For the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Valentine’s Day will forever memorialize the massacre of 17 of their classmates and teachers at the hands of a disgruntled man with a legally acquired AR-15. While shootings of varying severity are now depressingly common at American schools, this incident stood out from others. This is partly because of its high body count, but it’s been unique in another, more important way: it birthed some courageous student activists.
No longer content for their bodies to be the “price of freedom,” nor to accept the now-familiar deadly cycle of school shooting followed by thoughts and prayers followed by NRA hysteria followed by political inaction followed by school shooting, children are aware that it’s their lives at risk and they are doing something about it.
Since last week, students have conducted multiple demonstrations to protest the lack of congressional action on the problem of gun violence. On Monday, dozens of students and their parents staged a lie-in in front of the White House to symbolize people killed in mass shootings. Students in Boca Raton, Florida, held a walk-out on Tuesday, and similar demonstrations have happened in districts all over the country. Many more protests are already planned, including a nationwide student walk-out on April 20 – the anniversary of the Columbine killings.
Conservatives have responded to the demonstrations with condescension, conspiracy theories, victim-blaming and punishment. A Texas superintendent, Curtis Rhodes, threatened students who protest during school hours with a three-day suspension, warning, “every choice has a consequence whether it be positive or negative.” Former Representative Jack Kingston picked up on a meme that’s common among the far-right after mass shootings, accusing the kids of being co-opted by left-wing actors – as though the violence they witnessed couldn’t be enough to spur them to action.
Donald Trump, Jr. took the conspiracy theories into Alex Jones territory. He zeroed in on one shooting survivor in particular, David Hogg, whose father works for the FBI. Trump Jr. “liked” two tweets that accused Hogg of being part of a conspiracy, including one from a far-right radio host who wondered if the kid was “running cover for his dad who Works as an FBI agent at the Miami field office Which botched tracking down the Man behind the Valentine day massacre?” Hogg’s family has since received death threats from far-right fanatics.
Whenever a mass shooter executes a classroom full of kids, conservatives’ first move is to cover for the NRA and question the victims. This time, some children’s decision to text loved ones and post their ordeal to social media were criticized, despite these offering a horrifying and important glimpse into the deadly reality of school shootings. Conservatives are more concerned about protecting children from the horrors of sharing a public restroom with a transgender person.
Superintendent Rhodes is right: every choice has a consequence. His decision, and the decision of the entire Republican establishment, has been a negative one: to suppress democracy and tell kids their only choice is to follow authoritarian orders. Kids in high school today have lived their entire lives in a world of routine mass violence and witnessed silence from politicians in response. The kids have made a courageous choice, and the consequences could be transformative. They are to be supported and encouraged.
But it isn’t just on guns that young people have taken the lead. A number of children have joined a lawsuit against the federal government for its inaction on climate change; their case is currently working its way through courts, and could become a landmark in legal history. Other kids have protested the deportation of parents, friends, classmates, and others. And students across the nation walked out in solidarity to protest state violence against young African-Americans in places like Ferguson.
Republicans and the Washington establishment are building a world that is cruel today, but will be calamitous in another generation. Young people see what’s coming. They see the proliferation of ever-deadlier weaponry in their hometowns and the carnage it’s caused. They know they will have to deal with the worst effects of climate change. They witness firsthand the barbarism of the state as it tears friends and loved ones from their homes. And unlike so many of the pitiful rest of us, they aren’t willing to stand by.