Hundreds take part in anti-bullying march, rally

Ron Palamara and his dog Happy, a 15-year-old bijon, protest bullying with the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding at the Gator Wesley Foundation on October 10, 2012 in Gainesville, Fla. They started protesting at Gator Wesley and marched to the Bo Diddley Plaza where speakers, musicians and other local talent were featured.

Elizabeth Hamilton/Corespondent
Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 8:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 8:29 p.m.

A sea of orange descended down University Ave on Wednesday afternoon, flanked on both ends by police escorts who stopped busy traffic at every intersection.

The orange mass, made up of hundreds teachers, parents, law officers, community members and students of all ages, trekked east from 13th Street to the Bo Diddley Community Plaza, then filled the grassy area of the plaza with a crowd that delivered a clear message of peace.

Wearing orange shirts to show their support, the crowd gathered for the first-ever anti-bullying rally in Gainesville, hosted by the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding.

"Everyone is affected by it. There's just no doubt about it," Heart Phoenix, organizer of the event and co-founder of the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding, said of bullying.

Businesses, organizations and individuals from throughout the community convened at the plaza during the weekly farmer's market for speeches and entertainment from like-minded activists.

Mayor Craig Lowe addressed the crowd with a message of acceptance.

"This is so important that we stamp out bullying by affirming every individual, because every individual in Gainesville, in the U.S. and in the world does matter," Lowe said.

Gainesville Police Chief Tony Jones stood beside Sheriff Sadie Darnell on the Bo Diddley stage, both them declaring their support.

"This is a very serious problem and I am glad the community has come together and acknowledged that we have a problem and guess what, we have the solution to the problem with everybody gathered here today," Jones said.

The event was geared toward youth with kid-inspired entertainment, such as ant-bullying entertainers Be More Heroic, but Phoenix said the issue expands far beyond the schoolhouse.

"It crosses over into family dynamics, siblings. It crosses over into businesses. It crosses over into relationships, boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife. You know, it's a human condition and you know, it's not that we are born bullies. I think it's a learned behavior and I think it can be unlearned by having some skills around communicating," Phoenix said.

The consequences of one mean-spirited act can affect people for their entire lives, Phoenix said.

"Bullying is life and death in many cases and if it's not that serious, it certainly molds fears from childhood," she said.

But Phoenix is sensitive to bullies, too. She is convinced that those who lash out just may not be getting what they need.

"For people that have those tendencies, something is hurting," she said.

Activist Carl Nelson called bullying behavior a "spectrum."

"Human nature is such that anyone of us could become a bully at any time. It's a matter of degree, I think," Nelson said. "Each person, as gentle as they may be, could fall victim to some subtlety that is, in their view, like they might have mistreated somebody."

GPD Sgt. Steve Bradford said the event served as an alternative to typical ways of dealing with bullying behavior.

"A lot of people don't know how to resolve conflict other than violence or harassment, so their (River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding's) role is to teach them alternatives to that type of activity, knowing that there are other ways than getting hurt or hurting someone," Bradford said.

The hundreds who gathered showed children that they are not alone, Bradford said.

"In the past, a lot of kids would say nothing. They just took it. Now they know that they have allies in law enforcement, in the River Phoenix Foundation, in their peers," he said.

Phoenix said bullying behaviors are passed down in our society. The approach of many is to punish an individual for wrongdoing instead of trying to rehabilitate that person.

But people are beginning to value a more restorative approach, she said, and she has seen those changes arise in schools and in the criminal justice system.

"This whole wave of transforming from punitive to restorative is more and more coming into manifestation as we see the need," Phoenix said.

Phoenix said Gainesville law enforcement has been very supportive and involved with the rally for anti-bullying and in other projects with the foundation.

The University of Florida also uses conflict resolution as a tool to aid in problems that students may experience while enrolled at the university.

Anti-bullying efforts have arisen on the federal level as well. In April, President Barack Obama endorsed two bills, the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act, that address bullying and discrimination in students across the nation.

With agencies locally and on a national level rallying behind the cause, Phoenix said she believes the solution will stem from the growing number of supporters standing side-by-side.

"What we want to show is how many people are there, everybody standing up together," she said.

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