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How Teen-Led Protests Could Forever Change The Gun Control Fight


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“We’re children,” 17-year-old David Hogg said to CNN just after the shooting that claimed the lives of 17 of his classmates, “You guys are the adults.”

It was an emotional plea from the teen to lawmakers, begging them to take action against gun violence. Adults, as Hogg had seen in the years leading up to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14th, weren’t willing to make the policy changes necessary to make schools safer for the kids they’d vowed to serve. So, he urged them to, “look in the mirror and take some action because ideas are great but without action, ideas stay ideas and children die.”

Hogg’s powerful words made immediate headlines. In this climate, where politicians are quick to deflect responsibility after a tragedy by insisting that “now isn’t the time to talk about policy change,” it’s significant for a victim of such tragedy to say that now is the time, and announce without fear: enough is enough.

The teens who survived the shooting last week, and many of their peers from around the country, are tired of waiting for politicians and other adults to dictate their futures, to play fast and loose with their safety in school. The adults simply aren’t getting the job done. The kids aren’t all right. They’re going to school each morning in fear. So they’ve begun to mobilize and we — the adults — so used to talking over their heads, should fall in line.

In a time when the NRA has managed to cloud the anti-gun control message and make it seem fragmented, teenagers are being both clear and direct: They’re finished with special interest groups controlling government officials. They’re ready to fight back against the National Rifle Association’s oligarchical hold on gun control legislation. This is the strong leadership the issue has required for so long.

Students like Hogg may be young, but in his willingness to stand up against the ineffective and corrupt in power, he’s become crucial to the movement.

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Huddled just a day earlier in the dark with 30-40 other students, Hogg filmed his classmates while they listened to gunfire shatter the peace of their school halls, and interviewed them about what was happening in real time. He did this, in part because if they were going to be killed, he wanted their voices to be heard. Now, having lived through this ordeal, Hogg still wants his fellow students’ voices to be heard.

For their parts, Hogg’s classmates are also doing an incredible job of speaking out. Students like 18-year-old Emma Gonzalez, who passionately spoke at a Fort Lauderdale rally this weekend, are demanding we hold politicians and the NRA responsible for allowing Nikolas Cruz to legally purchase an AR-15 assault rifle capable of firing 30 rounds without reloading. The fact that this was the same gun Adam Lanza used to kill 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school five years earlier was lost on exactly no one.

“If the president wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a terrible tragedy and how it should never have happened and maintain telling us how nothing is going to be done about it, I’m going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association,” Gonzalez said to the crowd. “But, hey, you wanna know something? It doesn’t matter because I already know: $30 million.”

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Gonzalez is one of the many eloquent students who have emerged from the tragedy to become powerful beacons of hope for sensible gun control. These students, many too young to vote, have, in just a few short days, organized and mobilized more than most outraged adults over the past decade. Through social media and interviews, they’ve drawn people towards action with protest marches and events already locking into place.

On March 24th, the students from Parkland along with their allies will “March for Our Lives” in Washington DC.

“March For Our Lives is created by, inspired by, and led by students across the country who will no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action to stop the epidemic of mass school shootings that has become all too familiar,” the website states, “In the tragic wake of the seventeen lives brutally cut short in Florida, politicians are telling us that now is not the time to talk about guns. March For Our Lives believes the time is now.”

Meanwhile, survivors from the shooting will be traveling to Tallahassee this week to speak to state senators and representatives:

“One hundred of my classmates and I will be traveling to Tallahassee this Tuesday and Wednesday to speak with our State Senators and House of Representative members,” Jaclyn Corin, another young survivor tweeted, “We are so grateful to have this opportunity to advocate for gun control, mental health, school safety, & more.”

These young adults are not willing to sit back and let this particular tragedy fade into memory like so many other shootings that have caused mass outrage but then are quickly forgotten.

“I knew that I wanted to change something,” Corin told a local CBS affiliate about their efforts. “I’m the type of person, when something bad happens to me, I can’t just sit back and cry and go in a ball. I like to speak out and I like to act and distract myself from pain.”

Along with these two events, other school walkouts and marches are being planned around the country over the next few months, and some, have already happened. Teens from South Broward High School, about 30 miles from the Parkland shooting, walked out of school during class this past Friday to protest.

