Last Saturday, upwards of 300,000 school students and supporters packed Washington DC for a rally to demand politicians enact gun control. “Vote them out!” was the most common chant on the “March for Our Lives,” as the protestors pointed to the inaction of Congress after each tragic mass killing. A consciously diverse platform of school age speakers displayed the range of the movement’s support, which was replicated at hundreds of sibling rallies throughout the country. Reportedly, nearly a million people joined the protests worldwide.
The speakers, aged between 11 and 18, spoke with a passion and fearlessness that expressed a defiance of their own vulnerability, and demanded the government take responsibility for their safety by taking common-sense gun control measures, such as banning access to assault rifles. The active shooter drills that they are subjected to in schools across America have made even the youngest children sensitive to gun violence and the threat to their lives. They are responding to the public’s disaffection with the political system by taking things into their own hands.
Elena González, who survived the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, named all seventeen victims to humanize them and underline each individual tragedy. She then held the entire crowd for over four minutes of silence – not even requesting the audience to observe it – ending only when she had been on stage for six minutes and twenty seconds, the time it took for the gunman to shoot 17 people dead. Through her own mute stillness on stage, she was able to exert a moral authority unavailable to politicians of any political party. As the Guardian pointed out, “That a teenager unknown to the country until a little over a month ago could command such quiet respect and deep introspection among a rally of this size illustrates just how powerful the student-led movement to rise from the Parkland massacre has become.”
A key theme for all the speakers was to name shooting victims who went unrecognized by the authorities to celebrate their memory, and by extension assert the importance of their own lives. Many said they were there to represent their community and those who had died: they refuse to allow members of their generation to be treated as a statistic. Sam Fuentes, who was injured in the attack and still has shrapnel in her face, led the crowd in a rendition of Happy Birthday in honor of Nicholas Dworet, who was killed in the shooting and would have turned 18 on the day of the rally.
Edna Lizbeth Chávez, a high school senior from South Los Angeles, said that gun violence had become so normal in her community she learned to duck bullets before she could read. She spoke movingly about her brother, who was shot dead while she was a young child. “Ricardo was his name. Can you all say it with me?” she asked. And she ended by saying: “Remember my name. Remember these faces. Remember us and how we’re making change.”
The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne commented: “The unmistakably political character of this movement is another change. No phony bipartisanship. No pretending that everyone approaches this issue with goodwill. Thus the importance of ‘Vote them out.’ Thus the imperative of casting the NRA as the adversary and all who welcome its money and support as complicit … this march established the gun safety alliance as multiracial and intersectional, reaching far beyond its traditional base among suburban white liberals. Few voices echoing from the platform were more powerful than 11-year-old Naomi Wadler’s. She declared that young African American women who were victims of gun violence would no longer be seen as ‘simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential’.”
She also said: “People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own. People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult. It’s not true. My friends and I might still be 11, and we might still be in elementary school, but we know. We know that life isn’t equal for everyone and we know what is right and wrong.” She added, “And we know that we have seven short years until we, too, have the right to vote.”
Another survivor of the Parkland massacre, David Hogg, declared that they would make gun control a major voting issue. “We are going to take this to every election, to every state and every city. We’re going to make sure the best people get in our elections to run, not as politicians, but as Americans, because this—this is not cutting it. … 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.”
He was evoking a different America from the right-wing fantasies of Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association; he was evoking the memory of John and Bobby Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, symbolically underlined by the appearance of King’s granddaughter Yolanda Renee King on the platform. She told the crowd: “I have a dream that enough is enough. And that this should be a gun-free world, period.”
The students have succeeded in shifting the political dialogue in a way that had previously seemed impossible. Republican politicians, especially in suburban districts, are coming under increasing pressure to act on gun control. At a town hall in Denver, Colorado, Republican Congressman Mike Coffman faced a barrage of questions — his district includes the town of Aurora, the site of a deadly 2012 shooting at a movie theater. “We’re done with thoughts and prayers!” shouted out one constituent during a moment’s silence for the Parkland victims. Other attendees held signs that noted the National Rifle Association’s contributions to Coffman’s campaign. One woman identified herself as the wife of a first responder who was at the scene of the Columbine high school shooting, also in Colorado. Her son had planned to see a midnight showing of the new Batman movie the night that the gunman attacked the audience in Aurora. Yet, she told Coffman, she hadn’t spoken out until watching students from Parkland campaign for new gun laws. “An avalanche is coming to Washington, sir, and it is going to be led by our children.”
Republicans have made gun ownership an ideological point of purity as part of a culture war against Democrats, championing primarily rural and white constituencies that want fewer immigrants and more access to guns. As a result, the NRA has a political influence out of all proportion to its real support in the country. But the message of Saturday’s rally is that the organization’s time has ended. The protestors’ practical focus is to “vote them out” in November’s elections. As Cameron Kasky, another Parkland student survivor, told the rally: “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. Stand for us or beware. The voters are coming.”