Politics

“Tomorrow Is the Beginning of Democracy”

The Parkland generation has a plan to solve our gun violence crisis. But that’s just the beginning.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 24:  Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, including Emma Gonzalez (C), stand together on stage with other young victims of gun violence at the conclusion of the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, including students, teachers and parents gathered in Washington for the anti-gun violence rally organized by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on February 14 that left 17 dead. More than 800 related events are taking place around the world to call for legislative action to address school safety and gun violence.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School stand together onstage with other young victims of gun violence at the conclusion of the March for Our Lives rally on Saturday in Washington.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Saturday, 800,000 Americans gathered in Washington to participate in what they expected to be a gun control rally. What they saw was a transformative moment in American politics. March for Our Lives was, of course, a demonstration for stronger gun safety laws, fortified by delightfully specific policy proposals and replete with far-too-clever homemade signs. But it was an awakening of sorts, an introduction to the next generation of political activism. The kids who spoke—and they were virtually all kids, age 18 or younger—had no trace of cynicism or exhaustion or resignation. Nor did they pretend that the epidemic of gun violence can be isolated from the broader issues that plague our society and our ailing democracy. The mass shooting generation already has a plan to stop mass shootings. Now it’s working on a plan to fix everything their predecessors broke.

Almost as soon as the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, formed a movement, a nagging question arose: Just how sweeping and inclusive would this movement be? Parkland is a wealthy community, previously rated the safest in the state. Mass shootings are a singularly horrific tragedy, and any effort to stop these massacres is a noble one. But the majority of American gun violence occurs in places very different from Parkland. Most children traumatized by guns live in places like Detroit and Baltimore, usually in lower-income minority neighborhoods. The overarching problem here is guns; easier access to guns leads to more gun deaths, full stop. Yet other factors clearly contribute—systemic poverty, institutional racism, broken drug laws, poor school funding, police brutality, to name just a few.

Thus, the question posed to Parkland activists was a fair one: Will you address only school shootings—a nightmare that cuts across socioeconomic lines—or will you also tackle routine gun violence and the myriad policy failures that have allowed it to proliferate? On Saturday, the kids gave their answer. They would not limit their focus to the kind of massacres that can devastate in a “safe” community like Parkland. That became apparent as soon as Trevon Bosley, a Chicago teenager whose brother was shot to death while leaving a church, took to the podium.  “I’m here to speak for those youth who fear they may be shot while going to the gas station, the movies, the bus stop, to church, or even to and from school,” Bosley said. He then led the crowd in a chant: “Everyday shootings are everyday problems.”

Later, Naomi Wadler, an astonishingly eloquent 11-year-old, spoke on behalf of “black women and girls” killed by guns. And Zion Kelly, a high school senior in D.C., described the fatal shooting of his twin brother in September. “I’m here to represent the hundreds of thousands of students who live every day in constant paranoia and fear on their way to and from school,” Kelly said, noting that six students under the age of 19 were killed by guns in D.C. just this past January. Fighting back tears, he closed his speech with a proclamation: “My name is Zion Kelly, and just like all of you, I’ve had enough.”

Enough of what, exactly? Enough shootings, to be sure, but also so much more: Enough of politicians ignoring the cries of help from neglected communities; enough of lawmakers pretending that America’s problems are unsolvable because they’re too cowardly to solve them; enough condescension from older generations who view young people as entitled brats. Parkland survivor David Hogg’s speech captured this sentiment with both concision and a kind of charming orotundity that reminds us that he really is a novice—suddenly convinced, perhaps correctly, that he can change the world. Here’s what he said:

Today is the beginning of spring, and tomorrow is the beginning of democracy. Now is the time to come together, not as Democrats, not as Republicans, but as Americans. Americans of the same flesh and blood, that care about one thing and one thing only, and that’s the future of this country and the children that are going to lead it. Now, they will try to separate us in demographics. They will try to separate us by religion, race, congressional district, and class. They will fail. We will come together.

Hogg’s repeated declarations that his movement transcends politics might seem dubious at first. It’s no secret that most Democrats support March for Our Lives’ policy platform, while most Republicans oppose it; no one seriously claims that the parties are equally complicit in our gun crisis. But Hogg meant something altogether different from the familiar No Labels drivel, and he obviously has no interest in pleading with the Democratic Party to prioritize his movement’s proposals. Instead, he wants to overhaul the terms of the debate so that Democrats, and eventually Republicans, have no choice but to evolve. As fellow Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky put it: “To the leaders, skeptics, and cynics who told us to sit down, stay silent, and wait your turn: Welcome to the revolution. Either represent the people or get out.”

The Parkland kids recognize that they cannot resolve America’s gun emergency without fixing its democracy, as well. On Saturday, they spoke about the vital importance of the right to vote, to demand access to the ballot and fair representation. Many kids affected by gun violence do not get to confront their representatives face to face, because those representatives feel they can ignore them with impunity. Their communities have often been gerrymandered into political irrelevance or effectively disenfranchised by voter suppression laws. Much like the gun lobby’s outsize influence in Congress warps democracy, so do routine attacks on suffrage. Some Americans may have grown numb to the attack on voting rights, or skeptical about the power of their vote. But the Parkland kids refuse to relinquish their democracy.

These teens have also given the gun control battle a welcome intersectional twist. The concept of “intersectionality” has been both maligned and abused lately, but at bottom it expresses the idea that all oppression is connected, that identities overlap and struggles interlink in complex and instructive ways. It’s no coincidence that Emma Gonzalez, in particular, has emerged as an icon of the movement: She is Latina and bisexual, two identities she draws upon to fuel her fire. “They’re definitely linked for me personally,” Gonzalez has said of her sexuality and her gun safety activism. When she speaks about gun violence, Gonzalez appears to draw upon wisdom and experience that predate the massacre she survived. She became a fighter well before tragedy compelled her onto the national stage.

As my colleague Osita Nwanevu pointed out on Saturday, the Parkland teens debunk the canard that “identity politics” is inherently divisive. If there was an underlying theme to Saturday’s signs and speeches and chants and poems, it was the simple notion that no matter where we came from, we are in this together. A black preteen, a white teenager, and a bisexual Latina can discuss their contrasting encounters with gun violence, informed by their radically distinct backgrounds and experiences of America—and still be united by the same cause. Gonzalez and her classmates seem to view identity as fundamentally unifying. They belie the fiction that our differences will divide us if we dare to celebrate them.

The Parkland generation inherited a mess of a country. And while Saturday’s rally was galvanized by gun massacres, its organizers indicated that they don’t plan to stop there. Young people in every state loathe Donald Trump, but they seem to recognize that he is both a cause and a symptom of our current crisis. To leave the country in better shape than they found it, today’s teens will need to do more than vote out Trump and end mass shootings; they must restore democracy and ensure that victims of gun violence are heard just as loudly no matter their race or community. Here’s the good news: They appear poised to do just that. The Parkland teens have seen the consequences of pessimism and prejudice and inaction. And they have had enough.