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High school students are marching 50 miles to Paul Ryan’s home town to call him out on guns

More than two dozen Wisconsin high school students are spending their spring break marching 50 miles to the home town of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

On March 25, 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands of protesters into Montgomery, Ala., concluding a five-day, 54-mile march from Selma that would become a defining moment in the civil rights movement.

On Sunday, inspired by the Selma marchers and the high school students from Parkland, Fla., a group of young people in Wisconsin began a march of their own, albeit not quite on a Selma scale.

More than 40 students from across Wisconsin embarked on a four-day, 50-mile march from Madison to Janesville, the home town of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), where they are expected to hold a rally Wednesday. Their goal? To call out Ryan for his “lead role in blocking and burying any chance of gun reform again and again,” according to the group’s website.

Beyond that, the students hope to show Ryan — and politicians nationwide — that although Saturday’s March for Our Lives events are over, this generation of empowered young people is not going anywhere.

“We’re picking up where so many marches left off,” Katie Eder, an 18-year-old organizer of the Wisconsin march, called 50 Miles More, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

In the 1960s, the young protesters fighting injustice were told they were “too ambitious,” that achieving equality for African Americans would be impossible, Eder said while speaking to a crowd at a March for Our Lives event in Milwaukee.

“Now in 2018 we’ve reached a period in time where we, the young people of this country, are being told that ending gun violence in the U.S. is impossible, our dreams are too big and we don’t know what were talking about,” Eder said. “But I stand here today to say to all of you that now is the time to do the impossible.”

The organizers, students at Shorewood High School near Milwaukee, said they came up with the idea for the march after seeing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students leading a nationwide movement against gun violence. The Wisconsin students wanted to find a way to directly call out politicians within their own state. Ryan was the obvious choice.

The students plan to demand a ban on all military-style weapons and all accessories that turn semiautomatic weapons into automatic weapons, such as bump stocks. They are calling for a four-day waiting period on all gun purchases, required background checks on all gun sales, and for raising the legal purchasing age of all guns to 21.

“We want to start a conversation,” said Brendan Fardella, a 17-year-old senior at Shorewood. “Clearly this is a human rights issue in our country. If that isn’t such an issue in this country, then I don’t know what is.”

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, gave a statement to CNN on Sunday, saying that “the speaker appreciates those making their voices heard today.”

What began as a march coordinated by a group of students from Shorewood soon drew students from across the state, from schools and neighborhoods of various political and economic backgrounds. The students — most of them strangers to one another — all gathered in Madison on Saturday night to begin their march Sunday morning. And the march has swelled. Even in the hours since the group began walking, young people following on social media have reached out asking how they can join in.

Bundled up in hats, gloves and winter coats, the high school students braved near-freezing weather Sunday and walked 17 miles, honoring a different victim of gun violence after every mile and documenting their progress on social media.

“Hey hey, NRA, how many kids have you killed today?” they chanted during their first mile. They held signs showing phrases such as “you pick guns, I pick my future” and carried a banner with the words “protect kids, not guns.” Accompanied by parents, the students walked down sidewalks and bike trails, and were occasionally escorted along busy roads by law enforcement. They listened to the “Hamilton” soundtrack, shared stories from their respective high schools and waved at people passing by. They stopped for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and spent Sunday night sleeping on a high school gym floor in Dane County, near Madison.

“We have a lot of sore bodies,” Alemitu Caldart, a 15-year-old freshman from Shorewood, told The Post. “But we are so empowered.”

Caldart talked about the friends she made throughout the day, including an older student from Eau Claire, Wis., who encouraged her to continue being a leader in social justice causes.

“I’m more than just what people want me to be,” Caldart said. “We are young, but we’re stubborn, and we’re demanding change because we’re tired of seeing all these countless lives taken every single day. I’m frustrated. Everyone’s frustrated.”

The students are encouraging groups in every state to hold their own 50-mile marches to the home towns and offices of their elected officials before elections in November.

“And if the politicians won’t listen to us, if the politicians won’t make the change, then come November, we are prepared to change the politicians,” Eder told the crowd at Milwaukee’s March for Our Lives.

Asked how it felt to be spending their spring break trekking more than a dozen miles a day, and sleeping on gym floors instead of lying on a beach, Eder said:

“We’re trying to change the laws. We’re trying to change the country. The beach can wait.”