The youth of America are sending a very loud message — grownups are not doing their job.
From Parkland, Florida, to Washington, D.C., to Salem, Oregon, teenagers are speaking against gun violence in a way only they can.
This value-based generation, armed with the Internet and social media, may be the first group of its size since the diner sit-ins and Flower Power of the ’60s to garner such nationwide support and attention.
Generation Zers grew up in a country at war with terrorism, recovering from the Great Recession.
Using their savvy, they can mobilize millions of people quickly, at little to no cost. And the voices they amplify belong to children fighting for their futures, making it difficult for even partisan leaders to criticize without committing political suicide.
These students have been primed over the last few years to think of themselves as activists, national experts say, and to think of this as a moment when activism is required.
They watched as hundreds of thousands participated in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and walked in the women’s and climate rallies. They saw students march out of class in support of DACA. And they observed millions turning to social media to discuss sexual harassment and assault with #MeToo and #TimesUp.
So when 17 people were killed in the Parkland massacre this month, they knew there was more than a social cause at stake. It was about staying alive.
And they didn’t ask for permission.
Within a week, they created a website and mobilized thousands of youth and supporters across the United States. They’ve organized school walkouts and nationwide marches. They’ve debated politicians and looked directly into television cameras to say, “We won’t be silenced.”
And they can’t stop. Because if they do, they may die.
Playing by new rules
Before Feb. 14, Alfonso Calderon was worried about a math test. But with an active shooter in his school, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School junior hid in a closet for four hours with others crying, weeping and begging for their lives.
He texted his parents: “Goodbye. I may never, ever get to see you again. I love you.”
“I understand what it’s like to fear for your life,” Calderon said as he addressed a crowd at the Florida Capitol last Wednesday. “I don’t think we should ever be silenced because we are just children.
“That is powerful and it’s one of the only reasons this movement is where it is now.”
He’s right. Something is different when children take the mic and tell the country they can’t and won’t wait years or decades for change — and they don’t want thoughts or prayers either.
“They don’t play by the old rules,” said Angus Johnston, a history professor and student activism expert from City University of New York. “They are willing to do things and say things their elders are not.”
Students have played a crucial role in social change throughout history, from the civil rights movement to South African apartheid to marriage equality.
They protested the Vietnam War as visceral images of combat burst into American living rooms. And just a few years ago, they organized demonstrations after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
But today’s cohort of children, the Generation Zers, has a unique quality unlike those of the past. They are one of the most diverse generations yet. They only know the U.S. as a country at war.
And they grew up with the Internet and social media not only present, but as a fundamental part of life.
When tragedy strikes, they record and live-stream. They create hashtags to coordinate digital messages. They network with people outside their hometowns. They expose themselves to different perspectives and cultural bubbles instantaneously.
“They have this expectation that you can link together digitally and they will figure out how to do it without asking anyone’s permission,” said Danilo Campos, an educator and technology expert from Brooklyn, New York.
Last October, students from Salem-Keizer Public Schools protested at the Oregon Capitol over mandatory reporting rules regarding teens’ sexual activity. They created an online petition, collected more than 4,500 signatures and convinced the state Legislature to revamp state law.
And this week, about 200 McKay High School students walked out to protest school safety concerns. Many more Salem-area teens plan to participate in the national walkouts in March and April.
This ability to connect and mobilize is something vastly underestimated, Campos argues, and it’s redefining the world.
Students protest, ‘Never again!’: Florida shooting survivors confront lawmakers; protests gain steam nationwide
Just like combat footage from Vietnam and the Rodney King beating video in the 1990s, the moving images circulating on social media, and the messages that accompany them, change the narrative the country has been fed in the past.
And like political debates on Facebook with friends and family, the use of social media and the strength of teen voices makes it personal.
“What they had to say was unmediated,” Johnston said, adding they didn’t melt down when challenged. “There was no barrier to them and getting the word out.”
These teens are the survivors of a shooting massacre. They are sharing their hurt, pain and anger and, as Campos said, “They don’t have to convince a news editor that it matters.”
Campos said this movement is recruiting people who see “these folks are just like me,” and, beyond that, making it so the problem can’t just go away.
School shootings are horrifying to the majority of Americans, regardless of state, political party, race, age, economic status, gender or sexuality.
Every student, every parent and every educator can be affected.
“A lot of us, young and not so young, have had this building sense of horror … that something has gone deeply, deeply wrong,” Johnston said. “We need to act now because things are … getting worse.
“Young people … bring a sense of urgency.”
Activism turns to influence
Teenagers’ anger and mobilization over the Florida deaths shouldn’t be a surprise. National experts say earlier movements have been laying the groundwork.
Students watched the country react negatively to Colin Kaepernick, the Black Lives Matter movement, the women’s march. They saw multiple states tighten laws to restrict protests. They witnessed the screaming matches on Facebook and Twitter.
And this could have taught impressionable young people that activism is ineffective, that America sees protesters as selfish, naïve and dangerous. But instead, teens learned they have a moral imperative to stand up, and that their voices matter.
“Our children are not our future,” said Mathew Poteet of the Chemewa Indian School in Oregon at a march on MLK Jr. Day. “They are here, they are today. And they are watching.”
A study by two University of Michigan professors in the early 1990s found students were more likely to protest the Persian Gulf War if their parents protested the Vietnam War in the 60s — a not-so-distant past as students read about activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahātmā Gandhi in their textbooks.
And in the last five years, students have seen people use activism to change the national conversation.
There is a “fertile ground for organizing now,” Johnston said. Black Lives Matter, DREAMers and the MeToo movement have primed young people to see activism as not only a viable option, but as perhaps the only thing that will make a difference.
Even people who otherwise didn’t see themselves as activists are showing up.
Last year, hundreds of students from McKay High School in Salem walked out of class in support of DREAMers, an action that was mirrored in cities nationwide. Many were DACA recipients themselves, putting them and their families in potential danger by being there.
But they said they had no choice.
“A free society is not free of cost,” Campos said. “And if you don’t get up and stand (to) be counted, there’s a possibility you’ll lose that.”
Natalie Pate is the education reporter for the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, a USA Today property. Contact her at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745 or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate or on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.
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