‘We are the victims and we are also the change’

Front line: Left to right, Jaclyn Corin, Tyra Hemans, Emma Gonzalez and Naomi Wadler. © Getty

Is a new era of youth power beginning? Around 800,000 people marched for gun control in Washington, DC, this weekend. They were led by teenagers. The youngest speaker was just nine years old.

Yolanda Renee King is nine years old. Her grandfather — Martin Luther King Jr — was the leader of a civil rights movement that changed America forever. He was shot and killed almost exactly 50 years ago.

On Saturday, she stood in front of a crowd of 800,000 people in Washington, DC, and paraphrased his most famous words: “I have a dream that enough is enough, and that this should be a gun-free world.”

She was the youngest speaker at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, but not by much. Naomi Wadler, 11, said she spoke for African-American girls who had been killed by guns. Most other speakers were teenagers who had lost loved ones, including several students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida — where a school shooting took 17 lives on February 14.

It is these students who organised the march and founded the #NeverAgain movement for stronger gun control laws. Ever since a former student entered their school and opened fire, they have been tweeting, organising and making their voices heard.

“We are going to be the last mass shooting,” said 18-year-old Emma Gonzalez in a speech just days after it happened.

She spoke again on Saturday, listing the names of the 17 victims and then standing in silence until six minutes and 20 seconds had passed. That, she explained, was how long it took the shooter to kill them.

For the most part, the students have been showered in praise and media attention. Five of them appeared on the cover of Time under the headline “Enough”. They have met celebrities, received a handwritten letter of support from the Obamas, and raised millions of dollars for their cause.

“Spread the word,” chanted King on Saturday, leading the crowds with her. “Have you heard? / all across the nation / we are going to be / a great generation.”

Some have compared the movement to the 1960s, when thousands of students protested against racism and the Vietnam War. Is another, similar era of youthful influence beginning?

Teen spirit

Yes, say some. As Wadler said, “My friends and I... have seven short years until we too have the right to vote”. Young people know that they are the future, and they’re determined to change it. They are also extremely media savvy; they can use social media, videos and interviews to build support for a movement in just a month. Grown-ups, beware.

Young people may be leading the chants, point out others, but unlike the 1960s, people of all ages are chanting with them. “It has to be one of the least anti-establishment social movements in American history,” observed Emily Witt in The New Yorker. Yet the real power still lies with the politicians in charge; and they do not seem to be listening.

You Decide

  1. What is the most important social issue for people your age?
  2. Will your generation be remembered as one that changed the world?

Activities

  1. Despite new technology, powerful speeches are still a big part of today’s protest movements. Write your own one-minute speech about an issue you care about, and then share it with the class.
  2. Do some research into the student protests of the 1960s. Then write two columns, listing the similarities and differences to young people’s protest movements today.

Some People Say...

“When your children act like leaders and your leaders act like children, you know change is coming.”

Mikel Jollett

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
March For Our Lives rallies took place around the world on Saturday, drawing protesters of all ages. The march in Washington, DC, was organised by several surviving students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Although they gave many of the speeches, they also invited young people from different backgrounds, where gun violence is more common, to share their stories.
What do we not know?
Exactly how many people showed up to the rallies. Yesterday, one of the student organisers, Cameron Kasky, said their “lowball estimate” for the Washington, DC, march was 850,000, and the high was “about 1.3 million”. However, counting crowd sizes can be tricky; an outside source (Digital Design & Imaging Service Inc.) put the number closer to 200,000.

Word Watch

50 years ago
Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on April 4, 1968. There will be more rallies in Washington, DC, to mark the 50th anniversary.
800,000 people
According to estimates by the rally organisers. They also said that there were around 800 other protests around the globe.
Former student
Nikolas Cruz has been arrested and admitted to the attack. Prosecutors have said they will be seeking the death penalty at his trial.
Obamas
Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama wrote: “We wanted to let you know how inspired we have been… you’ve helped awaken the conscience of the nation… Throughout our history, young people like you have led the way in making America better.”
Millions
The students raised $3.7 million in the first three days of their campaign. They received donations from Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, and George and Amal Clooney.
Listening
In Congress, lawmakers voted to strengthen background checks and fund research on gun violence. However, the marchers say that much more needs to be done.

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