SOMERVILLE, NJ - Several hundred protestors gathered Saturday afternoon and evening at either end of Main Street to demonstrate against gun violence and to demand heightened safety measures in the nation’s schools.
The demonstrations were an outgrowth of Valentine’s Day shooting last month at a high school in Parkland, Fla. that killed 17 students and staff.
The Rally for Our Lives at the historic Somerset County Courthouse began at 3 p.m., one of 14 held in New Jersey in conjunction with the national March for Our Lives demonstrations in Washington and throughout the country.
It was a day when millions stood up to demand lawmakers pass legislation to limit access to guns and to provide protection and security for students in schools across America.
The afternoon gathering drew hundreds of protestors, young and old, many holding aloft signs with messages like “Books, Not Bullets,” “Elected Officials, Do Your Job” “Protect Lives, Not Guns,” “Fear Has No Place in Our Schools,” “Enough is Enough,” “Never Again,” and “Ban Automatic Weapons.”
The 3 p.m. Rally for Our Lives was held in conjunction with the Somerset County Democrats and was sponsored by the Somerset County High School Democrats "This is to show solidarity with the March for Our Lives movement, and the other rallies that are happening all over the nation," according to the SCHSD website.
Republican State Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman added a bi-partisan element to the heavily Democratic-flavored event. He stood in the crowd in front of the courtroom steps, while state, county and local Democrats stood on the marble steps of the courthouse.
“The safety of our children is not a partisan issue,” Bateman said at the podium.
Bateman was introduced by Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-16th who told the crowd “It starts now, it starts today, it starts with you.”
He vowed, “This is not a world I’m going to live in,” telling protestors how he worries each day when his daughter, a high school senior, and wife, an elementary school teacher, walk out the door in the morning.
“The most powerful thing you have is your vote,” he added, urging the crowd to channel their discontent to the voting booth in November.
Zwicker told the enthusiastic crowd that he and other Democrats were ready to introduce a slew of bills within the next few weeks, one of which would reduce the voting age in election primaries to 17.
Other measures would prohibit armor-piercing ammunition that can tear through protective vests; stricter gun ownership application procedures and background checks and increasing the age at which a person can purchase a weapon.
Somerville Councilman Fred Wied V told the crowd how a 1998 school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark., where 4 people were killed, had affected him as a young boy; three of his cousins attended that school, and Wied recalled how difficult it was immediately after the news broke, not knowing what had happened to his relatives.
It was some time before the family found out that none of the three had been injured, but that one of the cousin’s best friends was a victim of the shooter.
Wied also spoke of being around guns all of his life; he grew up in the south, and spent time target shooting at milk jugs using a .22 caliber rifle with his grandfather.
“He always taught me never to point it at another person,” he said.
Erin Edgar, a junior at Somerville High School, organized the 7 p.m. candlelight vigil held at Somerville Borough Hall, 25 West End Ave. She was also one of 19 high school students who organized the 10 a.m. statewide Rally for Our Lives in Newark on Saturday.
Edgar, a student activist who is president of the Somerville High School Book Club, and a member of the school’s Amnesty International chapter, said she felt a responsibility to bring the student-led nationwide protest to Somerville.
“l felt like I needed to make that happen,” she said.
“I hope that effective legislation comes out of this,” she added. “I hope legislators understand there is a need for change. School safety needs to be prioritized,” she continued. “We cannot allow people with criminal backgrounds to acquire military-grade weapons. That’s wrong.”
Fewer than 100 people attended the evening rally.
"Thoughts and prayers are not enough," Edgar said. "We must continue to fight. You have to continue to show up," she told the crowd gathered before her.
Edgar read aloud the names and a short biography for each of the 17 victims of the Parkland, Fla. school shooting. As she did, individuals in the crowd held up pictures of each victim.