ST. PETERSBURG — A red heart-shaped balloon rose above crowd of several hundred people that had gathered at Williams Park on Saturday evening to mourn Wednesday’s school shooting in Broward County and to protest gun violence.
Below the balloon, signs called for action on gun control legislation, condemned a gun rights group and listed the names of the 17 people who died Wednesday when a 19-year-old man opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at his former school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
The competing symbols illuminated the duality of the event: Some went to vent their frustration at a government they feel, through its inaction, has let another 17 people die from gun violence. Some went to heal.
"My heart was broken this week after the shooting," said 26-year-old Sumayya Saleh of Tampa. "I think, like a lot of other people, I’m just exhausted and frustrated."
The rally began with statements from local elected officials and community service members meant to galvanize those in attendance, at times against the National Rifle Association and Republican politicians, both of which were the subject of many rally signs: "Politicians stop taking blood money from the NRA," one read.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, challenged politicians who have said since the shooting that it’s too early to talk about gun legislation.
"If now’s not the time, when is the time?" he asked.
Later, the event turned into a vigil. Three religious leaders — one Christian, one Muslim and one Jewish — read aloud the names of those who died as audience members held lit candles. The crowd sang We Shall Overcome, giving people the chance to wipe their tears away.
The rally ended with organizers asking people to call their state lawmakers. Several bills expanding the rights of gun owners were making their way through the Legislature, they said, while other bills that would ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines had stalled.
Reaction to the shooting and the debate about how to prevent gun violence in schools has split Florida’s lawmakers, largely along party lines. In response to questions from the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau, many Republicans in the Florida Legislature said they wanted to improve mental health care and invest more in securing school buildings. Some Democrats also stressed the importance of those measures, but many more sought to limit access to guns.
The organizers of Saturday’s rally included the St. Petersburg-area chapter of the League of Women Voters and several other women’s activist groups like Women’s March Florida, Surly Feminists for the Revolution and Moms Demand Action. Fired Up Pinellas and Indivisible FL-13 were also listed as organizers and have women high in their ranks. Those groups are part of one of the biggest and most energetic liberal grassroots movements the Tampa Bay area and state have ever seen, veteran political activists say.
"This hits close to home," said Julie Kessel, president of the local League of Women Voters chapter, recalling mass shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016 and the Fort Lauderdale airport in January 2017.
"It could be us."
Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.