By the hundreds of thousands, they came. They gave impassioned and articulate speeches. The shared their experiences in Chicago, South Los Angeles and Florida. They gave one TV interview after another, displaying remarkable poise and heart-breaking sincerity. Adults decades older watched with awe. These are teenagers. How did these kids learn to do this?
The sense of amazement among adults, including jaded members of the media, was palpable — both because supposedly sophisticated adults had not pulled off this kind of change in attitudes about guns in the decades they’d been trying and because the teenagers shredded the talking points, the lies, the cynicism and the indifference that we’ve become accustomed to in our politics.
If this was a movie, you’d think it was inauthentic. However, it may be our image of our fellow Americans and teenagers that has been wildly inaccurate and unfairly negative. Too many of us have bought into the notion that teenagers are passive, addicted to their phones and lacking civic awareness. Too many have been guilted into accepting that “real Americans” are the Trump voters, and that the rest of us are pretenders, pawns of “elites.” The crowd reminded us of the country’s enormous geographic, racial, gender and age diversity. (Plenty of teachers, parents and grandparents turned out.) And in the case of guns, these people are far more representative of the views of the country than the proverbial guy in the Rust Belt diner.
Social media has its downsides, we have come to learn all too well. But we’ve forgotten amidst the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal and the daily torment of President Trump’s tweets that social media merely amplifies what is there already. It gives the Russians, the haters, the xenophobes a louder voice and the tools to disguise their true identities, but it can also amplify sincere, empathetic voices and knit together a community — an overused but underappreciated phenomenon — without which the students’ organization on a scale of this magnitude would have been impossible. It is all too convenient to blame social media; the actual problem is the small but significant segment of the population behind the nastiness, anger, aggression and refusal to grapple with reality. As is always the case, the solution to bad speech is more speech. If we had forgotten that, the students who have grown up never knowing a world without iPhones surely hadn’t.
The decision to let only children and teenagers speak was key to the entire endeavor. No canned political speeches; no feigned emotion. The experience of the more than 180,000 students who have been exposed to gun violence in schools over the past few decades was suddenly very real, very immediate.
Those on the event stage talked about their friends, their certainty in political change, their solidarity with other victims, and their fearlessness in the face of naysayers and cynics. They mocked and condemned the National Rifle Association and the politicians who take their money. (Sen. Marco Rubio was a favorite punching bag.) They sounded angry, sad and serious. They spoke about democracy and extolled the crowd to vote; they inveighed against party politics.
The most powerful moment, however, was unspoken. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Emma Gonzalez read the names of those killed that day and the things they would never do. She then stood silently at the microphone, letting the seconds tick away and the tears stream down her face. “Since the time that I came out here, it has been six minutes and 20 seconds,” she finally said. “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.” She added, “Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job!”
And so we are left with the stark contrast — the sincerity of the students vs. the canned platitudes of the gun absolutists; the speed and vibrancy of a mass movement vs. the gridlock and sameness of our politics; the dogged determination of teenagers not yet world-weary vs. the sense of futility that pervades our politics. The outcome is not preordained. Yes, democracies are under assault. Xenophobes and nativists certainly have come out from under the rocks. The president has tried to make the abnormal commonplace and the unacceptable inevitable. But if nothing else, the marchers reminded us we have a choice. We can be fatalistic and passive, or determined and active. If teenagers can take the capital by storm, surely the rest of us can do something more than complain and yell at the TV.