“The NRA is not OK. The NRA is not OK,” the teens chanted. “What do we want? Gun control! When do we want it? Now!”

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The evidence is clear: Parkland thrust the nation into the midst of a youth-led movement in which teens, tired of leaving their fates in the hands of politicians, raise their voices in protest. But as with any great call for change, detractors will try to undermine such a movement. And they already are. En masse.

Gun advocates and their well-financed friends are scrambling to change the narrative in order to place blame on the very teens who are working to mobilize against them. Facebook videos, conservative pundits, and our president are blaming kids for “not reporting” the suspect — an assertion which is actually measurably untrue. Others are blaming mental illness as the main culprit for the shooting (a complicated argument, especially considering the conservative record of defunding programs to treat mental illness and revoking gun checks for the mentally ill). These critics also try to undermine the youths’ message by calling them too young, and too inexperienced. Or worse, accusing them of being swept up in a cause out of fashionable popularity or because they want to miss a day of school.

We’ve seen these accusations of “lazy teens eager to miss school” before. The same thing with the coverage of walkouts to protest Trump’s Muslim travel ban being referred glibly on Fox as “ditching class.” As if the students were trying to have a Ferris Bueller’s day off rather than protest policy they strongly disagreed with.

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It’s almost funny, the idea that people could, with a straight face, accuse these incredibly articulate teens, who just survived the unthinkable, of not being informed enough on school shootings. They were there; they are de facto experts now. Their raw grief and passion to prevent mass violence from happening again is an inconvenience to the “family values” marketing language that is so often co-opted by their conservative opponents. Right-wing news anchors welcome the students to their shows, not daring to insult them to their faces, but work to undermine them just the same.

Fox New Sunday talked to several of the survivors and protest organizers this weekend and then immediately followed up the interview with Rush Limbaugh coming on to give his two cents. Ignoring everything the teens had just said, he proposed we put more guns in school.

The message is clear: The children said their thing, but now, let the real adults talk.

The Catch-22 young people often find themselves in plays out again and again. They’re criticized for not being political enough, for being apathetic — what with their Snapchats and avocado toast — but then, with the same hand, brushed aside when they take a stand. Adults are offended that teens would dare to think that they should have a seat at the table in discussions about their own safety and education.

“They sent us to school to get a thorough education and they act shocked that we’re educated,” Emma Gonzalez said to wild applause.

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This inability (or blatant refusal) to take teens seriously when they try to make a difference in politics is being played out right now in Kansas.

When 16 year old Jack Bergeson realized that a loophole in Kansas law didn’t restrict age for the gubernatorial election, he signed up to run for governor and, in doing so, inspired five other teens to join the race. It may sound like a funny premise: Teen Governor — a bad 80’s comedy with plenty of hijinks. But Bergeson isn’t trying to make a joke. This isn’t writing in “Bart Simpson” on the ballot. He and his running mates are completely earnest about their candidacy.

“Allow me to clear up a misconception: I am not running for governor as a stunt, or a gag,” he said according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.

“I am running for governor because of the minimum-wage worker that has to work three jobs just to get by. I am running because our education system has been lagging behind other states. I am running to get money out of politics,” he said. “But most importantly, I am running to get as many people involved in politics as possible.”

The easy thing to do is to make fun of Bergeson for being 16 and running for public office, to denounce it as ridiculous, especially for the adults whose jobs are threatened by the possibility. By taking a stand and putting his hat into the ring, Bergeson has been mocked to his face by adults. Whether on news shows or by current state senators, they’ve made fun of him and questioned his legitimacy. In short, the adults in Kansas are panicked by his moxie and intimidated by his passion. Which leads them to do the most adult thing they can muster: act snotty and immature.

So why is it that we’re so unwilling to take the young candidate seriously when his platforms are well thought out and reasonable, when he’s inspiring young people all over the state to become more aware and involved. On both sides of the political aisle, when an adult, say: a Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump type, seems to challenge the authority of the status quo, people want to rise up and join. But we have this view of teens’ rejection of authority as being a symptom of laziness or insolence.

