The Cortez March for Our Lives, one of more than 800 held across America on Saturday, was organized by the Student Montezuma Alliance of Unity, an offshoot of an advocacy group that formed in early 2017. On a stage lined with paper hearts listing the names of recent school shooting victims, middle school, high school and college students from around the county spoke about their fear for their own schools and their desire for change. After listening to them speak, more than 300 people of all ages marched around City Park with homemade signs asking for “commonsense” gun laws.
Speakers at the march repeatedly called for stricter background checks for gun owners, the enforcement of background check regulations at gun shows and bans on high-capacity magazines and military-style weapons such as the AR-15.
Gillian Schuenemeyer, a seventh-grader at Cortez Middle School, was one of the youngest speakers at the march. She said she has been worried about a tragedy happening in her school ever since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, in which 20 first-graders and six adults were killed. Gillian was seven at the time.
“What shocked me the most was that those kids were my age,” she said. “It could have been me.”
She asked the adults in the audience to fight for kids’ safety and urged her fellow students to “share kindness” with one another.
Kayla Wilcox, a student at Pueblo Community College, said she enjoys hunting and believes in Americans’ right to bear arms, but added that guns that can fire more than 15 rounds “is a bit unnecessary” for hunting. She called for restrictions on such weapons, as well as legislation that would make it harder for people with poor mental health or a history of domestic violence to purchase guns.
Chelsea Rodriguez, the Montezuma-Cortez High School teacher who organized a walkout on March 14 in remembrance of the students killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, thanked the audience through tears for supporting the student organizers. Students from schools in Dolores and Mancos spoke about how recent shootings like the one in Aztec, New Mexico, had affected them. Greg Kemp, a Mancos resident whose son-in-law was killed in the 2012 Clackamas Town Center shooting in Portland, Oregon, voiced his support for the students organizing marches across the country.
“My message is simply, to the young people here, please ... take care of one another,” he said.
Not everyone at the rally agreed on gun control. Mancos School Board member Tim Hunter wore a T-shirt reading “Black Guns Matter,” and handed out pages of statistics claiming that guns account for relatively few deaths in the U.S., and that cities with the strictest gun laws have the most gun violence.
“I’m here to promote safety,” he said. “I believe armed staff is one option. I believe that we need to harden our schools a little bit more.”
Many teachers who marched on Saturday said they agreed with students on gun control. Susan Cowan, a teacher in Shiprock, said she attended the march on behalf of her 10-year-old grandson, who attends school in Cortez.
“He is petrified at night that someone’s going to come in and shoot us, because of all the lockdowns at school,” she said. “I’m just sick and tired of no gun reform.”
Montezuma County resident Fred Bird attended in hunting gear and with his bird dog, Breeze, on a leash. He called himself a “sportsman, born and bred,” but said he believes only soldiers and law enforcement officers should have access to military-style guns.
“We support the Second Amendment,” he said. “We just don’t support owning weapons of war in the public.”
Zoe Culpepper, the 15-year-old administrator of Student Montezuma Alliance of Unity, introduced each planned speaker in City Park before the march. Afterward, she led the crowd in a moment of silence for 21 recent school shooting victims: the 17 high school students killed in Florida on Feb. 14, one in Alabama on March 7; one in Maryland on March 20, and the two at Aztec High School on Dec. 7.
Culpepper and her fellow Student MAU members then led a march around City Park, chanting slogans like “Enough is enough,” and “NRA has got to go.” Dozens of cars honked in support as the marchers went down Montezuma Avenue and Main Street, but a few passing drivers “booed” or shouted that “guns save lives.”
That didn’t deter Culpepper or other marchers, who took an upbeat tone during the march, waving and cheering for every car that honked. Afterward, volunteers served cookies and lemonade to marchers at the City Park shelter while local musicians played acoustic songs on the nearby stage.
Culpepper said she believed the march in Cortez, along with those that took place across America on Saturday, would lead to real change.
“We are the revolution,” she told marchers just before leaving City Park. “We are going to take back our lives.”