A March, A Movement, And A New Generation Of Leaders
Optimism and determination lead the charge at the March For Our Lives, and it’s only the beginning
I am standing on the edge of a planter with four other people, sneakers balanced precariously on the ledge, gazing over the heads of thousands of people pressed up against each other. A cold breeze drifts through the crowd, but beyond that, it is quiet as the dead. I’ll find out later that there are hundreds of thousands holding their breaths on Pennsylvania Avenue, but for the moment, all I know is that I cannot see where the crowd ends, no matter which direction I look.
At the center of it all, Emma González stands silently on stage, in a patch-covered army jacket and ripped jeans, chin raised and eyes fierce. For a moment, I remember the first time I saw the ocean — endless and unbending, but so utterly full of life. The crowd is unsure, the silence a thick blanket some yearn to shed. A few chants break out here and there, but for the most part, the sun beats down, the breeze flows, and an eighteen-year-old girl brings a city on the journey she and her classmates suffered through a month earlier.
A timer goes off, and with it, a collective exhale.
“Since the time that I came out here, it has been six minutes and twenty seconds. The shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape and walk free for an hour before arrest. Fight for your life before it’s somebody else’s job.”
On Saturday, March 24, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest the systemic gun violence that plagues our nation. Since the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School which killed 17 with a legally acquired semiautomatic rifle, students have turned their grief into a massive movement, leading walkouts and marches across the country.
While the movement has clearly become much larger than a single day of protests, the rally in Washington, DC on Saturday highlighted a paradigm shift previously unseen in this era. As the first radical movement headed by Generation Z, the March For Our Lives feels different than many of the other responses to mass shootings we’ve seen over the past decade (of which, there have unfortunately been many, with limited legislation passed partially as a result of efforts by the NRA).
The outrage felt after high-profile mass killings such as Sandy Hook, Aurora, Orlando, and Las Vegas, has never been able to stick quite like this before. Facing political inaction, a highly financed gun lobby, lack of media support, and a myriad of other roadblocks, the fight for gun control in this country has been stymied at every point, despite impassioned efforts.
But the atmosphere seems to be changing.
Perhaps it was because these kids are fluent in the now-required language of social media. Perhaps it was because the nation has seen an exponential surge in political activism since the election of Donald Trump. The media attention garnered by the affluence and socioeconomic demographics of Parkland was surely game-changing.
(A quiet reminder that people of color have been fighting this battle for years, without making headlines. The intersection of gun violence, racism, and police brutality have long plagued our country in insidious, systemic ways. The Parkland kids will be the first to tell you that their privilege has afforded them a platform others have been denied.)
But whatever combination of events pushed this movement over the edge, it seems to have been enough to finally begin chipping away at the vice grip the National Rifle Association holds over this country.
A diverse group of students took the stage on Saturday, from various groups representing the multitude of ways gun violence tragically impacts communities. What gained traction as a response to a horrific school shooting, has quickly turned into a movement to fight gun violence of all kinds — especially the everyday occurrences that don’t make national headlines or garner the platform of a verified Twitter account.
The country has spent that last month becoming familiar with the faces of the Parkland students, but on Saturday we were introduced to the teens and students who have been fighting this battle long before it became a cultural revolution. Eleven-year-old Naomi Wadler made clear that she would not allow African-American victims of gun violence to be forgotten. She reminded the lawmakers who had left the day before for their spring recess, that in seven short years she’d be walking into a voting booth. She quoted Toni Morrison and took control of a narrative with more grace and poise than the majority of today’s politicians.
“I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.”
Edna Lisbeth Chávez, who lost her brother Ricardo to gun violence in her hometown of South Los Angeles, asked the crowd to say his name. The chants of “Ricardo” echoed down Pennsylvania Avenue, a cacophony of voices refusing to let more children be buried without remembrance.
“I learned to duck bullets before I learned to read.”
And history converged in a magnificent fashion when Yolanda King joined Jaclyn Corin on stage to tell us of her dream for the future.
55 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech Today, his granddaughter Yolanda King gave the equivalent of a "We Have A Dream" speech "We…are going to be…a great generation!" #MarchForOurLives https://t.co/AyborpxSmG
These children who have faced unspeakable tragedy, who have been thrust into a war they wanted no part of, who must contend with vitriolic hate from adults who believe their time on this planet is best spent attacking the young survivors of a mass shooting, are not tomorrow’s leaders.
They are the leaders of today.
We are no longer waiting for change to occur; we are no longer dreaming of a brighter tomorrow. We are done waiting for tomorrow when we can enact change today. I stood on Pennsylvania Avenue, watching speakers and activists barely four years younger than myself usher this country, kicking and screaming, into a new era where silence is no longer an option. Complicity is no longer an option. Inaction is no longer an option.
A common thread between each passionate speech was the rallying cry to get out the vote. Despite opponents attempting to paint these kids as naive and inexperienced, the leaders of this movement of following in the steps of the great movers and shakers who came before them and displaying a remarkable staying power. From voter registration drives across the country to a nationwide town hall project, it’s clear these students are in this for the long haul.
As such, I find it difficult to understand those that say that the youth doesn’t comprehend the complexities of the issues at hand here. How can any generation understand it better than this one? These kids were born into a lockdown, raised in a battle between the soul of our country and its wallet. I can remember each and every lockdown drill I ever had, lights dimmed and huddled under desks. I can remember when a kid I went to middle school with was arrested for allegedly planning a school shooting. What politician in Washington can say the same?
Who better than these teens — who have actually faced the tragedy that most of us can scarcely imagine — to lead the charge on the issue of gun violence?
I am reminded of a phrase used by the National Woman’s Party during the suffrage movement — “The Young Are At The Gates.” The young are here, they are educated, they are determined, and they are ready to vote out any politician that stands in their way.
So I stand, perched on my ledge, yearning to see beyond the masses of people. And I can’t help wonder if — in some moral twist of fate — these kids are the answer to all those meaningless thoughts and prayers? What if the fabricated faith so many lawmakers built up to cover their own inaction actually brought us to this moment, hands held tightly as we try to force the arc of the universe a little closer to justice.
The loss of faith, hope, and optimism are all side effects of the disease of gun violence. But when I see Emma González lift her chin higher, I remember what faith might feel like. When the fifteen-year-old I meet in line for the restroom tells me how she can’t wait to vote in three years, I think there might be hope yet. When Yolanda King tells us her dream, I feel optimism cover the crowd like sunlight.
The future looks bright.
“Spread the word! Have you heard? All across the nation. We are going to be a great Generation!”