Are we entering another era of mass protest? It’s as if people want any opportunity to gather in protest, any way to demand change. So many massive outpourings — Black Lives Matter, DACA and immigration rights protests, the Women’s Marches, even a Science March, and now an unprecedented mobilization against gun violence — and this together with significant increases in election turnout. People we know who never paid attention to politics are going to their first demonstration, and even the un-engaged have heard of Emma Gonzalez in their social media.
When political action becomes part of youth culture
The March for Our Lives is weaponized with youth culture. Another youth movement, finally! All age groups from babies in strollers up to 80-somethings in wheelchairs, but the branding of the movement is that it’s led by youth, and the sound and feel and vocabulary of the movement is youth culture. “We call BS” is now a slogan, and teenagers are telling their stories, singing and declaiming poetry at the rallies. The Guardian invited staff from the Marjorie Stoneham Douglas newspaper to edit their coverage of the march, and young faces and voices are still being sought out by mainstream media.
You can watch the crowds on YouTube as the young people speak. The crowds loved the young people on the stages up front, shouting encouragement if they hesitated. They cheered when Naomi Wadler spoke — loud, extended cheering when she said she was 11-years old, again when she said she and her friend Carter led a walkout in her elementary school. Again when she said she spoke for “black girls victimized by guns whose stories don’t’ make the front page.”
All of this is a lesson in how to organize and how to talk about guns, but also in the role of representation in movements. The celebration of young leaders, and in particular queer activists and young leaders of color, connects deeply with young people; in a culture that pacifies them, it shows them that they too can act, they too can lead.
We have seen what happens in the past when political action becomes part of a youth culture — that it’s the necessary prelude to change.
Intersectional, collaborative, shaped by the internet
Naomi Wadler and many other speakers drew attention to victims of gun violence who are different from Parkland’s middle class suburban high school, African Americans in the cities. Students from Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School met with students at Thurgood Marshall Academy in DC. They had already come to Chicago to talk to black student activists and victims of gun violence. Then they told us what they learned, using the language of intersectionality and privilege. They reminded audiences that mass shootings and school shootings are a fraction of the gun deaths, that media attention focused on them but not on slain African Americans, and they demanded empathy and action for all the gun victims.
Their movement is shaped by the legacy of the movements of the past decade — intersectional, collaborative: Black Lives Matter with queer women of color in leadership; DACA protests also led by young people; the Women’s March with women of color in leadership, making intersectionality a necessary conversation for many white women (and men); the foregrounding of trans people in our national politics; celebrities in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements foregrounding working class women and women of color. Does this presage a new era of broad coalitions for change?
This movement, like every other since the ’90s, is shaped by the internet — it is decentralized, self-starting, networking. Social media and the web spread not just the bonding through the likes, the people and the story-telling. You also find advice and even “toolkits” telling people how to mount their own action, how to become organizers and leaders.
More important, social media has not just been a tool for mobilization, not just a way for people to get their message out. Years of watching short video clips, years of reading and years of writing in short high-impact bursts have honed extraordinary communication skills. The young people are the native-speakers of this new language, and many of their speeches and comments to the media have been stunningly effective.
Columbine survivor Jami Amo pointed out that unlike the Parkland students, they did not have social media. They were “at the beck and call of the media” and they themselves “didn’t have a say.” But Parkland students “took charge of their narrative” and “changed the dialogue.”
Is it going to be different this time?
“Common sense gun control” seems impossible. After every mass shooting, pious media coverage soon vanishes; polls show immediate uptick in gun control sentiment which, after a while, also erodes. The political wisdom, supported by polling, is that the while voters overwhelmingly have a “preference” for restrictions on ownership, the NRA’s voters have more “intensity.” “Intensity” means they are more likely to engage in political activity and pressure, more likely to vote, contact their representative, and contribute to campaigns. There are enough single issue “gun rights” voters to cow legislators, and gun ownership is itself “a powerful political identity” for a substantial portion of the Republican base. But this new youth-led movement shows an intensity we have not seen in the struggle against gun violence. Going to a march takes the planning, time, and commitment that shows an intensity that should worry legislators and lobbyists.
Up until now, there has not been a mass mobilization against the gun industry rooted in identity. But the movement sparked by the Parkland students is different in making a profound cultural appeal in the language of the young activists, standing for humanity against profit, love against hate — and common sense against “BS.” This is certainly not a newly invented appeal, but its nationwide mobilization of a million people, sustaining the intensity over a month and a half as of this writing — this is new and different.
Shaming and divestment as a tactic: A frontal assault on power
The young people are doing something new also in the way they target the NRA, confront and shame the NRA’s politicians and corporate allies. This is a bold campaign of delegitimization.
In their first national appearances, student speakers refused to focus on trivial reform measures, details of policy or process. Instead of simply calling, as they do, for a ban on assault weapons or universal background checks, they focused their attack on the NRA, calling out the venality of Sen. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump and committing to attack every politician taking NRA money.
The message of “We Call BS” is that gun lobby talking points deserve contempt rather than consideration, as do the politicians and media personalities repeating them.
This is a frontal assault on power. It recognizes that the real power of the NRA isn’t its ability to corrupt politicians with donations, but its ability to threaten them with primary challenges with a voting base of highly motivated supporters.
How much does it matter that a number of corporate sponsors ended their discounts to NRA members or (maybe only temporarily) their advertising on some cable shows? It matters a lot, because it means that major coporations have decided that the NRA and certain media personalities tarnish their brand.
Divestment is not just about dollars and cents
Divestment as a tactic is not just about dollars and cents. It’s a weapon in the war of symbols and identity. If more corporations end discounts and advertising, if the NRA becomes stigmatized and driven out of mainstream respectability, that represents a shift in our culture. These are signs of a different cultural understanding of social violence. We are moving towards “common sense gun control” and against the “common sense” of gun culture that more guns means more safety.
The young activists face intractable enemies. Gun “rights” are profoundly embedded in conservative culture, and right-wing elites are committed to weaponizing it to gain and hold power. Any mass movement confronting this type of uncompromising power must be ready to wage a long struggle, because they must change the culture as well as the politics. Can the movement sustain its intensity?
We are watching the young people create a community of survivors and supporters through social media and social action, the kind of community that will perpetuate itself but will also be continually refreshed by new shooting atrocities and new political outrages. The dangers are not just burnout and exhaustion. The movement also must manage its elite allies, who now, maybe only now, find it convenient to let them take the lead. They are too precious a gift to the Democratic Party to be left to find their own way. They may face the fate of other mass movements, absorbed and dissolved into the normal political process, giving up their original power, to maintain their autonomy, to dare and deny and disrupt.
If it is different this time, it is a hopeful difference. This unfamiliar mass eruption is only possible because the young people have learned from the movements that preceded them — from what they’ve read in school or heard from parents about the civil rights movement, from Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, the immigration protests, and so many others. Those movements have made marching and protesting a part of these young activists’ repertoire as they perform being young.
I want to add a personal note. I am tired of mourning atrocities, there are so many. So I am glad to be able to shed tears in awe and admiration at what these young people have said and done.
More reading: The Eagle Eye is the student newspaper at Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School. Read it for its reporting on the student activists, photo galleries of the marches, and coverage of the school. The Eagle Eye is an example of the best in student journalism.
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