Unleashed by a gunman’s rampage in a South Florida high school, the first generation of American children born into a post-Columbine world is mobilizing into an unprecedented political force.
In the weeks since 17 were killed and 15 more wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, teenagers — a group known more for apathy than activism — have pulled off a national school walkout that saw an estimated 1 million students participate. In Florida, where the Second Amendment is sacrosanct, high school students made history by moving gun-control legislation through the state Capitol.
And on Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to gather in cities around the world for an anti-gun violence rally conceived by a small group of Parkland students who suddenly find themselves at the helm of a well-fueled political machine. By the time crowds gather on Pennsylvania Avenue for the March for Our Lives, their effort will have evolved from a protest to the unlikeliest of movements — one that aims to either change the country’s gun laws or change the people who make them.
“I haven’t seen a movement like this, period,” Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, whose district includes Parkland, said last week after an estimated 1 million U.S. students walked out of class. “I think it can be a critical turning point in the politics of this country.”
The numbers say he could be right.
And they thought we were only capable [of] eating Tide Pods.
John Barnitt, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, on Twitter
As far as generations go, voters younger than 30 have as much firepower as any demographic in the nation. Voting-eligible millennials now rival Baby Boomers as the country’s largest voting bloc by age.
But for all the Rock the Vote campaigns of the last 25 years, the country’s youngest voters have never tapped into their power. Only about one in five have voted in midterm elections since the voting age was dropped to 18, by far the lowest rate of any generation in America.
That will be tested this year, with teenagers mobilizing, Democrats surging and elections looming in November. Using social media and traditional news outlets to amplify their message, the oldest of the high school students are promising to show up at the polls with thousands of older like-minded voters — and Democrats and gun-control groups are more than eager to make sure that happens.
“With this walkout today and your ongoing challenge to all of us, to the conscience of America, you are creating a drumbeat across America,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, surrounded by congressional Democrats, told hundreds of students who skipped school to walk to the Capitol on March 14. “A drumbeat that will echo until we get the job done.”
The walkouts that day were aided by a youth arm of the Women’s March, which brought a million people to the National Mall the day after Donald Trump was sworn in as president.
And with the help of millions of dollars from Hollywood celebrities, the Parkland students have launched a political nonprofit now poised to fuel future events and political activism. Meanwhile, NextGen America, a liberal political machine built by wealthy businessman Tom Steyer, is plunging $30 million into registering and galvanizing young voters, including $3.5 million in Florida alone.
The power of the youth has been displayed, and we are going to be reckoned with.
Youth EMPOWER organizer
But make no mistake: Teenagers are at the core of the movement. Winter Minisee, a 17-year-old California organizer with Women’s March Youth EMPOWER, said she and other members of the group used social media to contact students around the country to host walkout events at their schools. The group, using data they’d compiled through their organizing efforts, estimates that 1 million students participated.
“Don’t fear the people that died in the building. Fear the people who got out,” Marjory Stoneman Douglas graduate and state Rep. Jared Moskowitz said on the floor of the Florida House of Representatives this month before legislators passed an unprecedented gun-control law.
That the legislation restricting access to guns could pass in Florida with the signature of an A-plus NRA-rated governor speaks to just how powerful Parkland’s teenagers have become. Though aided by well-placed supporters and deep-pocketed friends, they’ve leveraged social and traditional media to put pressure on lawmakers.
I haven’t seen a movement like this, period.
Robert Runcie, Broward schools superintendent
“The situation in Parkland changed everything. When you look at the policies in this [Florida] bill, the Red Flag law, banning bump stocks, closing loopholes, one of these might not have passed at all” before the shooting, said William Rosen, deputy legal director for the national group Everytown for Gun Safety, which is assisting in Saturday’s marches. “And they all did.”
In organizing, America’s students aren’t doing anything conceptually unique. Street protests are part of American tradition, and teenagers and tweens have historically been part of the country’s counterculture. Jeff Kasky, the father of Cameron Kasky, a Stoneman Douglas student whose activism has earned him national attention, shared a story with his son shortly after the shooting about how he had rebelled against Boston University when he was younger and his efforts to bring a famous punk rock band to campus were canceled by the administration.
“We had a rally and The Ramones showed up and we marched on the administration building. I got kicked out of school,” Jeff Kasky said, noting that he saw the same activism in his son. “It’s a tradition of not taking no for an answer.”
But college students have typically been behind the country’s youth movements. That high school students are doing it, and that they’re persisting, has been unusual.
U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, the Boca Raton Democrat who represents Parkland in Washington, has done dozens of events with students and parents after the shooting and sees a bloc of single-issue voters forming as a counterweight to rival the membership of the National Rifle Association. Unlike the wane that’s followed previous shootings and gun-control movements, this time Deutch sees millions of young people and their parents spurred to participate in politics and vote out lawmakers who don’t do enough to put in place tighter gun laws.
“It happened after Newtown. It happened after Pulse. It happened after Las Vegas. ... There’s this tremendous focus on gun violence because of the attention a particular event draws to it. Then we come back to Washington and there are dozens of issues that we have to deal with, the press has lots of issues they have to cover and the people who capitalize on that more than anyone else in this debate, it’s the gun lobby,” Deutch said. “In this instance, we have student activists who have inspired a lot of adults who because of them are now single-issue voters.”
No one knows yet if today’s movement will last, or fade away like the rest. But students are already organizing another march on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 13 died in 1999 in an attack that shocked the country. And given the resources at their disposal, it’s possible that Parkland’s teenagers, joined by thousands of their peers, will keep going all the way to November.
“The power of the youth has been displayed,” said Minisee, the Youth EMPOWER organizer. “And we are going to be reckoned with.”
McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.