Western Kentucky students, most from Marshall County, will “just say no” to Oliver North when he appears at a Republican rally on Aug. 3. The event is a political preliminary on the eve of the Fancy Farm Picnic on Aug. 4. Marshall and Calloway county Republicans are hosting North’s appearance at Lovett Auditorium on the Murray State University Campus. The students will make their feelings known in a peaceful protest during North’s visit. Students and their adult advisers began planning their response to North’s visit earlier this month.
Many Marshall County students who survived the Jan. 23 shooting, view bringing in North, who was recently elected president of the National Rifle Association, as insensitive to the emotional and physical trauma they endured. “It felt like rubbing salt in the wound,” said one student during a planning session. The shooting, shortly before classes began, killed Bailey Holt and Preston Cope, both 15, and seriously injured 14 other students. The 16-year-old shooter is awaiting trial on two counts of murder and 14 counts of first-degree assault.
The students — ranging from 15 to 17 — are planning the protest with guidance from parents, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Pennyroyal Indivisible. The same group organized the Marshall County/Western Kentucky March for Our Lives that attracted 400 people on a rainy March 24 at Memorial Park in Calvert City. Many students who have spoken against the careless use and storage of firearms, have endured harassment in person and on social media, but they say they are not deterred in their quest for safer classrooms and public spaces. And that quest includes a peaceful, positive and non-partisan protest of North’s appearance in Murray.
In the planning session, Gale Greyson, a military veteran who grew up on a military base, gave a Power Point presentation about North’s military background and his controversial involvement in the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan Administration. And at Greyson’s suggestion, the group decided ask Veterans for Peace to provide a safety line for the protesters.
Some students say they were surprised when the GOP announced it would host North’s visit, others say it should have been expected. “I can’t say I’m surprised,” said Seth Adams, 15, noting that this region has always been pro NRA. I guess the general thought process was like, ‘Of course the NRA is coming’ but also, they are not going to get to come here and expect no resistance.” Adams added that he wants to make the GOP’s event “feel like it’s out of proportion. I want more people to show up at our protest, and I want ours to be louder and have a bigger point,” he said.
Lela Free, 15, whose opinions on firearms differs from that of some of her close relatives, said she too was not surprised. “None of us are surprised; it’s western Kentucky — am I supposed to expect someone who’s not conservative?” Free wants to put forth a different viewpoint. “I want to make it known that our movement is bigger than theirs, and that we care about people,” she said. “We’re not in it for the money and the politics; we’re in it to save people’s lives. It’s not about the politics; it’s not about the money, it’s not about the greed — that’s what we’re trying to fight against, and we want to make that known.”
One student who declined to be identified because of harassment, said she feels inviting North to speak was “insensitive especially only six months after what happened at the high school. It makes me uncomfortable because I know what the NRA is about. I know that they don’t care about us,” she added. “I will always respect other people’s opinions even if they are different than mine, but I don’t see how someone could endorse this event especially since some of the students I know are uncomfortable with the NRA and with what they stand for and the agenda they are pushing. I just wish they would listen to the students more.” She sees the National Rifle Association as “very aggressive whenever they push their agenda, and they hate on a lot of the Parkland (Florida) students who decided to speak up,” she said. “I used to respect them because they are a part of our nation and a lot of people support them. I didn’t necessarily agree with them, but I always kept my distance. But now, I just want to push back as much as possible because I don’t believe what they are doing is respectful of kids and people and survivors of gun violence.”
Haley Case, 16, said she “got really upset” when she learned North was coming to Murray, “because of what had happened at the school. I feel like no one is really listening to us whenever we are trying to talk about it. Whenever they booked him for this event, they completely disregarded how we felt about it. So, it really upset me.”
Cloi Henke, 16, said she “felt nauseous and anxious about it” when she learned of the NRA president’s planned visit. “I felt kind of useless in a way because I was already feeling down about our march because nobody was listening to us when it happened,” she said. “So, when I heard he was coming it just kind of weighed me down a little more thinking that no one was hearing us still. I thought it was disrespectful in a way.”
Keaton Conner, 17, heard rumors that North was coming before it was announced. “I didn’t really believe it; I thought it was just a rumor,” she said. “I assumed the Republican Party would not want that kind of image … especially with the election being around the corner, not necessarily with him being in the NRA but his very controversial past. When it was announced, I was actually surprised, not that they would support someone like him, but that they would choose that to represent them. Once I realized it was true, I felt kind of disrespected as I think a lot of people did since this is still an open wound, and this is rubbing salt in it.”
The students hope their response to North will attract supporters from throughout Kentucky and other states. Free said: “This is a man who hurts people all around the United States, not just western Kentucky and we want people from every corner of the United States to come and protest against him.”