The #NeverAgain movement’s “March for Our Lives’’ on Saturday is both inspired and haunted by the legacy of another march on Washington 18 years ago.
The Million Mom March, which brought about 750,000 people to the National Mall on Mothers’ Day 2000, was the biggest gun control rally in history. On stage, Rosie O’Donnell spoke for many when she proclaimed it “the birth of a movement.’’
In the wings, one of the march’s organizers winced. Donna Dees-Thomases says she knew even then that one march was not a movement.
She was right. Today, the year 2000 is remembered not for the birth of a gun control movement, but for the start of the National Rifle Association’s two-decade domination of gun politics.
Unrealized promise is just one pitfall of marching on Washington, an American tradition that dates back to the depression year of 1894, when an Ohio rabble-rouser named Jacob Coxey led an army of unemployed men on the capital.
Coxey was arrested and the marchers dispersed. But the 1963 civil rights march, at which Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream’’ speech, established the power of such an event. And the women’s protest march on Washington last year easily outdrew Donald Trump’s inauguration the day before.
Those were what Vassar College historian Rebecca Edwards calls “world historical events.’’ But marches on Washington have become so frequent that most attract little attention and have little effect.
They seem to run together: the Million Mom, Million Man, Million Family, Million Worker, Millions More and Million Puppet marches; marches for public broadcasting, colon cancer screening and science; marches against genetically engineered food, Scientology and the African warlord Joseph Kony.
Results have been mixed. Marching on Washington has not liberalized immigration policy or changed abortion policy or gotten Trump to release his tax returns. Marching did not end the Vietnam War for many years, if it ended it at all, and it definitely did not end the war in Iraq. President Bush said being influenced by street protests would have been like making policy by focus group.
Even the 1963 civil rights march required so much effort, created so many internal divisions and produced so few immediate results (the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed only after and because of President Kennedy’s assassination) that its leaders vowed never to attempt another.
So what does a march on Washington do for a political movement? Jerome Grossman, the late Massachusetts businessman who helped organize the huge Vietnam War Moratorium March in 1969, answered the question in one word: “Courage’’
He meant the courage of numbers. Pressed together, often for long hours and in bad weather, activists realize they're not alone. Marchers are energized and unified, even if marches rarely change federal policy and often pass unnoticed. They don’t so much convert the skeptical as confirm the faithful.
That’s how it was in 2000 for Amy Harris, a 41-year-old nurse whose experience in a District of Columbia hospital trauma unit had inclined her toward gun control. With her two small children in a stroller, she joined the Million Mom March.
The marchers called for the licensing of handgun owners, the registration of handguns, child safety locks on guns and background checks for sales at gun shows, including a three-day waiting period.
“It was uplifting,’’ Harris recalls. “There was a feeling like you were all together as a group working on the same goal to help society.’’ In a few months, the Million Mom March established more than 200 local chapters.
Through the lean years, Harris says, she never lost hope. And she and many other veterans of that march say they paved the way for Saturday’s. “These are our kids,’’ says Dees-Thomases of the NeverAgainers. Another Million Mom organizer, Debra Wachspress, agrees: “I feel like, ‘Here’s the baton, go!’’’
A YEAR LATER, 'TOO SEDATE'
The marchers of 2000 acknowledge, however, that #NeverAgain’s rise is a reminder that their own march was not the turning point they envisioned.
Instead, that year’s pivotal event in the gun debate was the election of NRA ally George W. Bush.
Gun control advocates did help to defeat several unfriendly U.S. senators and pass referendums in Oregon and Colorado to close gun law loopholes. But many Democrats blamed the gun issue for costing their nominee, Al Gore, in three crucial states. And President Clinton said it stopped the party from winning the House of Representatives.
By the first anniversary of the march, gun control had lost momentum. The Million Mom March organization laid off most of its staff and merged with other groups. Its decision to hold state rallies on Mother’s Day 2001, spun as a return to the grassroots, seemed like making a virtue of necessity. There was no energy for another mass march.
Many state marches were poorly attended. Amy Blum, 20, was not impressed by the one in New Orleans. "This is too sedate," she told The Associated Press. “Where's the anger? I think there was some serious momentum from last year's march."
In contrast, the mood at the NRA annual convention a week later in Kansas City was triumphant. "We have a whole lot to celebrate!’’ crowed CEO Wayne LaPierre.
In 2004, when the assault weapons ban signed by Clinton in 1994 was scheduled to expire, the Million Moms scheduled a Mother’s Day rally at the Capitol. It drew only a few thousand people. “A million ain't what it used to be," jeered a Wall Street Journal editorial. ‘’Quite a comedown from Mother's Day four years ago.’’
The following year, President Bush signed a bill protecting gun makers from liability for the use of their products in the commission of crimes.
When the Democrats finally did retake the House in 2006, they’d said little in the campaign about guns.
Funding dried up, says Josh Horwitz, director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, “because nobody believed anything could happen. … Donors asked, ‘Why are we funding this movement?’’’
For the moms who marched in 2000, these were wilderness years. Each mass shooting revived memories of that great day on the Mall, and regrets about what might have been. The massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007 — the worst since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School that helped prompt the Million Mom March — did little to promote gun control. It only reinforced the moms’ frustration.
'THEY HAVE A MOVEMENT'
Now, the Million Moms’ hopes have been revived by #NeverAgain, which emerged following the shooting deaths of 17 people Feb. 14 at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Which raises a question: How can kids — innocent, inexperienced — succeed where mothers failed? “They have a movement,’’ says Wachspress. “We didn’t have that.’’
One difference is social media, which makes organizing easier and faster.
Take housing out-of-town marchers. Liberal activist David Mixner, who staged Washington marches for nuclear disarmament and gay rights, recalls having to form committees to find places for them to stay — a task now handled online via Facebook.
Working exclusively with email and phones, Dees-Thomases and her allies began organizing around Labor Day, 1999, almost nine months before the march. The March for Our Lives, which was announced four days after the Parkland shooting, will take place less than six weeks after the fact.
Another difference is that, despite (or maybe because of) the NRA’s dominance, the gun control lobby is better organized and funded than 18 years ago. New groups, such as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, and one founded by former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords after her 2011 shooting, have given the #NeverAgain activists guidance and support.
And #NeverAgain trades on the cumulative impact of years of mass shootings. In 2000 Columbine could still be viewed as an aberration. Today, it’s not even among the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
On Saturday many of the Million Moms will again be marching. That includes Harris and her kids, now in their 20s, and Wachspress, the New Jersey state coordinator in 2000.
This year, she says, it’s clear when and how the march’s legacy will be determined: Election Day.
“It’s all about the ballot box,’’ she says. In retrospect, she says, it always was.