“We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around. You are either with us or against us.”
This week, high school student Cameron Kasky stared down a CNN news camera and issued the above warning to US legislators. He was joined in frame by his classmates including Emma Gonzalez, a teen who had, one day earlier, stood in front of hundreds of protesters and challenged President Donald Trump to take her on:
If the president wants to come up to me and tell me it was a tragedy … I’m going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association. It doesn’t matter because I already know: $30 million!
The kids are revolting — and it’s not just those from Parkdale’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
US teens have been making headlines recently for their vocal opposition to the nation’s gun laws, following the school shooting on February 14 that killed 17 people. Yesterday, on Presidents’ Day, 17 students lay prone in front of the White House to symbolise those who were killed. The protest was organised by a group called Teens for Gun Reform, which is led by two 16-year-olds.
More action is on its way too. On March 13, the Women’s March’s Youth EMPOWER group is planning a 17-minute walkout from high schools around the nation. On March 24, student organisers (including those from Parkdale) will lead March For Our Lives — a non-partisan protest in Washington asking Congress to immediately bring a bill forward to address gun violence. On April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, another walkout is planned. Yes, that last protest date is 4/20.
It’s details like that last one that have some questioning the discipline and potential impact of the growing protest movement. Former congressman Jack Kingston has publicly accused the young activists of being political pawns for Democrat agitators, and insinuated they were incapable of organising collective action on their own. Conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza has openly mocked survivors of the Parkdale shooting who were upset by Florida lawmakers refusing legislation on assault weapons. Retweeting an image of crying teenagers, he wrote “worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs”.
Others have scoffed at the repeated 4/20 reference — how serious can they really be taking this issue, if they’re also making jokes in the same breath?
Regardless of the matter at hand, there’s a lot of baggage attached to our reception of protests from young people. Culturally, we’re accustomed to dismissing youth outrage as empty rebellion. Teenagers are generally seen as a dissatisfied bunch, constrained by the pressures and strictures of the education system, largely without economic independence, often battling the moral or social mores of their family.
Those factors explain some things just fine: a new piercing, an argument with a parent, everything that happens in the film Lady Bird, but it’s baffling to think they apply to something like arguments for gun control or any of the other large-scale political issues young people are passionate about. Frustration about a general lack of power is one thing, frustration about disenfranchisement that has led to the violent death of your classmates and peers is another thing entirely.
The kids aren’t just all right, they’re the most important people to be listening to on this issue.
Last year, a 17-year-old gay teenager got in contact with me wanting to write about the then-impending postal survey for marriage equality. Though he wasn’t out to his friends or family, he felt he had to have his say and urge people to use the vote that he didn’t yet have — one which ultimately decided his rights. “Share a few Facebook posts!” he wrote, in an emotional piece published with no byline. “Retweet! Tweet yourself! Social media is magic! Enrol to vote! Vote yes!”
It mirrors a similar statement from Cameron Kasky this week, as he addressed his (or, more accurately, his parents’) federal representatives: “Please do it for me. Do it for my fellow classmates. We can’t vote, but you can, so make it count”.
This is the best-resourced, most informed and engaged generation in our collective history; and they’re coming up against some of the most infantile and incompetent governments in recent memory. Vote or not, we’d be stupid to underestimate them.