Before the assembly, before the mayor spoke and people cheered, before TV cameras packed the gymnasium at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southeast Washington on Thursday, Dakota McNeely drew a purple heart on her hand in ink.
Then, through its center, she carved a crack.
It was an homage to her friend, James Smith, 17, who was shot dead in an apparent robbery a few days before Christmas last year. It was a way to feel Smith’s presence as she joined her classmates and Parkland, Fla., teenagers in calling for stricter gun laws.
The Parkland students, in the nation’s capital for the March for Our Lives, an anti-gun-violence rally that could draw hundreds of thousands of people to downtown Washington this weekend, met with a handful of the D.C. school’s upperclassmen before taking the stage.
They said the meeting illuminated how much they had in common with students from some of the District’s most underserved neighborhoods. It also highlighted key differences, showing how survivors of school violence in more privileged areas are treated differently than students touched by violence in their neighborhoods.
“This past Valentine’s Day, all the people in my school and my community lost someone,” said 16-year-old Alfonso Calderon, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. “Nothing in my entire life has affected me that much — ever. Not only am I a different person, but I was robbed of my innocence. I no longer get to go home and be a normal kid, and I know you guys are going through the exact same thing. You just don’t have the platform. People aren’t listening to you.”
Calderon and his classmates — David Hogg, Cameron Kasky and Alex Wind, each 17 — took turns at the microphone in front of a roomful of students and a media scrum reminiscent of a campaign rally.
Each called out their own privileges and the struggles of the students they called their “new friends from Thurgood Marshall.” They highlighted the gulf between their ability to be heard by lawmakers and the news media.
“We’ve seen again and again the media focus on school shootings and oftentimes be biased toward white-privileged students,” Hogg said. “Many of these communities are disproportionately affected by gun violence, but they don’t get the same media attention that we do.”
In the crowd below, several students nodded their heads. A mother seated on blue risers made a noise of assent.
“Now that they’ve lived through this shooting and they’ve lost people, they can relate to kids like us better,” McNeely, a junior, said after the rally. “But that’s not good, either. No one should have to go through this. It shouldn’t be how things are for any of us.”
When one of the Parkland teens asked to see a show of hands from those who had lost a friend or relative to gun violence, dozens of students lifted their hands into the air.
Half-a-dozen Thurgood Marshall juniors and seniors stepped forward to speak after the Parkland students finished their remarks.
They called on their classmates to attend the Saturday march. They mentioned friends and family members lost to gun violence.
One student looked into the TV cameras and said simply: “We’re showing up.”
Assad Jenkins, 17, said he attended the small-group listening session with the teenagers from Florida before the main event and said it felt like the Stoneman Douglas students were really listening to their stories.
“Coming from them, to hear that they noticed how different they’re being treated to how we get treated when one of our friends gets killed, it means a lot,” Jenkins said. “I’m very grateful that they showed up, that they told everyone how we deserve the same platform.”
Parents of two Thurgood Marshall students who were killed this school year sat in the crowd. They said seeing teenagers from different backgrounds and communities unite around an issue such as gun violence gives them hope.
“I feel like maybe something great can happen from this tragedy, from all these tragedies,” said Seditra Brown, whose 19-year-old son, Paris, was fatally shot in January.
Brown said she never heard from city officials after her son’s death and was surprised to see several city leaders, including D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, at the school.
Brown said she never heard from the police chief or the mayor’s office after her son’s death and was surprised to see several city leaders, including D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, at the school. But officials from the Community Stabilization Protocol, a program designed to connect the families of violent-crime victims with a range of social services, said they have been working with Brown since a few days after her son’s death.
Curtis Kelly, whose 16-year-old son, Zaire, was killed in September, said helping to support gun-control measures is a way of honoring his son’s legacy.
His surviving son, Zion, who was Zaire’s twin, was one of the students to speak during the rally.
Zion “is the twin that’s going to continue the fight for his brother,” Kelly said.
Clarification: This story was updated to reflect that members of the city’s Community Stabilization Protocol said they have been in contact with the family of Paris Brown.