Women’s March organizers led hundreds of protesters Friday on a 17-mile march from the the National Rifle Association’s headquarters to the Justice Department in blistering heat to decry what demonstrators called the gun lobby’s disregard for the lives of people of color.
A march in front of the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax County led off the two-day event. On Saturday morning, demonstrators will gather for a second rally in front of the Department of Justice in downtown Washington.
The demonstration was a response to a controversial, one-minute NRA recruitment video, released last month, that some interpreted as provoking fear and inciting violence. Conservative pundit Dana Loesch, an NRA spokeswoman, narrates the ad and criticizes recent protests by left-leaning groups, saying demonstrators “bully and terrorize the law-abiding until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness.”
Friday’s protesters carried signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and chanted such lines as “None of us are safe until all of us are safe!”
“We are not trying to stop gun ownership,” Carmen Perez, an organizer of January’s Women’s March on Washington, said at the rally outside the NRA. “We are trying to stop the violence that comes with it.”
Hundreds then embarked on the trek to the Justice Department’s headquarters. Temperatures reached 90 degrees at noon, but humidity made it feel like 105, according to the National Weather Service. The afternoon brought drenching storms and winds gusting to 50 mph.
LGBT, feminist and criminal justice groups organized the demonstrations and provided water and snacks along the route. Marchers were met with both cheers of support and honks of frustration as traffic became snarled at various intersections.
After seeing the video that featured Loesch, Women’s March founder Tamika Mallory wrote a letter to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president and chief executive, calling on him to remove the video and apologize for it.
The NRA then released a second video, calling out Mallory and her letter while telling the left to “grow up” and stop the protests.
Loesch said Friday that she supported the demonstrators’ right to protest but was confused by their message.
She criticized Women’s March organizers for excluding women who didn’t hold their progressive views, saying, for example, that organizers failed to give women who oppose abortion a platform at the march.
She also pushed back on criticism that her video incited violence, saying the march gave a platform to Madonna, who told a crowd of hundreds of thousands gathered on the Mall in January that she had “thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.” (Madonna later said she “spoke in metaphor.”)
“I’m confused by it,” Loesch said of Friday’s demonstration.
“If this is a rally where they’re trying to promote unity or raise awareness about something they perceive I or the NRA did wrong, I don’t know if they can do it with a clean slate knowing who the organizers are and what some of the organizers stand for.”
Demonstrators also protested the NRA for its silence following the acquittal of a Minnesota police officer in the killing of Philando Castile, a black man and legal gun owner who was shot in his car after he told the officer he was carrying a licensed firearm. Critics accused the NRA of standing up only for white gun owners.
“I believe that Philando Castile had a right to bear arms and a right to life, and that was brutally taken from him,” said Sydney Stewart, a college student living in the District for the summer who attended the demonstration. “That’s why I’m marching.”
Officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled Castile’s car over in a suburb near Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the officer later said he thought Castile matched the description of a suspect in a robbery. The stop quickly escalated.
Yanez fired into the car, saying later that he thought Castile was going for his gun, a claim Castile’s girlfriend, who was sitting in the seat next to him, disputed. She began streaming the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook Live.
Loesch said Friday that while the national gun-rights organization didn’t speak out on the Castile case, at least one local chapter condemned the killing. She called Castile’s death “awful” and said police should have used better tactics to de-escalate the situation.
She also added that the circumstances surrounding the shooting weren’t clear-cut, noting that Yanez told investigators that he smelled “burnt marijuana” in Castile’s vehicle and said he feared for his life.
“It’s a lot more complicated than they are trying to portray it,” Loesch said. “There are decisions that went wrong on both sides.”
The demonstrations will conclude Saturday with a 10 a.m. vigil in front of the Justice Department.
Maxwell Grant, a 47-year-old pastor who traveled from Connecticut for the march, said it was time the country came together to support additional gun restrictions. He planned to march the entire route.
“I live about 40 miles from Newtown. After the Sandy Hook shooting, I came to think it was a moral imperative to rethink our national conversation on guns,” he said. “I’ve got my travel pants, my floppy hat on. I’m ready.”
Bob Bland, another organizer of the Women’s March, said the rally was intended to draw a connection between the NRA and the Justice Department, both of which she said have failed to treat whites and minorities equally.
“We’re marching to the DOJ because Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice’s racist decisions over the years are putting people of color at direct impact,” she said.
“This is all part of the revolving door between the gun industry and the halls of power in Washington.”