Almost every generation has a cultural or political event that serves to energize and define some of its members. That’s the basis of student or youth activism which has been taking place since the 1920’s in the United States, usually at the university level.
For my generation, there were a couple of determining events. The civil rights movement that started in the South and eventually woke the conscience of a nation. And, of course, the Vietnam War.
I grew up in middle school against the background of the evening news during which the fire hoses and police dogs were turned on civil rights protesters in the South as the country came to grips with the burgeoning civil rights movement.
It was the first indication that not all was right with the world that existed outside of what some would paint as our neatly ordered suburban life.
As I moved into high school, there was the Vietnam War that started to touch everyone in some fashion. For me, it began with the death of one of our school’s athletic stars who went off after graduation to become a Green Beret, only to return home a short time later as one of the casualties of the Southeast Asian conflict. The death of someone so young can help crystalize one’s thinking.
Then came the college years where the growing weariness with the Vietnam War and questions about whether we were being told the truth by national leaders helped bring this issue to the forefront. A large portion of a generation of younger men and women took to the streets, marched, petitioned, went on national strikes at the universities, became involved. Then there was the shooting of protesting students by the National Guard at Kent State in 1970. That only helped raise the awareness of parents who prior to that had accepted the government’s version of why we needed to be in Vietnam. The national mood changed – members of the younger generation finally said ‘enough’ and were joined by their elders to become a political force that eventually led to the end of the Vietnam War.
Now history repeats itself, once again. A generation, led by high school students nationwide, are saying enough, no more, calling BS when they hear it and demanding that elected leaders find a solution to end the shootings taking place in school buildings across the country. It is a generation forced to come of age because of inaction on the part of elected leaders at the state and national level.
It took the loss of 17 lives in mid-February this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, to energize the Never Again movement. One would have thought that the death of 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999 would have been enough. Or that the massacre in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut would have been the deciding factor, but even the death of 28 people – including 20 children under the age of seven – could not move the nation to take action on insufficient gun controls.
So as we were going to press with this issue, high school students and their supporters were expected to join the March For Our Lives on March 24 in Washington D.C. and 700 other locations in the country, including metro Detroit, to prevent this issue from fading into the background until the next time there’s a mass killing at a school – and we know it’s only a question of when.
Based on the initial estimates, it would not surprise me if millions turn out to show their support for stronger gun control measures. But that may not be enough to finally move the needle on this issue.
As the students will quickly learn, they are pitting themselves against some very potent forces when they cross paths with the National Rifle Association (NRA). It is not just the money, hundreds of millions of campaign dollars, that the NRA funnels into candidate coffers with each election. It’s bodies that the NRA can turn out when it comes time to decide on an office-holder at the ballot box or the fate of legislation at the state or national level if it involves regulating gun ownership and related issues.
The high school students from Florida have already received a taste of what lies ahead when they tangled with this crowd as pro gun advocates began to troll them on social media sites within days of the killings at the high school. Then, within 24 hours after Florida lawmakers passed some important gun controls, the NRA went into federal court to overturn the new laws.
The students were also given an important lesson on how the system works as President Trump, at a White House reality show gathering, made personal promises of what he would push for in terms of gun control, but within days started to walk back from those positions after the NRA came to the White House to lobby him and no doubt remind him that they kicked in nearly $34 million to his election effort.
Hopefully the students will realize – and remember – that marches and media interviews are fine in terms of mobilizing supporters and sentiment. But voting at the ballot box is the ultimate test when rubber hits the road on any issue.
This movement needs to harness the energy to increase voter registration among its supporters and then remain organized so their voting block shows at the polls.
If no other lesson is learned by those from the Never Again movement, it’s that the right to replace elected officials at the ballot box is the true definition of power.