On March 24, Parkland, Fla., high school students — in coalition with people nationwide — organized massive public rallies to support gun regulation, safer schools and safer communities. By our count, the March for Our Lives event brought out 1,380,666 to 2,181,886 people at 763 locations — making it the third-largest day of demonstrations since President Trump’s inauguration launched an extraordinary period of national political mobilization. As The Washington Post reported recently, nearly 1 in 5 Americans says they have attended a rally or protest since the beginning of 2016.
We’ve been counting U.S. public protests and rallies since the Women’s March in January 2017, using a methodology we described here at TMC in our first post in this series. Our attendance estimate of the March for Our Lives accounts for 83.5 percent of the U.S. locations where we were able to get crowd size estimates. We did not count the 84 marches held abroad.
How big was the March for Our Lives compared with other mobilizations?
While this student-led set of rallies was the third-largest in a year and a half, that is in comparison with some of the largest marches ever seen in the United States. We estimated that the Women’s March in 2017 had between 3,267,134 and 5,246,670 across the United States at 653 locations; it was probably the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. In second place was the 2018 Women’s March, which drew 1,856,683 to 2,637,214 across the United States, although with fewer locations, at 407. For comparison, in the pre-Internet 1960s, the 1963 civil rights March on Washington brought out roughly 250,000 people; the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam brought out an estimated 2 million people nationwide.
Most of the difference between our low and high count of attendees at the March for Our Lives results from disparities in counting how many people were at the main march in Washington. A private firm estimated that 202,796 attended at the peak of the march at 1 p.m.; the organizers estimated that 800,000 attended.
The March for Our Lives brought out an incredibly diverse set of participants nationwide
As many have noted, the students from Parkland have been eloquent and dogged organizers, adept not only at speaking out and using social media, but also at building coalitions with others who have suffered the effects of gun violence in places such as Baltimore, Chicago and Newtown, Conn., and at supporting those who highlight that children of color and urban students have a much higher risk of suffering gun violence. This is important because maintaining sustained coalitions can be key in determining whether mass movements succeed in the end.
The March for Our Lives coalitions crossed not just race and class but age, as well. As Dana R. Fisher explained here at TMC, the D.C. march drew people of all ages. That was true nationwide, as well, according to the evidence we saw in local media reports of marches across the country, including many seniors who would remember the 1960s protest era.
One senior community in Silver Spring, Md., protested under the theme “Protect Grandchildren, Not Guns.” About 30 residents of an assisted-living facility in Paramus, N.J., marched along Forest Avenue, many with walkers and other assistance, while passersby honked. In Fort Worth, where 6,000 to 7,000 people marched, Grandmothers Against Violence carried a banner saying, “We Have Your Backs.” And in coverage of the march in Nashville, we saw a picture of this sign: “Nineteen grandchildren and I want to keep them.”
Not surprisingly, considering that the shooting that kicked off this movement happened in Florida, the Sunshine State had nearly 8.1 percent of the nation’s total march locations — 62. That’s a big jump over the number of Florida locations that held Women’s Marches, which in 2017 and 2018 made up only 3.5 and 3.9 percent of the nation’s total, respectively.
Each local March for Our Lives had its own character, from how it emphasized political action to what conditions protesters endured
In every state across the country, marches remembered the dead in their own way. In Parkland, marchers fell silent as they passed the memorial wreaths. In Hartford, Conn., organizer Tyler Suarez spoke of his aunt Dawn Hochsprung, the Sandy Hook Elementary School principal killed while defending her young students in the 2012 Newtown massacre. In Birmingham, Ala., 19 people led the march: 17 to represent the Parkland dead and two to remember local gun victims: Huffman High School student Courtlin Arrington and UAB Highlands nurse Nancy Swift.
Marchers expressed different opinions on how best to improve student safety in school. The vast majority appeared to embrace the national march’s call for gun control, with signs like “Waiting Periods Save Lives” and “Protect Kids, Not Guns” in Laramie, Wyo. But some marches, like the one in Beeville, Tex., focused on school safety without taking a position on gun control. A few reporters interviewed or quoted National Rifle Association members who showed up at the March for Our Lives. In Oakland, Calif., Ledd Lindsay told a reporter, “It is not inconsistent to own a gun and want limits.”
We also counted 41 counterprotests and estimated the total number of participants to be 1,868 to 2,555 people. The largest such protest appeared to feature an estimated 1,000 people in Salt Lake City.
Nationwide, protesters noted that marches alone are not enough to effect political change. In Norwalk, Ohio, for example, the crowd marched from the high school to the district office of its member of Congress. In Albion, Mich., speakers urged the more than 50 participants to register and to write to public officials. Many marches included voter registration efforts. The March for Our Lives leaders are hoping to boost youth voter turnout.
In some places, participants showed intense commitment by turning out despite extremely poor weather. In Iowa City, they marched in the snow and cold, as did protesters in Jackson, Wyo. The Cedar Falls, Iowa, march was postponed until March 31 because of snow — but about 25 people came out on March 24 anyway. And in Utqiagvik, Alaska, more than a dozen marchers turned out despite a temperature of 25 degrees below zero.
Weather wasn’t the only obstacle for some communities. The event fell during the Jewish sabbath, or Shabbat, which for some includes restrictions on travel and on the use of money and electronics, including cellphones, all of which could be barriers to attending rallies. Even so, some traditionally observant Jews in Cleveland and Washington made special arrangements in advance to be close enough to attend. And students in Skokie, Ill., organized a Shabbat-observant march right in their home town.
Our Counting Crowds series will return with our regular monthly assessment of protests at the month’s end.
Kanisha Bond is an assistant professor of government and politics and a research associate at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland at College Park.
Jeremy Pressman is an associate professor of political science and director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut. Find him on Twitter @djpressman.