Of the 830 communities around the world hosting March for Our Lives rallies Saturday, only one will put student gun-control activists within the closest proximity to the president of the United States — and it’s not the main rally in Washington.
While 500,000 people are expected to march down Pennsylvania Avenue with survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, the estimated 2,000 people planning to march down Southern Boulevard in West Palm Beach toward Mar-a-Lago at 2:15 p.m. Saturday will have the best chance of being seen and heard in person by President Donald J. Trump.
Trump arrives in West Palm Beach Friday evening for a weekend of relaxation at his winter White House on Palm Beach and golf at Trump International Golf Club.
If the presidential motorcade follows its usual Southern Boulevard route to and from the golf course while the march is going on, Trump will get an earful if he rolls down his window.
“He may not like to hear what we have to say,” said Valerie Rangel, the march’s 17-year-old organizer. “I think he’ll get a really angry response from the crowd because a lot of people are angry that he allows groups like the NRA (National Rifle Association) to hold our lives hostage.”
Whether Trump hears or sees the West Palm marchers remains to be seen.
Last year, when several hundred protesters gathered along the route on Bingham Island to demand Trump release his tax returns, the presidential motorcade bypassed the demonstration, crossing into Palm Beach via the Royal Park Bridge to the north.
But the Royal Park Bridge, often referred to as the middle bridge, is on the south end of the Palm Beach International Boat Show, a four-day event that started Thursday and is expected to attract thousands of people to downtown West Palm Beach.
If the motorcade sticks to the Southern Boulevard route, its movement could be restricted until before the march starts or after it ends.
No bridge crossing
The march will start at 2 p.m. with a rally at Dreher Park, just east of Interstate 95, before proceeding east along the south sidewalk of Southern Boulevard at 2:15 p.m. It will continue about 1.3 miles to the west side of the Southern Boulevard bridge at Flagler Drive, with West Palm Beach police restricting traffic as the procession crosses Parker and Lake avenues, U.S. 1 and Olive Avenue.
But instead of crossing the bridge and proceeding to Mar-a-Lago as initially planned, the marchers will turn south on Flagler Drive for about 20 yards and gather on the grass near the Intracoastal Waterway seawall just south of the bridge.
After meeting with West Palm Beach and Palm Beach police, organizers agreed to avoid crossing into Palm Beach because of safety issues related to construction work on the bridge. The bridge is being rebuilt and there’s minimal room for pedestrians because of heavy construction equipment.
The seawall spot will be just fine, organizers said, because it will allow demonstrators to aim their voices across the waterway at Mar-a-Lago. Demonstrators have told police they will stay at the seawall for about 30 minutes before heading back to Dreher Park.
“They will have bullhorns. They are going to do everything they can to make their voices heard,” said Michelle Kendall, a Loxahatchee woman who helped Rangel secure permits for the park and arrange meetings with police.
Although the worldwide March for Our Lives rallies are not meant to be anti-Trump demonstrations, the West Palm Beach march will give participants a unique chance to make their gun-control message heard by the country’s highest office-holder.
“We are actually going to be the closest march in the country to him. It means a lot to us, especially to these kids. They want to be heard,” said Kendall, who owns a restaurant a mile from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Terrie Rizzo, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, accused Trump of “choosing to flee Washington rather than face the hundreds of thousands of students who are preparing to march on Washington to protest his inaction on gun violence.”
Rizzo, who plans to march in West Palm Beach, added: “You can run from the students in Washington, Donald Trump, but you can’t hide from us in Florida. We’ll see you at Mar-a-lago on Saturday.”
Trump supporters are expected to gather on Southern Boulevard, as they have in the past when the president visits. West Palm Beach police plan to keep supporters on the north side of the boulevard to reduce the chances of clashes with marchers, many of whom are expected to be students under the age of 19.
“These kids are unbelievable. They are fearless. They are serious and they are undaunted by challenges,” said West Palm Beach City Commissioner Paula Ryan, who took Rangel and other organizers to dinner a few weeks ago to offer advice on keeping the march safe.
‘It felt too real’
Aside from Kendall and Ryan, Rangel said she also has received help and advice from four Stoneman Douglas alumni and from representatives of groups that have held marches in the past, including Women’s March Florida’s Palm Beach chapter and Palm Beach Indivisibles.
Many groups have gathered volunteers to serve as safety marshals along the route. Participants are being asked to carpool because of limited parking at Dreher Park, where the meeting site will include food trucks and bounce houses for kids.
“We figured why not march and come back so we can all enjoy something together as a community,” Rangel said.
Rangel said she started organizing the march out of a sense of despair after the Stoneman Douglas shootings that killed 17 and wounded 17 on Feb. 14.
“It felt too real. Kids my age were dying,” she said. “It could have been my school, me, my friends.”
When she initially posted her plans for the local march last month on social media, she assumed that 50, maybe 100, would show up. “By the end of the night, it was 600 people” pledging to attend, she said.
As of Friday, 2,100 people had posted pledges to attend on the March for Our Lives Palm Beach County Facebook page, along with more than 6,600 expressing interest.
“It says a lot about how scared people are and how concerned they are,” Rangel said. “This march is their one way of contributing to the cause and trying to enact some sort of change.”
More than 1 million people are expected at 838 marches worldwide, most of which are being organized by students.
“If I was the NRA, I’d be shaking in my boots. These kids are going to make a difference,” said Ryan, a Democrat.
“The NRA doesn’t have a playbook for this. It’ll be interesting to see if they stop calling these kids losers and start recognizing that they’re going to have to do something to counter their message, because their message is simple: We want to be safe. And we are going to elect politicians who are willing to have those conversations.”
Staff writer George Bennett contributed to this story.
March For Our Lives West Palm Beach
When: 2 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Dreher Park in West Palm Beach (Southern Boulevard entrance just east of Interstate 95).
Parking: Limited parking at Dreher Park; carpooling recommended.
Overflow parking: South Florida Fairgrounds, at Weisman Way and Fairgrounds Road; from Southern Boulevard, turn right onto Fairgrounds Road and turn right into Gate 12. The parking lot will be your first left.
Shuttle Service: To Dreher Park: noon to 2 p.m.; return to fairgrounds, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.