“They just want to skip school or why won’t they listen to their elders?”

In the wake of Parkland, another demonstration of the inefficiency of adults, a little of that “teen” rejection seems to be exactly what we need. When many of us have become complacent, sad but accepting of our new reality, don’t we need an infusion of the spirit of rebellion? Teens aren’t willing to accept the defeat of an unbreakable system. They’re willing to fight back. Why are we so quick to dismiss that instead of celebrating it?

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The big question, of course, is: How can a bunch of teens marching make a difference? But whether or not you think a school walkout will make a difference in gun control legislation has to do with whether you think protest is an effective tool at all. Because the spirit and age of youth and protest have gone hand in hand for a very long time.

Young people are most often at the forefront of marches and protest, fighting for change when it seems hopeless or impossible to do so. As our current students plan to walk out of school, we should remember the other times students “walked out.” Like in October of 1963, when 250,000 students (about half of the students in the city of Chicago) boycotted classes and marched to the Chicago Board of Education to protest the housing codes and school boundaries that were keeping black students illegally segregated. After the protest, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was forced to release a racial headcount of schools in the system which showed how segregated the system still was nearly 10 years after Brown vs The Board of Education ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.

Or look at youth leading the way in the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville a few year earlier. As the Smithsonian recounts, after civil right’s lawyer, Z. Alexander Looby’s house was bombed, students spontaneously started marching to city hall.

“It was what, in many ways, we’d been leading to without knowing it. We began at Tennessee A&I [college] at the city limits,” famous preacher and organizer, C. T. Vivian, said on PBS. “Right after the lunch hour, people began to gather, and we began to march down Jefferson, the main street of black Nashville. When we got to 18th and Jefferson, Fisk University students joined us. They were waiting and they fell right in behind. The next block was 17th and Jefferson, and students from Pearl High School joined in behind that. People came out of their houses to join us and then cars began joining us, moving very slowly so they could be with us. We filled Jefferson Avenue; it’s a long, long way down Jefferson.”

The students and citizens grew in numbers until 4000 people were walking to city hall to confront the mayor about the violence that was escalating in the city over the sit-ins. The Mayor, Ben West, met the young people on the steps where 21-year-old Diane Nash asked, ‘Mayor West, do you feel that it’s wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his race or color?’

The mayor couldn’t hold the party line or respond in any way other than how he felt when face to face with Nash, and so, he made history by saying he did think it was wrong. The Nashville Tennessean the next morning ran with the headline, “Mayor Says Integrate Counters,” and a few weeks later, Nashville was the first major city in the south to begin desegregating public spaces.

The peaceful movement, led by students, had undoubtedly changed the course of history.

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So why do we continue to discount the voices of high school and college students? Why do we ask, “What can they possibly accomplish?” Or accuse them of just wanting to cut school or get attention? Those questions, along with the many tired jokes about millennials (and now generation Z), feel a lot like an establishment that’s afraid. Adults fear that the young will replace them, or maybe, deep down, they fear that they should replace them.

Martin Luther King said, “There is no noise as powerful as the sound of the marching feet of a determined people.”

There is beauty and power in teens walking out of school to protest a gun violence conversation that they’ve been left out of. To insert themselves into an issue that has affected their generation more than any other.

The positive effects of protest can be tricky to measure. Not every youth-led protest has led to immediate change. There are still problems with segregation in Chicago Public Schools. Young women marching on Washington didn’t immediately solve gender disparities. It hasn’t stopped lawmakers from doing their best to create policies to police their bodies. Change takes time. But what can never be totally seen in any protest is the glimmer of hope it sparks. The subtle shift that comes when there is a dynamic, impassioned cry to rally people together around a common goal.

Where there is protest, there is hope. Hope that things will get better. And as we watch the young people of Parkland work to accomplish what so many have given up on, (or have chosen to perpetuate in order to advance their own self-interests), we should be careful not to dismiss them as young or inexperienced.

Their youth is one of their superpowers, the glowing flame on a candle that lights the way to a new era and hopefully a better one.

Change, Emma Gonzalez promises, will come now, through her peers, “This generation. Not the next generation. Because the next generation will never have to worry about this.”

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