Jr NAA Hosts Community Vigil To #StandWithParkland
Published: February 23, 2018
As Newtown High School students and local representatives spoke, their voices echoed over the field at Blue & Gold Stadium on the evening of February 23: They called for change and remembrance of those lost to gun violence.
NHS student members of Jr Newtown Action Alliance (Jr NAA) organized and ran the community vigil to #StandWithParkland. The event came together in the wake of the February 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Jr NAA Co-Chairs Jackson Mittleman and Tommy Murray shared their thanks to everyone for attending the vigil near the start of the gathering. As the students spoke, a group of people was spread out below on the stadium’s track. Upturned faces were just visible beneath umbrellas, and the light sprinkle of rain drops could be heard.
Roughly 15 students spoke. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, Newtown State Representative Mitch Bolinsky, First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, and Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku also shared remarks at the event.
The Reverend Dr Jenny Montgomery of Trinity Episcopal Church shared an offered prayer.
“Help us to transform our anger and fear into passionate and productive action. Action [that] grinds hatred to a halt with measured thoughtful justice and action that disarms the arsenals of cruelty,” Dr Montgomery said.
Jr NAA member Nate Wheeler said over five years ago, when he was 9 years old, he lost “one of my best friends in the whole world.” Nate’s younger brother was Benjamin Wheeler, one of the children killed on 12/14.
“We are here tonight to say that no one deserves to lose their best friend. No one deserves to lose… one of the people they care about most in life. That is never, never a good thing,” Nate said, standing in the window of the press box, facing the people below. “By the time this vigil is over, two people will have lost their lives to senseless gun violence. That is not an opinion: that is a fact.”
Nate said nothing will change unless people do something. After “the terrible event,” Nate said he thought people would listen and would make sure “this never happens again.”
“I was wrong. This has happened too much, way too much,” said Nate. “… I don’t know how many more people are going to lose their lives unless people like us, people around the country, take their stand and put an end to senseless gun violence.”
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal said that historically, so much change has happened because of the country’s youth.
“Sadly, Parkland and Newtown are bonded by tragedy,” Mr Rosenthal said, “but we are also united by having the most intelligent, thoughtful, and motivated youth movement. That, my friends, gives me hope.”
Ms Ku said she is proud to be a member of the community, and she is proud of the district, teachers, staff, and students “for using their unique voices, for all the right reasons… to say to Parkland, we are with you.”
Sen Blumenthal called for action.
“We need to break the complicity of Congress in the gun violence that every day goes on in America, 90 deaths a day,” said Sen Blumenthal.
Sen Blumenthal said the youth of Parkland and the NHS students surrounding him “will lead us to a better place.”
“This community refuses to be defined by the worst… it is reaching for the best. And you are showing us the best, right now, being here, showing us your courage and helping us to understand that congress must act,” Sen Blumenthal said, calling for background checks, a ban on assault weapons, a ban on high capacity ammunition magazines, and to take “guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”
Rep Esty said Newtown’s youth standing in the rain were resilient.
“However long this takes, that’s how long we will be there. However long it takes we will make the change happen,” said Rep Esty, adding that the students surrounding her know in their hearts what needs to be done. “I feel encouraged and strengthened by their resilience, by their passion, by their commitment, by your presence here today, tonight in the rain.”
The community of Newtown did not choose to be a benchmark for courage, commitment, love, honor, and action, Rep Esty said.
“And yet you are,” she said, looking out over the track. “Thank you for accepting that role. Thank you for showing that courage. Thank you for always being there.”
Rep Bolinsky thanked Tommy and Jackson for organizing the event.
“We are here today heartbroken for the people of Parkland, Fla., for their community, but we have this special responsibility in Newtown as our community because of what struck us five years ago,” said Rep Bolinsky.
The fact that gun violence is still being experienced in communities, Rep Bolinsky remarked, is “dumbfounding.”
“Not only are we still experiencing them, but we are experiencing them more, and more, and more,” said Rep Bolinsky.
Some people, he continued, are thinking of gun violence as a “new normal,” and “that cannot be.”
“So the voices of Newtown, rise up to assist the voices of Parkland,” said Rep Bolinsky.
One by one, students read the names of victims from the communities of Parkland, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Orlando, Las Vegas, and Sutherland Springs.
In the student’s prepared programs for the vigil, the list of names were printed in a single column that ran for seven pages. As the students took turns reading the names of people killed by guns, they held their programs in both hands as they leaned toward the microphone. Some students had to stand on their toes to speak. Below them, people in the crowd bent toward their neighbors to light candles.
Afterwards, the members of Jr NAA led a walk around the track. Everyone held a candle near their heart. With the patter of rain, only the sound of footsteps could be heard as the gathered community members made their way through one lap.
The evening also included musical performances by Jackson’s mother, Kelly Mittleman, and members of the NHS Singers, who performed under the direction of Choral Director Jane Matson. A banner was also at the event for people to sign to show solidarity for the community of Parkland.
NAA Chairman Po Murray said she was proud of the NHS students for organizing a community event to offer support for the Parkland community. NHS Jr NAA advisor Larry Saladin said the school community is “so proud” of the students for their interest in helping others.
Before the vigil began, between handing out candles to his friends, Jackson said, “I hope that we get some people who leave and want to do more to change it, because the best thing you can do for change is making people aware.”
More information about Jr NAA is available on its website alliance.newtownaction.org/jrabout/.