by Dominique Claire Shuminova
It was a sunny day with temperatures way below freezing. As they sipped their morning coffee, residents all over Pelham remarked on the heightened police presence.
March for America – the first ever organized political march in Pelham’s long and illustrious history – commenced at 2pm on Sunday February 5th at the northwest corner of Pelhamdale Avenue and Boston Post Road. Pioneered and commanded by 15-year-old Pelham Memorial High School sophomore Violet Massie-Vereker, the event was sponsored by PMHS’ Social and Political Activism Club (SPAC), with the guidance of English teacher Nicole Wasnetsky.
In the last month, with unwavering resolve, Violet, the thoughtful and audacious great-granddaughter of renowned activist Molly Hart Todd, conceived the March for America, secured the sponsorship of the SPAC, addressed Mayors Jennifer Lapey of Pelham Manor and Michael J. Volpe of the Village of Pelham, both Boards of Trustees, and a number of community organizations, and received all the necessary permissions.
The goal of the march and rally which followed was to celebrate the constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of speech and expression, free press and peaceful assembly, and support access to public education and medical care, the environment, civil rights and equal protection for all, a woman’s right to choose, humane immigration policies, inclusivity, diversity and tolerance. “I am inspired by the art people create to cope with or express or provoke societal change,” said Violet. “I wanted this march to wake Pelham up.”
Liz Massie, Violet’s mother, told The Pelham Post, “To see my child follow the courage of her convictions and champion the rights and values closest to her heart, winning the support of local and county officials, two police chiefs and hundreds in her community is humbling and awe-inspiring, but most of all, it reminds me that the story of our great nation is evolving every day and that her call to action is a call to us all.”
Along with SPAC Co-Presidents Leana Rutt and Ella Stern, Violet led the parade of about 250 marchers of all ages – some accompanied by dogs on leashes, some pushing strollers, and some wearing babies – along Pelhamdale, turning left on Colonial, then right on Wolf’s Lane, guided by volunteers in white hats. There were chants of “No Hate! No Fear! Refugees are welcome here!”
“Women’s Rights are Human Rights!” and, “Human rights are here to stay!”
“I’ve always had a strong sense of righteous indignation and have always spoken up in small ways,” Leana explained, “but when fundamental freedoms were brought up for debate, I began to realize that I could really make my voice heard.”
At one point Violet was running up and down the line of marchers shouting, “Show me what democracy looks like!” with marchers responding, “This is what democracy looks like!”
“I was gasping for air in between each chant as I ran,” she told The Post, “attempting to rally every inch of the march in chant. I don’t think I’ve ever exerted my body in that way before, and it felt amazing in the moment, but the repercussions were pretty brutal.”
“When we were marching through the barricades and a woman shouted out her window that she had voted for Trump, we replied “Good for you!” in a completely genuine way. After a pause, she replied, “Good luck!” That was incredibly rewarding, as it confirmed that the goal of the march had been accomplished, at least to an extent.”
The marchers were joined in Wolf’s Lane Park by New York State Senator Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester) and others. The crowd snaked along the sidewalks, swelling to almost twice its size by the time it reached the gazebo where Ella, Leana, and Violet led those assembled in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Senator Klein told an enthusiastic audience, in part, “I have represented Pelham for the past 12 years and I don’t think I’ve been any prouder! Today we are sending a very important message. We will oppose any walls but we will fight for bridges of opportunity!”
He spoke of his own Hungarian ancestors, pointing out that there is no difference between the immigrants of yesteryear – from whom we are all descended – and the immigrants of today, concluding rousingly, “God bless America! Always remember who we are and where we came from and never forget it!”
Violet later told The Post, “I knew he was a solid enough politician, but his speech was incredibly powerful and absolutely riveting, I was completely taken aback and elated.”
Pelham resident Jennie Driesen read a statement on behalf of NYS Assemblywoman Amy Paulin. “Be it known, activism is patriotism. Loyalty to our country means that we must fight for the rights that we inherited over 200 years ago when we see them threatened or ignored. We cannot sit silently. Being a participant in the democratic process takes a commitment that you are showing today and that I am sure will stay with you for the rest of your lives.”
“I cannot remember ever being as invested in politics, or as in touch with the real world as I and my peers are today,” Violet observed. “Immerse yourself in real, legitimate news sources. I believe the biggest dangers to this country are passivity and ignorance. This ever growing emphasis on unity, on engagement, this is what democracy looks like.”
“Today is a celebration”, said Tyler Kalahar, Program Coordinator at Pace University, who spoke on behalf of Indivisible Westchester. “We are celebrating our country, we are celebrating the flag, we are celebrating each other and our community. This march was organized by our future, the students of PMHS. They know that patriotism is not just a feeling of pride but a call to action.”
Next, Vice Chairman of the Westchester County Board of Legislators Jim Maisano (R-New Rochelle/Pelham) gave a heartfelt address, “We hear too often what our kids are doing wrong in society, in the media, today is something our kids are doing right. I thought it was really cool to see a young girl in the front with “Free Press” written on her face. This rally today is truly a victory for free speech.”
Maisano then read a quote, often falsely attributed to Voltaire, which goes, “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”, and went on, “I’m sure the students here want to change the world. I’m an old guy and I still want to change the World. Free speech allows us to advocate for social change to make the world a better place. We have too many people yelling and screaming and not listening to each other. We are talking past each other. We can do better than that. The great American people should not bring ourselves down to the level of our national leaders. Students, if you want to change the world, you have to change the hearts and minds of those who disagree with you, use your free speech to have intelligent conversations with your fellow Americans, especially those with different viewpoints.”
