Young people have been the driving force behind virtually every major social justice movement in our nation’s history. From Black Lives Matter activists to DACA defenders, American youth have consistently spoken out and fought to reform some of the most prominent institutions of our society, including law enforcement, the education system, and national borders. The central policies of these institutions are no longer acceptable within a “progressive” nation, and young people have been the ones to call out their failures, hypocrisies, and shortcomings—and demand better.
It’s no wonder, then, that the surviving students of the mass shooting that took place on Feb. 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are the ones spearheading an emboldened campaign against the NRA and demanding, once and for all, gun control in the United States.
Since the horrific shooting, in which 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people and injured more than a dozen others, we have seen these students band together and form a resistance movement in real time. Many are seniors, who on top of the grief and trauma that comes with witnessing a mass shooting, also have college applications, exams, and the fucked up reality of growing up in Trump’s America to worry about.
The support they’ve received has been overwhelming. On Feb. 21, thousands of Tallahassee residents marched with the students to the Florida Capitol Building to continue raising awareness for the tragedy and emphasize the need for gun control. There have been countless pieces in outlets like BuzzFeed, The New York Times, and The Washington Post profiling these students—"the teens,” as the internet has taken to calling them—and their mission. The March For Our Lives, set to take place in Washington D.C. next month, is already preparing for 500,000 attendees, with sister marches being organized in every major city across the country.
Their passion, resilience, and bravery is undeniable, but at what point does our admiration for these students become problematic?
WE CAN ADMIRE THE HARD WORK THAT THESE STUDENTS HAVE PUT IN, BUT OUR ADMIRATION MUST COME WITH ACTION.
Students, teachers, and parents of the Parkland community appeared on CNN on Feb. 21 for a Town Hall on gun control. They addressed Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), and NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch. The latter two are widely considered to be at least partially at fault for Cruz’s ability to purchase the AR-15 he used in his attack. Loesch, and the NRA as a whole, are being blamed due to their opposition to gun-control reform like universal background checks and the forbidding of bump stocks. Rubio’s continued acceptance of donations from the NRA and refusal to support an assault weapons ban in Florida has placed him in the hot seat, as well.
Although everyone asked important questions at the event, it was the students’ inquiries and statements that stood out to the internet: 17-year-old Cameron Kasky asked Senator Rubio to his face if he would stop accepting donations from the NRA (Senator Rubio said he would not). 17-year-old Emma Gonzalez told Loesch that she and her peers “[would] support [Loesch's] two children in a way that [she] would not,” by fighting for stricter gun laws.
Tweets poured in throughout the evening. Some fantasized about who the teens should take on next, like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Some reveled in the “owning” of Senator Rubio. Others have lauded them for “rising to the occasion.” I posted a Facebook status, prior to the Town Hall, that included the words, “the teens will save us all.”
Sentiments like these, which we intend as celebrations and expressions of gratitude, do more harm than good. They imply that these students are supposed to be doing this and that, while we're at it, we should sic them on anyone else we need help taking down.
That’s not the answer; these are children. Children who, six days after surviving a mass shooting, went on national television and faced the adults who allowed it to happen. Children, who in the middle of attending funerals for their peers, found time to organize a march on their state’s capital. Children who are still bursting into tears at the mention of their former classmates and teachers, but have managed to demand more of their government than any adult I know.
We can admire the hard work that these students have put in, but our admiration must come with action. There’s something wrong when we’re willing to just sit by and let them take the reigns. The problem becomes blatantly evident when we consider the cognitive dissonance it takes for us to condescendingly refer to them as “the teens,” but still allow them to go head-to-head against a government that cares more about money than it does about their lives. The New Inquiry’s Ayesha Siddiqi noted on Twitter that these students’ resistance is “not cute as much as a damning indictment of the rest of us.”
Shame on us. The phrase “let the youth lead” was never meant to imply children should carry the weight of these hardships alone. Every movement has a leader, but it is ultimately up to the followers to make a change. “Let the youth lead” means listen to their ideas and their voices, and then use the resources and access that we as adults have to help them make that change.
Emma Gonzalez exhibited unbelievable strength with her shouts of, “We call BS!” But she did it because she had to; because we as a society have allowed this BS to continue, and she and her peers can no longer rely on us to keep them safe. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, and the best way that we can support these students is to not let things go on this way.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate these students; they are badass, they are bright, and they have instilled a sense of hope for the future that many of us haven’t felt since the most recent presidential election. But if we truly believe in their movement, we owe them much more.
We have to call and write to our senators and argue for tighter gun restrictions. We have to vote out NRA-funded congresspeople in the upcoming midterm elections. We have to talk to our pro-gun friends and family members and ask them if the right to bear arms is more important than the right to live without fear of gun violence. We have to offer these kids what they have given us in just 12 short days: action.