Credit: Matt Cohen

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Fifteen-year-old Robert Allen made sure he got to Folger Park in Southeast D.C. early. The Rally For D.C. Lives wasn’t scheduled to begin until 9 a.m., but Allen was there at least an hour before it started to make sure his sign would be up front for all to see: big, bright, and yellow, with the name “ZORUAN HARRIS, 1997-2016” in all caps next to a picture of a smiling teen in a cap and gown.

Allen is a freshman at the same high school that Harris graduated from, National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter High School in Southeast, but he didn’t know him. Harris was shot and killed when he was 18, in September of 2016. Allen says he’s also lost two friends to gun violence in the past two months: 14-year-old Steven Slaughter, who was killed in a shooting in Southeast in January; and 18-year-old Chicano Phillips who was killed last month when a gunman burst into a second-floor apartment in the Washington Highlands complex and opened fire.

“I want people to stop gun violence,” Allen says. “A lot of people want to live … they want the violence to stop.”

While hundreds of thousands of people gathered along Pennsylvania Avenue NW for the March For Our Lives, Allen was one of a few thousand who gathered to Folger Park early this morning for the Rally For D.C. Lives—a precursor to the main March that focused on the fear of gun violence students in D.C. face every day. 15-year-old Robert Allen.Matt Cohen

Organized by the D.C. chapter of Moms Demand Action, local lawmakers—including Mayor Muriel Bowser, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson—were joined by D.C. students to speak out against gun violence in D.C.

Aaron King, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School, talked about the friends he’s lost in shootings. “Too many teens have access to guns,” he said. Twelve-year-old Nehemiah Sellers, who attends the District of Columbia International School in Ward 7, said, “We must do more than talk about our problems, we are in a state of emergency.”

Devontae Gliss, whose mother was shot and killed during a Memorial Day barbecue in 2015, fought through tears as he recalled that day. “My heart was broken, my best friend was gone,” he said. And Imani Romney, a student at Richard Wright Charter School in Ward 6, asked a simple question, addressing the national media coverage—or lack thereof—of shootings involving black teenagers: “If one of these shootings happened in our schools, would the media care?”

Del. Norton, ever the thorn in the side of national lawmakers who insist on meddling in local D.C. laws, had harsh words for Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who’s come under fire for receiving copious amounts of campaign money from the National Rifle Association: “Marco Rubio is the ultimate villain,” she said. “The 17 lives lost in Parkland are on his hands.”

It was a rally to ensure that D.C.’s message wasn’t lost in the national one today. And when all the speakers were finished, activists with D.C.’s chapter of Black Lives Matter—with Mei-Ling Ho-Shing, a black survivor of the Parkland shooting, up front—led thousands on a march through the streets of Southeast to the entrance of the March For Our Lives on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Their message was to “hono[r] and remember the black and brown youth lost to intra-community gun violence in D.C.”

For Robert Allen, it’s an important message. He says he doesn’t feel safe in his community. He doesn’t even feel safe in his own school. “They say they’re going to put police officers in school, but I still don’t feel safe,” he says, “Cause some police officers might not know how to act with their guns.”