Highland Park mothers join Capitol Hill ‘Survivor Sit-In’

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A club no one wants to be a part of is growing in membership all around the country, as mass shootings continue to plague American society, Stephanie Luger explained Thursday from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Luger is one of several Highland Park mothers to join family members of school shooting victims and survivors of mass shootings this week at a sit-in pressuring Congress to call a vote on a federal assault weapons ban.

“A lot of people don’t have their voices anymore,” she said. “We have to speak for them.”

Luger, Ashbey Beasley and Sonya Cohen, have combined for more than 30 trips to Washington D.C. in an 11-month span since their lives changed forever when a gunman used a Smith & Wesson M & P 15 assault rifle to kill seven people and injure dozens at Highland Park’s Fourth of July parade.

Their all-out advocacy against the “weapons of war” used to steal the lives of countless Americans has brought these Highland Park women into the orbit with a growing legion of activists, such as the parents of children killed at a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas last year, who are growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of federal action to mitigate gun deaths.

“I’m here with Kim and Felix Rubio, and with Brett Cross and his wife from Uvalde, and I’ve gotten to know them very well through my trips to D.C.,” Luger said.

“We talk about this club that we’re all in,” she continued. “I’m very lucky that I haven’t lost anyone I love, so I’m an outsider still, thank God. It’s this club that no one wants to be a part of. We’re always telling each other, ‘I’m glad we met, but I wish we never did.’”

Sam Schwartz, left, sits inside the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. with Beau Beasley of Highland Park during this week's Survivor Sit-In.

Organized by 19-year-old Samuel Schwartz, the ranks of protesters at the “Survivor Sit-In” include parents and relatives of child victims from catastrophic school shootings, teens who have weathered years of school lockdowns and shooting survivors who have lived to tell horrible tales of violence wrought by high-powered rifles in the wrong hands.

Schwartz is driven each day by the memory of his cousin and best friend, Alex Schacter, who was killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in 2018.

“ (Congress is) not acting, and they’re not taking meaningful action beyond tweets,” Schwartz said. “I’m not talking about thoughts and prayers. I’m talking about even the Democrats, who will send out a tweet and do nothing else. This sit-in is a response to that.”

The sit-in is equally geared at converting a host of Democratic holdouts on the assault weapons ban, as well as pushing Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to call a vote on the measure.

“ (Schumer) has all the power to do it, but he doesn’t feel like he has the support of the whole Democratic Party, which he currently doesn’t,” Schwartz said. “He’s not wrong.”

Positioned for 23 hours a day as close as they can be to where U.S. Senators enter and exit the Capitol each day, devastated parents who relive their pain each day in the hopes of making a change, the group of mothers from Highland Park and Schwartz are putting their bodies on the line in order to make their government officials feel a fraction of the discomfort none of them can gain respite from.

“Sit-ins work because people are using their bodies,” Beasley said.

Beasley spent the bulk of three days sitting in Durbin’s office this spring, demanding a meeting with him. She said the experience left her “exhausted, physically and emotionally drained,” but also convinced that it was more effective than repeated calls to lawmakers’ offices and polite requests for meetings.

Sit-in participants are asking lawmakers to pledge their support to cosponsor and call a federal assault weapons ban to a vote.

“ (A sit-in) is powerful, you can’t ignore it and there is a physical toll,” she said.

Schwartz met the Highland Park mothers, who also include Sonya Cohen who is joining the sit-in on Saturday, while attempting to sway the minds of legislators last summer.

His sit-in idea was inspired in large part by the bold activism of the Greensboro Four, a group of young Black men who sat at the lunch counter inside the Woolworth Company store in Greensboro, North Carolina, to protest racial segregation policies in 1960.

“If you look at historical bills that have passed, most of them have been because there was there were nonviolent protests,” Schwartz said.

As Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil, sustained their sit-in, harassed and heckled by white customers and counterprotesters, the sit-ins swelled to more than 20 people. Then they grew to include a few hundred and ultimately more than 1,000 people, drawing national news coverage as sit-ins took place around the country and eventually drew the support of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, four years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated public desegregation.

