At Wednesday’s student protest in Tallahassee, I happened to be standing with Mac Stipanovich, a longtime prominent Republican consultant, and we both agreed it was the largest gathering either of us had ever seen in front of the Florida Capitol.
Was it possible that right here in Florida, not quite a hotbed of political change, a crack might be appearing in the anti-gun control wall? Notwithstanding a lack of action after the tragedies in Sandy Hook, the Pulse nightclub and hundreds of other places, would this protest cause state legislators to act in the final two weeks of the 2018 session?
Hearing the incredibly articulate students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School reminded me of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, also started by high school students. In 1948, the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia and ruled the country for 41 years.
As conditions deteriorated over the decades a quiet discontent enveloped the political and social environment. Finally, On Nov. 17, 1989, students organized a march to recognize the 50th anniversary of a violently suppressed demonstration against Nazi occupation. The peaceful march quickly expanded into a nationwide protest against the state government. Within two weeks, the Communist government had fallen.
This was all started by high school students in Prague. It was a reminder that student activism has created societal changes throughout the ages.
It’s been widely noted that the Stoneman Douglas tragedy is the first time since the Columbine shootings in 1999 that the people directly affected have been able to forcibly speak out. Columbine was thought to be an aberration, and the victims of Sandy Hook were elementary school students.
We have seen over the years, especially with the growth of social media, that long festering issues have exploded into the national consciousness and created rapid change.
Just think about the legalization of gay marriages and the #MeToo movement to be reminded of how quickly societal norms change. The change happens so fast that careers are often ruined within days or hours. One day Sen. Al Franken is the darling of liberals, then, in the blink of an eye, Franken’s own party members demand his resignation.
So it is no wonder there has been an air of tension in Florida’s usually energetic Capitol. Some legislators were starting to believe Parkland was not just another shooting tragedy, but may be a tipping point on the issue of gun control.
The night before the protest, the state House of Representatives voted along partisan lines not to take up legislation that would ban assault weapons.
The face of a stunned Marjory Stoneman Douglas student sitting in the House gallery exploded on social media, impacting members of both parties. You had the sense that legislators thought that they really had to do something now. Remarkably, Gov. Rick Scott is willing to forgo his usually untouchable tax cuts to spend $500 million on school safety, mental health and gun-control reforms.
Are these enough? No, but make no mistake this is the first victory against the gun lobby in ages.
This Capitol rally activated high school students all over the state. These kids are not millennials with a social conscience who protest with their fingers on their iPhones. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Gen Z students are not asking for change but demanding it. I don’t think they’re going away.
Last Wednesday, Florida’s Capitol belonged to them and not for the last time. These students do not need adult supervision or advice.
In the span of less than two weeks they have caused major corporations in America to break their ties with the National Rifle Association. Our kids in Florida are breaking the political hold of the gun lobby, and that is no small matter. Now armed with momentum and money they are planning a national march on Washington in March.
Fair warning to members of Congress: They are coming after you. The survivors of the Parkland massacre are making history. Looking at the picture of the demonstration I took with my phone, one word came to mind — hope.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.