March For Our Lives Shows the Power of Youth Activism

(Bloomberg View) -- On Saturday, students from the Florida high school that was the scene of a mass shooting in February inspired more than 800 “March for Our Lives” rallies demanding better gun laws. The marches came on the heels of national school walkouts organized by students on March 14. Of course, Americans have been talking about the need for gun reform for a very, very long time. But the way young people have now taken the lead, demanding that the shooting result in change and creating a playbook for other kids to copy, is likely to finally force lawmakers to take action.

Here’s what’s different this time. First, while we’ve seen many similar marches in the Trump era, this was the first major one largely organized by kids. While they undoubtedly garnered support from adults and celebrities, children were the most prominent voices calling on people to participate and speaking at the march in the nation’s capital, which was the focus of much media coverage. It’s also the first time that youth have had such prominent voices on the issue in the media. After past school shootings, we’ve typically heard more from parents.

“To those politicians supported by the NRA that allow the continued slaughter of our children and our future, I say get your resumes ready,” David Hogg, a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, said at the main rally in Washington.

The internet activist, author, and president of the Good Media Group Eli Pariser told me that he thinks these students have “shifted some norms regarding what’s appropriate in the aftermath of that kind of violence.” After future school shootings, he expects, “We’ll see the next group of students move very quickly to make their views known, and we’ll see the media looking for those students.”

That’s important, because kids tend to articulate their views especially forcefully.

“To the leaders, skeptics and cynics who told us to sit down, stay silent and wait your turn, welcome to the revolution,” Cameron Kasky, a student at the Parkland high school, said on Saturday. “Either represent the people or get out. Stand for us or beware.”

“It is very natural to high school students to say what they believe, and they tend to say it in a pretty clear and no-holds-barred kind of way,” Pariser said. The message that young people are now sending -- that adults have failed in their duty to protect kids -- is especially powerful.

A second big change, Pariser said, is that the students who have spoken out after the shooting haven’t generally been accused by mainstream political figures of politicizing the event. That’s probably because adults typically do not see kids as having political agendas. In the past, people who have been vocal about the need for gun reform after massacres have often been charged with trying to take advantage of a tragedy to promulgate their beliefs. This was another norm that needed to change before such events could finally force lawmakers to do something.

Third, Pariser said, these kids have given other students a playbook to follow the next time young people are targeted in a shooting. Future victims are likely to copy the Parkland students in speaking out about the violence, being direct about the political failings that led to the events, vocally demanding that lawmakers fix the problem, and knocking down conspiracy theories.

Pariser said that all of this is what will give the movement staying power. He compares it to Black Lives Matter. In places such as Ferguson, Missouri, and Los Angeles, victims of police violence developed a script that others used after similar episodes: causing an immediate outcry on social media using the Black Lives Matter hashtag, and organizing protests which led to media coverage. “It was something … any community could do the next time it happened,” he said. “Each time it did, more people were watching and affiliating” -- and that’s how the movement grew.

The movement started by the Parkland students is likely to grow in the same way. “Organizations like the NRA typically depend on being able to duck and cover and weather the storm [after calls for gun reform], and wait for Twitter headlines to focus attention elsewhere and then continue its agenda,” Pariser said. But if the country’s children keep this up, the calls for change won’t die down. “If people are louder, and this issue is on the agenda more frequently. That puts politicians in the spot of needing to have more serious answers than they’re accustomed to needing to provide,” he said. “That can create legislative change.”

Or, as Leslie Chiu, a graduate of the Parkland school, put it at the rally in Boston: “This is not a moment. This is a movement.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

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