Each day since taking part in Milwaukee’s March for Our Lives satellite on Saturday, Wisconsin student activists have hit the pavement for “50 Miles More.” That’s what they’re calling their effort to keep up the gun-reform momentum with a 50-mile march from the state capital of Madison to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin. Ryan’s local roots and “lead role in blocking and burying any chance of gun reform again and again,” mean Wisconsin students are well-positioned to make policy demands on this issue, say the students. Inspired by the leadership of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting survivors and by 1965’s 54-mile civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the organizers began planning the action at their high school in the tony Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood. Joined by dozens of students from other Wisconsin schools, they’ve garnered national attention from CNN, The Washington Post, and others this week as they round out their trek.
The Progressive spoke to 50 Miles More co-organizer Brendan Fardella, a seventeen-year-old Shorewood High School senior, as the core group of forty marchers closed in on Janesville Tuesday evening. They had been marching at least 14 miles per day and were feeling “sore,” Fardella says, but buoyed by the “overwhelmingly supportive and positive” reaction from passerby, “which is something we’re super psyched about, because we’re definitely marching in places that we don’t imagine are too supportive of our cause.”
In our chat, Fardella talks confronting Paul Ryan, the students’ finish-line rally in Janesville and their bold plan to take 50 Miles More nationwide.
Q: You’ve said that this isn’t a political issue. Why do you frame it this way? The 50 Miles More marchers don’t seem afraid to get political.
Fardella: At the core it’s a human rights issue. The Everytown for Gun Safety website highlights [that] ninety-six people die in gun violence every day. That’s a huge risk for everyday Americans in this country going to a movie theater or going to school and [for] people in the inner city and how detrimental gun violence is to those parts of our country.
When we’re talking about how we change things, I think that’s when it gets political. We’re not afraid to be political. When I say ‘this is a human rights issue,’ I’m sort of talking about the issue at hand, which is the deaths gun violence causes.
When people hear that statistic, I don’t think anyone is going to listen to that and feel like that’s not bad. I think that the way we’re approaching it is something that gets people to understand more where we’re coming from. Especially gun owners and people in the past who’ve been hesitant to agree with what we’re saying. It’s not a political agenda we’re most concerned about. It’s about the deaths in the inner cities, it’s about the deaths in a mass shooting. We want people to view it more in that way and [ask] how can we prevent these deaths, than more politically with the liberal agenda and the conservative agenda.
We love when political candidates highlight their support. But at our core the leaders and the people we want aligned with us are the students.
Q: When asked about 50 Miles More, a spokesperson for Paul Ryan commented that, “The House recently enacted new laws to keep children safe without infringing on constitutional rights.” This refers to several provisions in the $1.3 billion federal spending bill, approved by Congress last week—including the Fix NICS Act, which incentivizes agencies and the military to upload more records into the background check system for purchasing guns. Some, like Everytown president John Feinblatt, are calling these measures “baby steps.” What do the marchers think?
Fardella: We’ve discussed a little bit about it. What I’ve been saying is it’s a step in the right direction. Something we’ve talked about is increased background checks. We definitely want that, but it’s definitely not enough to get where we’re going, which is to stop gun violence from taking the ninety-six lives that it takes every day in this country. We also have to consider . . . the damage that a weapon of war does every day in this country. Those are the core issues.
Q: Has Paul Ryan been in touch yet?
Fardella: He has not. The most that we’ve heard from Speaker Ryan’s office was from a spokesperson and I believe that the line was that the Speaker respects those using their voice. That’s a pretty broad statement, especially for forty kids who are marching in his voting district and are demanding change specifically from him. So I hope in the coming future he will recognize us and of course, our hope is that he will sit down with us to have a conversation about what we can do.
What we’ve highlighted pretty often, and the Parkland students touched on this too, is the kids are the ones leading this movement. We love when political candidates highlight their support. But at our core the leaders and the people we want aligned with us are the students.
Q: Your high school, Shorewood High School, is two-thirds white. Your community is very white. Wisconsin is a very white state. But this march is inspired by the Selma to Montgomery marches. And it’s clear that quite a few of the march organizers and participants are nonwhite. How have march organizers consciously worked center nonwhite voices and make this an intersectional action?
Fardella: The kids from Shorewood that are marching, we are privileged and we are very lucky to live in a community that is not plagued by gun violence. When we talk about it, we bring inner city gun violence into the conversation very frequently because it’s a huge issue. A lot of the students on our march are kids from inner city Milwaukee and students who deal with that more a daily basis. That was a top priority, when we were organizing our march, having multiple voices that can talk about the different facets of gun violence and what these dangerous guns do.
Ultimately a legislator’s job is to represent the people of this country. And if the people of this country are marching 50 miles in every state and demanding change, I think that’s impossible to ignore.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish at your Janesville rally and how will you keep up the pressure for change going forward?
Fardella: We’re expecting a very large turnout [at the rally]. Ending with this rally, especially in Speaker Ryan’s hometown, it’ll call to action more and more politicians as this movement continues. Tomorrow what we hope to accomplish is to keep our voice loud.
Our plans for after 50 More is 50 More in 50 States. Until November, or until change is made that would save lives on a daily basis, our goal is to have 50 more [marches] in 50 states. So other states take on the challenge to march 50 miles to a city of a representative from their state, to have the conversation continue, to have it continue to roll and never let it die out. We’ve had a few emails from different students [in different states, asking] ‘Can we have a call with you about what we can do to do this in my state?’ We’re really excited about that.
We were kind of just sitting around the table and we were thinking very, very far ahead because when we had come up with this idea, we weren’t exactly marching yet. And we thought, ‘Ok, if we really gain the traction that we’re hoping for, how can we continue to keep it rolling?’ Because that was kind of the idea for 50 Miles More in Wisconsin—how can we keep the movement rolling after March for Our Lives? We’re very, very excited to have more states participate in this and keep the movement rolling and keep people talking [so] that legislators can’t move on to another topic. Because ultimately their job is to represent the people of this country. And if the people of this country are marching 50 miles in every state and demanding change, I think that’s impossible to ignore.
Alexandra Tempus is associate editor of The Progressive.