How many people would show up to a protest organized by a 15-year-old? About 50, Julia Dortch thought.
Come Saturday afternoon, she realized her estimate was way off. Beginning at the Bradenton Riverwalk, more than 1,000 protesters flooded into the Mosaic Amphitheater to hear speeches from concerned activists and local politicians before marching to the Manatee County Courthouse.
“She told me that she told City Hall 50 people would be coming,” said Debra Tucci-Therrien, Julia’s mother. “I said ‘Um, you might want to change that after I put it on Facebook.’”
Social media is largely what sparked the March for Our Lives movement, as students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, organized a worldwide rally for gun control and school safety. Less than 500 people marked their interest in the Bradenton protest on Facebook, but many more attended.
“I’m honestly so surprised. I did not think it would have been such a big turnout,” Julia said. “I’m so glad everyone came out to support. That was inspiring and very touching for me.”
But that’s how change happens, said Matt Lepinski, Liv Coleman’s husband. Coleman is running against Joe Gruters for the Florida House District 73 seat. On Saturday, she marched alongside the Parkland students in Washington, D.C.
“In the streets and in the ballot box, that’s how change happens,” Lepinski said to the overflowing Riverwalk crowd. “We’re here to follow the young people. Their fight is our fight. We will follow them into a better future.”
Many of the protesters brought handmade signs denouncing politicians for accepting money from the National Rifle Association and stating that recent legislation hasn’t done enough to protect children in schools.
Mary and Robert Child said the March for Our Lives protest on Saturday was the first protest they’ve ever attended. They took turns carrying a sign that read, “If you’re taking money from the NRA, we are voting you out.”
Mary said she “can’t believe how intelligent these kids are,” and supports the gun legislation changes that they’re advocating.
“We need to get rid of assault rifles and have more background checks, everything the kids are saying,” she said. “It’s actually reasonable.”
Her husband agreed and stated that he’d support a law that limits the number of bullets a citizen may have in a clip.
“I’d like to see the bullets in a clip reduced to three,” Robert said. “My dad used to say only the first one counts.”
During a series of individual speeches at the Riverwalk, Zoey Whitmire, a 17-year-old Manatee School for the Arts student, echoed Robert’s sentiment.
“Hunters don’t need more than 10 bullets, so why do citizens need automatic weapons?” Zoey asked.
Margaret Good, who recently won an upset in a special election for the District 72 seat of the Florida House of Representatives, said she was proud of Julia and that change is possible, as long as enough people believe in it.
“I’m here as living proof of what we can do together,” Good, D-Sarasota, told the audience. “Because a large group of people realized what they can do together, I got sent to Tallahassee.”
Good introduced Julia, who also addressed the crowd. She thanked everyone for giving her movement life and being a part of a global demonstration.
“By being here today, we are forcing these politicians to listen,” Julia said. “We march in solidarity with 823 marches around the world.”
According to the official March for Our Lives website, there are actually 846 marches across the globe. About 60 of the locally organized marches took place in Florida.
Julia, a student at State College of Florida Collegiate School, led the protesters from the Riverwalk to the Manatee County Courthouse, holding a March For Our Lives banner and chanting “enough is enough, we want change,” all the while. Officers from the Bradenton Police Department helped block traffic to ensure safety for the protesters.
There were also protests in Sarasota and Lakewood Ranch. The Learning Experience, a child development center, hosted the Lakewood Ranch march, which coincided with the center’s inaugural literary fair.
About 300 people showed up for a march around the campus. One of them was Janet King, who worked at the school district building in Jefferson County, Colorado, at the time of the infamous Columbine shooting.
“It was horrible then and it’s horrible now, 20 years later,” King said.
King, who has nine grandchildren, said she supports the Second Amendment but doesn’t understand why anyone in the city needs automatic weapons.
“I have friends out in rural areas, like in Colorado. That’s how they protect themselves. But in the city? We have shootings all over. Locking up schools is great, but it won’t prevent Vegas,” she said, referencing a massacre that left more than 50 people dead last October.
Tucci-Therrien understands the need for the right to bear arms, as well. She said there needs to be more regulation attached to the law, however.
“I’m not out there saying the Second Amendment has to go,” Tucci-Therrien explained. “No, I realize people would like their rights, but, truly, these automatic weapons really mess with people’s lives in an instant. They can be gone just like that.”
Seeing the result of her daughter’s hard work, Tucci-Therrien said she couldn’t put how proud she is into words.
“I think I’ve said this a million times today. Proud is not the biggest word I can put to this. There’s got to be a bigger word than proud. I got emotional when she started to speak. I was like ‘Oh my god, I did not wear waterproof makeup. Stop it!’” Tucci-Therrien said.
As for her part, Julia said she’s excited to become of voting age and start participating in elections, but until then, she said she may get involved in local activist groups.
One thing she doesn’t foresee is organizing another local protest in her hometown.
“Hopefully I won’t have to do something like this again, but there are other problems in this world, and I’ll be ready for those,” Julia said.