March for Our Lives Is Turning Point for Lifelong Activist, Energized Teen

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NEW YORK — The soon-to-be marchers, many of them teenagers, stood in the dark, shivering in the bitter cold, bracing against brutal winds howling off New York Harbor. Some didn’t know whether the nation’s capital was to the north or south.

Lights from the top of the castlelike borough hall cast them in a garish pallor. When they shouted: “Enough is enough!” their voices traveled along the courtyard in the predawn quiet. Occasionally a foghorn moaned somewhere out in the gloom.

New York BureauThe protestors didn’t know it, but as they clambered onto the four buses idling on Richmond Terrace they were about to ride into history.

The 200 or so would contribute to the crowd of 800,000 that would become the largest protest march in the history of the nation’s capital, according to organizer estimates. Like that crowd, the Staten Island contingent was a microcosm of the diversity on display at the march. A mix of races, ethnicities, ages, occupations and even political views. Ostensibly, they were marching to call for what amounts to a relatively modest change to gun laws. But what many felt afterward was a renewed belief in democracy.

The participants

One of them was John Papanier, 17, taking baby steps into the world of political activism. He watched as the survivors of the Parkland shooting challenged the maudlin orthodoxy that has surrounded school shootings since Columbine. They hurled the politicians’ rehearsed “thoughts and prayers” back at them and demanded action.

They inspired Papanier. He organized 2,000 Wagner High School students to walk out in protest of gun violence on March 14. And he was in school a few days later when his school went into a hard lockdown over a gun threat that put the administration on high alert.

Then there was John’s mother, Kim Papanier, who had her son’s lunch, a cold cut sandwich, stashed away for him. She had never participated in a march before. Before Parkland, she never could have imagined she would be getting on a bus to join hundreds of thousands of protesters calling for reform to the nation’s gun laws.

It was unthinkable. She married and raised a family with a cop. She isn’t the protesting type. Normally she might watch it from her couch. But her son got her out of bed and milling around the borough hall building at 4:30 in the morning.

Lindy Crescitelli, a former teacher at Wagner High School, has been a civil rights activist since he was a teenager. But life seemed meaningless the day of the Parkland school shooting. A life spent imparting the teachings of King and Gandhi to students seemed hollow, a cosmic joke. Four days later, however, he felt reborn.

The Organizer: I Was About to Give Up

On Valentine’s Day, a man who had modeled his life after Martin Luther King decided to call it quits. It was the worst day of Lindy Crescitelli’s life. He had dedicated his life to activism, nonviolence and teaching children. All that seemed like a waste when he learned of the shooting in Florida.

It was more than just a political jolt for Crescitelli, it was personal. He awoke to read a tweet one of his cousins sent her parents. She was in the school and didn’t think she would survive the bloodbath. His dark night of the soul lasted four days, then turned into a fierce reawakening of the values he spent his life cherishing.

He was watching the Sunday news shows when he saw the Parkland survivors had called for a march on Washington. He began organizing.

Crescitelli kept the registration for the NY to DC March to Washington open until Saturday morning. He said if an additional 200 people had shown up at the last minute he would have commandeered more buses or called on his friends to drive the additional marchers down.

“There was no way I wasn’t going to do everything I could to not let those kids down,” he said. “They needed people and I was going to do everything I could to do my part so they wouldn’t be embarrassed with a small turnout.”

Crescitelli credits the young people for restoring his faith in the world. “I was about to give up,” he said. “Then I heard about the march.”

The Student: The Wheels on the Bus …

John Papanier likes to talk. He speaks with a relentless rat-a-tat-tat in an unmistakable Staten Island dialect. He is not a typical teenager. He watches C-SPAN. He listens to Phil Collins songs, even the ones they don’t play on the radio. When he was younger he was bullied, but it’s hard to imagine that’s the case now. He is irrepressibly outgoing. He will talk to anyone. During the march, he will try to lead the shuttle in a singalong.

“Hey, Tyla,” he said to his friend sitting across the aisle. “Let’s do a singalong. Let’s start singing ‘The Wheels on the Bus!’”

And with that he begin to sing, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and —”

Wagner senior Tyla Lanovor cut him off with pitch-perfect teenage deadpan.

“I think, John,” she said, doing very little to mask her sarcasm, “you should pick a different song.”

Tyla, a fellow economics student and also 17, spent most of the trip poking fun at him for his motormouth and appetite for attention. But she said John inspired her.

“You are the reason I came to march,” she said.

After the march ended he boldly walked up to a police officer next to a tank and tried to convince him to find a friend, who was lost in the crowd. It nearly worked. The officer got on the phone with the friend and tried to lead her back.

Papanier wants to be a history teacher after he finishes college.

“It’s incredible to think that this day, today, that I could ask my class to turn to page 256 in their textbooks and this march will be in there,” he said. “It’s amazing that I’m going to be able to teach them what we are doing today.”

But after observing Papanier for any considerable amount of time, it is hard to imagine him not running for office. Even though he isn’t old enough to vote yet, he admits he could see himself in a political office. He wants to be a senator or a member of the House, somewhere, he says, where he can make real change. First, though, he needs to register to vote. Although he is 17, New York law allows him to register now since he turns 18 before the next election. He plans on doing it on the ride back to Staten Island.

Papanier doesn’t like to talk about it, which is unusual, but he does say he is “disgusted” at Trump’s flip-flopping on the gun legislation he is backing. Standing with the U.S. Capitol dome looming behind him, he expressed his disgust at the president he once supported.