“Prior generations including my own have brought us to this point,” Maisano added. “I ask the students: be better than us. Please change this country from this dark time, ensure that we Americans are talking to each other, listening to each other, and having a real conversation about the future of our wonderful free and democratic society. Students, you can change the world and I think you will. When we leave this rally today, let’s work together to build a society on peace, love, and understanding.”
Sydney MacInnis, the Founder and President of Environmental Coalition of the Pelhams (EcoPel) introduced herself as an immigrant, and spoke about the work EcoPel does in the community. “There is no end to what we can all do,” she said. “I encourage you to think, in each act, “Am I contributing to the problem, or am I part of the solution?” All are invited to EcoPel’s 4th Annual Solstice Yoga on June 21st.
Next, PMHS student Rachel Brewer announced, “Never in my life have I been prouder of my fellow students or my community!” before reciting a poem she wrote on the effects of climate change.
Kathie O’Callaghan, founder of Hearts and Homes for Refugees, said, “Values are important for many reasons. They influence our behaviors and give us reason to unite, and cause us to act. Because of our values we fight for freedom, we demand equality and champion the little guy, we help the oppressed and defend against tyranny. We engage in volunteerism, and above all, we place the greatest value on family.”
“HHR started as a grassroots humanitarian organization here in Pelham, and has spread to Larchmont and Mamaroneck. We have about 100 active volunteers. Less than 2 months ago we were able to welcome a refugee family to our community. This is the first refugee family in Westchester County. We hope it is not the last.”
O’Callaghan then read the words of Emma Lazarus, engraved on the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
“By standing here for American values, you are standing up for the oppressed, the stranger and victims everywhere. To everyone here, and especially to the high school students of Pelham, you shall be remembered for your courage and the example you set here today. Thanks to you, and all those who walked today, the coffers of optimism and hope have been replenished. Today we strengthened the fabric of our society starting in our backyard. This is simply the best America has to offer.”
New Rochelle native and Larchmont resident Farah Kathwari, proclaimed, “This event is proof that our young people do care. They are aware, informed, and active. The future is theirs. Built into our constitution are safeguards to make sure that the government is of the people, by the people, and for the people, so that tyranny cannot take hold. I started #ourflag, to remind everyone that we must stand up for our American ideals, out of love for our country. We the citizens of this country, you and I, are responsible for making sure that our constitution is upheld by our elected politicians. So today, I carry the flag for our constitution, for our democracy, for secularism, for justice, for tolerance, for respect, for diversity, for all people in this land. These are all American values to be proud of.”
“Democracy is fragile,” SPAC member Sophia McSpedon read on behalf of New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson. “As citizens, we must take personal responsibility for safeguarding our liberties and for upholding the values that have made our country a beacon of hope and opportunity worldwide. Especially at a moment when these values are threatened, let us stand together to make clear that all of our neighbors have worth – whoever we are or wherever we come from – that all of us deserve a chance to succeed, and that our nation’s ideals are big enough to embrace everyone.”
SPAC member Ben Glickman read a statement from New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “The American story is a history of movements – from the abolitionist movement to the women’s suffrage movement, from the civil rights movement to the LGBTQ equality movement. Movements always begin from the ground up, with passionate young people in the lead. I believe we are all part of the next great movement in America – the movement to build a truly just and inclusive nation. Thank you, Pelham Memorial High School, for your energy and your dedication to the best ideals of America. Keep up the fight.”
“It’s really amazing that we could have this happen.” said Ella. “I’m fortunate to have parents who have taught me the ideals of inclusion, and to respect all people regardless of race, gender or income status. There is nothing more American than what we are all doing here today, expressing our opinions. There are very serious matters on the table and we cannot back down. Women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, equity in public education, and much more are at stake. These problems are not new and are not going away. We must never back down and never take our democracy for granted.”
“We marched for the marginalized, the persecuted, the belittled,” announced Leana, “the people who have been made to feel like their voices don’t count and that they are unwelcome here; in the land of the free. Ours is the America where people of all gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, religion, and creed are represented and respected and heard. It was a march of love and kindness and solidarity and hope and our commitment to peaceful resistance.”
The event included a voter registration booth where several youths registered to vote for the first time.
“I am extremely proud of our community and the student organizers,” Mayor Volpe later told The Post. “I thought the symbolism was important. Free speech and equal rights are of paramount importance in our society and must be respected. The welcoming nature and fundamental inclusiveness of the Pelhams was on display on Sunday. We saw individuals express themselves in a dignified and respectful manner as is required to really affect change in this community and our country. It is heart-warming to see our youth engaged and interested in the issues of the day!”
Violet’s mom gushed, “Mayor Volpe said to me, “Your daughter has nerves of steel.” And she does. She decided a month ago that there should be a march in Pelham to support the rights and values that define us as Americans. And she made it happen. I am awed, humbled and beyond proud.”
“This wasn’t a one time thing,” Leana tells The Post. “SPAC will continue to take action on issues we’re passionate about. We hope people will follow what SPAC is doing, because we will not stop trying to change the world.”
“I hope that it struck a sense of awareness into everyone in Pelham, I hope it reached into their minds, whether they were marchers, or heard us from their houses, or saw us driving by. I hope we created a little explosion in our tiny corner of New York, and I hope it will grow from there,” concluded Violet.
Special thanks to the entire Pelham and Pelham Manor Police Departments and especially to Police Chiefs Carpenter of Pelham Manor and Benefico of the Village along with Detective Hynes.
#PelhamNYMarch on social media
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