speak out more than the Republicans. They advocate for more than the Republican kids do. The Republican kids don’t care very much.”
Smith is religious. She shadowed a Republican state representative for a school project. She helped found the school’s Young Republicans Club — until it was turned into a nonpartisan club after it was criticized and called racist by fellow students.
Smith is also for the Second Amendment and against the March for Our Lives. During the March 14 Parkland memorial service at Greensburg, she sat in class and did her homework.
She wasn’t just being contrarian. Accused Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz was “obviously mentally ill,” she said, and the community around him failed to take action. Gun control only makes law-abiding people more vulnerable, she said. And, she wondered, aren’t there better ways to protect Greensburg students — not waiting for, say, a federal assault weapons ban, but getting some metal detectors?
“The government failed to protect those kids at Parkland,” Smith said. “Why should we not have the right to protect ourselves?”
Pennsylvania state Rep. Eric R. Nelson (R), the legislator Smith shadowed, shared some of her concerns.
School safety is personal for him, he said — he has six children, and his wife is a second-grade teacher. He’s open to some gun regulation, such as banning bump stocks.
But he’s also an “extremely pro-conservative former Marine,” he said. He said the FBI failed to investigate Cruz and that the government created gun-free school zones, so it’s responsible for making them safe.
As for attending the March for Our Lives in Greensburg this weekend, Nelson isn’t sure. The national rally looks more like an anti-gun rally, he said. He wants to learn more.
“I think that dialogue can be had in western Pennsylvania,” he said. “Nationally, it seems so polarized that people on both sides are refusing to talk. Nobody benefits from that.”