“How many vigils have we had?” Schwartz continued. “How many rallies, and marches and speakers? We’ve never done this before, so that’s why I thought we needed to do it.”

Sitting in a park near her Highland Park home before flying out to Washington, Cohen explained that her family immigrated the United States from Ukraine in 1988 to escape anti-Semitic discrimination and build a better life. But now, raising a young family of her own, Cohen’s children are growing up in the face of a threat that does not discriminate: guns.

Sonya Cohen sits on a park bench near her Highland Park home while displaying a sign she made with her children pictured to urge legislative action to mitigate gun violence.

“This is supposed to be the land of the free,” Cohen said. “I don’t feel very free when I don’t feel safe doing the everyday things which most people should take for granted.”

Cohen said she is participating in the sit-in to support Sam and the future of her four children.

“ (The Parkland shooting) changed his life forever,” Cohen said. “It destroyed his family. He has to live with this nightmare every single day.”

When Schwartz checked in from the sit-in by phone on Wednesday, he said there were about 40 protesters standing alongside him. After Schwartz said a man approached the group in disagreement, his group could be heard on the line, chanting, “Ban assault weapons!” as Schwartz spoke about how others could help their effort from home.

“Call (202-224-3121) and ask your lawmakers, tell them to come out and support us at the survivor sit-in,” Schwartz said. “We’re right outside the Capitol (building). We need their support in calling for a vote. We’re going to get nowhere without lawmakers’ support and actually coming and joining us.”

The group has been hoping to confront and engage Republican lawmakers on the issue, including some who Schwartz said, “are not hearing us,” and might be unwilling to otherwise address survivors and victims’ families.

Sit-in attendees are also sharing videos of their interactions with some Republican lawmakers, such as 14th District Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and 3rd District Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert.

As one sit-in participant who identified herself as a school shooting survivor asked Greene about her plan to end gun violence, Greene said she supports the Second Amendment and slipped out of one of her shoes. Picking up her shoe, Greene said, “You know what? That’s a terrible break.”

“I support the Second Amendment and bad guys being locked up in jail,” Greene said in the video, walking away from the young protesters.

The sit-in has also drawn some prominent gun violence prevention activists such as David Hogg, a Parkland shooting survivor; and Kristin Song, whose son Ethan was killed by accident with an unsecured gun in 2018.

Actress Laura Dern has been participating as well, with her daughter, and the pair joined with Schwartz and other protesters to deliver letters demanding a vote to the offices of Schumer and Durbin.

Newtown Action Alliance co-founder Po Murray has pushed for an assault weapons ban for more than a decade after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, in which 20 children and six educators were killed. At that time, gun violence prevention activists thought the horrific massacre would be a turning point.

“We are tired of the political gamesmanship,” Murray said Thursday. “When ordinary Americans are getting decapitated, when children are getting decapitated by an AR-15s, (Congress) is choosing to arm mass shooters with weapons of war.”

Murray said the direct result of Congress’ inaction is the widening group of survivors and family members of people killed in similar shootings, which she believes would have been prevented by a federal ban on assault weapons.

“Even Democrats essentially send their thoughts and prayers and make statements like, ‘We need to do something,’ and then we come to the US Capitol and they do nothing,” she said. “At least give us a vote on the assault weapons ban to show they are truly championing these efforts to end the crisis.”

For Cohen, the fight is about ensuring children grow up unafraid of the gun violence that so frequently plagues public American life.

Survivors and family members of victims have tried all the other advocacy tactics they know.

“We’ve been asking nicely, repeatedly,” Cohen said. “People deserve a vote. They deserve to know if their elected officials value kids’ lives over guns, human life over the gun lobby and we want them to vote in both chambers and keep voting until the assault weapons ban passes.”

As the club of people whose lives were upended by gun violence continues to grow, Luger explained, those in power who are content with the status quo may soon have to — finally — answer for their decisions.

“Because of (the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers), this club is growing and growing and becoming more and more vocal,” Luger said. “And it will take them down. It has to.”



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