“It doesn’t mention assault rifles,” he said. “Not once! This is about we the people. That’s what today is about — the people.”

The Mom: Scared For Her Son

As everyone hustled out of the bus after the four-hour ride to Washington, Kim Papanier sat alone in the back. She spent most of the trip alone watching her son work the crowd in the bus like a politician, chatting and shaking hands, grabbing the bus intercom to thank people for participating and trying to raise their spirits. She beamed with pride as he fielded a call from a reporter from The New York Times.

She never gave any thought to the heated politics around guns. Until she saw her son’s enthusiasm after the Parkland shooting. She said he has always been into politics. His childhood hero was TV anchor Anderson Cooper. And he was the first person in the household to get behind Donald Trump when he was a longshot candidate.

As she gathered her stuff for the shuttle to the National Mall to get her first taste of participatory democracy, Kim credited her son as an inspiration.

“John is the reason I am on this bus today,” she said, smiling.  

Her smile faded as she talked about the future. She worries that as her son assumes a more visible leadership role in pushing for gun reform laws that his life might be in danger. She hears the stories about the Parkland survivors. The threats they receive and the accusations of being part of a malevolent conspiracy organized by shadowy political forces. She avoids reading the comments section in the stories where her son is mentioned. It scares her.

“You see John, he’s not afraid to talk, to grab a microphone and speak his mind, to get in front of a camera,” she said. “John will really put himself out there. I see that and it scares me.”

But she knows there is nothing she can do to stop him at this point. She looked at him through the window and found her smile again. Her son was dashing around getting the marchers set up for a group picture.

“That’s my John for you,” she said.

The Reporter: Bending the Moral Arc

I wasn’t thinking about history, Saturday morning. Or dead kids. Or changing the political landscape of the most powerful nation on earth. I was thinking about coffee and a blanket and crawling back into bed. I was standing on top of a rusty grate above the steam vents in front of the Borough Hall building in St. George, best known for where the bright orange Staten Island Ferry hauls commuters over to Manhattan, trying to keep warm.

The group of 200 or so marchers were delivering heartfelt speeches, tributes to the 14 students and three educators slaughtered in the shooting. They held their pictures in the air and offered earnest tributes. They were fun-loving students. They were loving parents. Selfless teachers and so on.

I was half paying attention. For me it was another story. It wasn’t my first memorial to gunshot victims, and, I figured, it wouldn’t be my last. I have spent most of my career around dead kids killed by guns.

The last thing on my mind was the possibility that a handful of teenagers could spearhead a movement to upend one of the bedrock assumptions about American politics.

Cynicism after Sandy Hook

On the evening of the shootings in Sandy Hook I was in Newtown, Connecticut. That scene of nearly delirious, almost chaotic grief and the legislative triumphs of the NRA in its wake made me a cynic. A pile of dead 6- and 7-year-olds can do that. But despite the horror and the global attention focused on the tiny New England town, I remember thinking even this isn’t going to put a dent in the NRA’s stranglehold on gun policy.

In the wake of that massacre President Barack Obama told the country: “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.” But it and we did not. My cynicism was rewarded as the NRA racked up legislative victories loosening gun regulations, I was proved right. I assumed Parkland would be no different.

A little over a year later on a rainy Tuesday night I was sitting in a barber shop in Harlem. I had been invited to sit in on a meeting of parents whose children had been killed by guns. They had watched with a mix of empathy and sardonic resentment at the fallout of the Sandy Hook shootings. The same world that wept at the children in Newtown remained indifferent when their children had been shot. I had seen that indifference first-hand over more than a decade covering the drug war in Northeastern cities for most of my career as a crime reporter.

So when I first heard about Parkland the most I could muster was some gallows humor, a joke about how it wasn’t going to be a very happy Valentine’s Day for those kids’ boyfriends and girlfriends.

It took a bunch of kids to make me ashamed of my sophistication.

More recently, when I was arrested practicing my First Amendment rights, I thought long and hard about exercising my Second. When men with guns can put you in jail for journalism I thought maybe it was time to become a man with a gun.

When I covered a case of police brutality in the Bronx I was visiting Constance Malcolm, the mother of Ramarley Graham, who was killed in his house when police kicked in his door and shot him to death. One of Malcolm’s neighbors pulled me aside and asked me if I thought the police would have been so quick to bumrush her house if they knew everyone in his neighborhood was armed.

I didn’t have an answer.

It was a refrain I had heard before. A copwatcher once asked me a similar question. He wondered aloud if the New York Police Department would have so brazenly violated the Fourth Amendment rights of black and brown people administering stop and frisk if, in the spirit of the Black Panthers, residents were armed. Maybe, he said, the police would have thought twice before grabbing somebody minding their own business and slamming them against a wall and going through their pockets.

Again, I didn’t have an answer. The conversation reminded me of “For Saundra,” a poem by Nikki Giovanni, who delivered a convocation when she was a professor at Virginia Tech in the wake of the shooting there in 2007.

so I thought again
And it occurred to me
Maybe I shouldn’t write
at all
but clean my gun
and check my kerosene supply

perhaps these are not poetic
at all

Maybe, I begin to think more and more, I shouldn’t write either. But Saturday’s march has made me reconsider that, for now. It made me think there was some poetry left in political process. Many people who descended on Washington drew comparisons to the famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

But even King carried a gun. What a bunch of teenagers taught me is that sometimes it doesn’t have to be as long as we all thought. It was a reminder that cynicism can be its own form of ignorance.

They showed me that sometimes you have to jump up and bend the motherfucker yourself.

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