WASHINGTON — The organizers behind the Women’s March earlier this year returned to the streets of Washington DC on Friday, this time with a new mission: To protest the National Rifle Association.
Hundreds trekked 18 miles by foot from NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, to the Department of Justice in 90-degree weather to demonstrate against the organization.
The marchers chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, the NRA has got to go” while holding up signs with slogans ranging from “none of us are safe until all of us are safe” to “91 Gun Deaths a Day: Enough is Enough.” Ahead of the march, some set up large banners outside the NRA headquarters. One read “Love Trumps Hate,” and another displayed gray silhouettes of the Sandy Hook Elementary School students and teachers — with their names and ages — who were killed in 2012.
The rally, the first of two anti-NRA events held by Women’s March this weekend, comes amid heightened tension between activists and the NRA.
Last month, the NRA released a controversial one-minute recruitment video, which Women’s March organizers argue provokes fear and incites violence. The video features NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, who in the video argues that demonstrators “bully and terrorize the law-abiding until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness.”
Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory responded with an open letter claiming the ad is a “direct endorsement of violence” against protesters.
She slammed the NRA for demonstrating “a complete disregard for the lives of black and brown people in America” for failing to “make any statement defending the civil rights” of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by a police officer last July during a traffic stop. Castile, a 32-year-old Minnesota man, was carrying a legally allowed firearm at the time — something he told the officer about during the stop. He was shot as he reached to get his license. Jeronimo Yanez, the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Castile, was found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter on June 16.
“We haven’t taken a position that people shouldn’t have guns, we don’t want to prohibit folks from exercising their second amendment rights,” Mallory told CNN ahead of the march. “But the NRA ad puts our First Amendment rights in jeopardy, it puts the lives of people who are exercising their right to protest in the middle of danger. We are looking for a change in NRA’s behavior and its policies and practices.”
In a joint interview between Mallory and Loesch on CNN earlier this week, Loesch agreed that Castile should not have lost his life over a traffic stop. The NRA did not immediately respond to CNN’s multiple requests for comment Friday.
However, Loesch told The Washington Post Friday that while she supports demonstrators’ right to protest, she was “confused by it.”
“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,” she said.
Loesch told the newspaper that the Women’s March organizers, for example, didn’t give women who oppose abortion a platform at the march, but she said they did give one to Madonna, who in January told a crowd on the National Mall that she had “thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.” Madonna later said her remarks were taken out of context.
According to the Friday event’s Facebook page, the Women’s March organizers are calling on the NRA to “take down the recent irresponsible and dangerous advertisement videos from all social platforms immediately; issue an apology to the American people for the video that suggests armed violence against communities of color, progressives and anyone who does not agree with this Administration’s policies; and make a statement to defend Philando Castile’s Second Amendment right to own a firearm and demand the Department of Justice indict the police officer who killed him for exercising his Second Amendment.”
Before the march began, a handful of speakers, including Mallory, Nekima Levy-Pound, who is a representative for the Castile family, and Brandon Wolf, of the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence.
“I still find it hard to sleep at night,” Wolf, who survived the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida in June 2016, said in his speech. “I quite literally stared death in the face. In 2017, the NRA has us held hostage. For too long, we’ve let the gun lobby dominate the conversation. Today I say no more: I am done burying my friends. We are done being gunned down.”
Those in the crowd applauded, held up their fists and yelled support as each speaker spent a few minutes addressing gun violence in the US. When the speeches wrapped up, organizers ushered participants to one side of the street. The march kicked off around noon.
Meagan Landis, a Haymarket, Virginia resident, said she came to the event because she is “concerned by the level of influence in Congress from the NRA and the amount of clout that they have.”
She was among a handful of attendees who brought their children.
“It’s important for my kids to learn for change to happen you have to get involved,” she said, pointing to the sign her 7-year-old made. The sign had a drawing of a gun with a red X through it, and the words “don’t incite gun violence” scribbled above.
Tamara Lee, a Rutgers University professor, traveled from New York to join the demonstration. Lee sported a Women’s March button on her shirt, which read “resistance is not terrorism” with an image of a woman wearing a hijab. She held up an American flag during portions of the march.
“The NRA has a First Amendment right to say what they want to say and have that video, but we have a First Amendment right to defend ourselves peacefully,” she said. “I’m also here because of what seems to be an unfair application of second amendment rights across racial lines. I think black and brown folks who are lawful gun carriers are not being defended by the NRA. I don’t know why they are silent on that issue.”
The march route followed the eastbound on the sidewalk along Route 29 until Key Bridge, according to a traffic advisory issued by Metropolitan Police Department. Organizers planned on making their way through Georgetown and down Pennsylvania Avenue until reaching the DOJ. ET. Demonstrators are also planning a 10 a.m. vigil outside the DOJ on Saturday.