What Higher Ed Can Learn from High School Activists #MarchforOurLives #REV
I’m thinking about yesterday’s #MarchforOurLives protest in DC and all over America, how it was organized by high school students who had endured the most unimaginable violence, and how they turned something horrific into something productive, violence against them into an action plan for change that could well result in a systematic and structural social change.
As colleges and universities debate free speech on campus—especially how to respond when heinous, potentially violence-enducing white supremacists and misogynists come to campus specifically to gain maximum media attention. Terrorists and mass murderers, of course, have media attention as their ultimate goal as well. How we respond in both cases can serve to deter or feed further encounters.
Let’s think about what we have learned from #MarchforOurLives. I believe there are structural features of #MarchforOurLives that we can productively apply in other situations, including campus “free speech” events.
Structural Analysis of the Parkland Massacre and the #MarchforOurLives response:
1-Something heinous and horrific happened.
2-Nothing can be done to erase that something heinous happened.
3-The students at Parkland fought back on a structural level, refusing the government and NRA arguments that change is impossible. Rejecting inaction, they, instead, organized.
4-Impressed by their heroism and dignity and courage in the face of a heinous assault, many others followed suit, joining their cause, supporting their efforts.
5-Trolls (ind Fox news and MoC)tried to hate on them, accused them of being “scripted,” of being “crisis actor.”
Trolls used some of the most divisive tactics of the 2016 Presidential against the Parkland students: accusing them of being racist, of exercising white privilege.
6-The Parkland students acknowledged this is true. Rather than being defensive, they listened. And made alliances and solidarity with spokespeople for #BlackLivesMatter and expanded their issue from “school shootings” (already heinous: 193 K-12 schools have experienced a gun incident since Columbine in 1999) to “gun violence” more broadly (260,000 kids killed by guns since 1999) http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-what-happens-to-childr…
8-The NRA funds automatic rifles and supports extreme militarizing and equipping of the police, mandatory “three strikes” sentencing, and many other structural features which connect #MarchforOurLives and #BlacklivesMatter
9-The Parkland organizers would not be splintered. Rather, they made solidarity with Black Lives Matter and made sure that race was a firm, important issue in their publicity for March for Our Lives By eyewitness accounts, the March was diverse, including racially diverse, even more so than the Women’s March.
10-The Parkland students did not buy the “arm the teachers” argument and pointed out it was hypocritical (schools are impoverished and teachers under duress already), and racist (black students would suffer from armed teachers) and ineffective. Structural again: they connected school violence with school underfunding.
11- They researched, had their facts, and supported and encouraged journalists to show what does work—in the US and in other countries.
12. They refused to let the March be only about what happened to them or about gun violence but they nonetheless kept themselves and the horror of the day front and center throughout the day.
13-They honored those who died at the hand of this violence. They even took a secondary or supporting role to those who died, were most harmed, by the violence and made their protest a memorial. It was not about the students or the protestors–they kept the day centered on the changes they would make, that they would be dedicated to, beyond the specific day and event.
14-They understood and mobilized social media—hashtags, visual documentation of posters, networking.
15-They understood the power of symbols: Emma’s 6.20 minutes of silence. Tiny kids with big signs. The victory of the vulnerable.
16-And they moved from critique to an action plan. They tied all of their actions, including the massive demonstrations, to structural, constructive change. They turned #resist to #REV: register, energize, vote. #REV: resist, enough, vote them out. #REV: regime change, equality, victory. #REV: revolution.
17-They made sure there was voter registration organizing at every march. They talked about the terrible midterm election turnout, the deplorable local election turnout, but all voters—and especially youth, especially progressives. All politics is local and school defunding and so many other issues of import happen at the state level, increasingly controlled by those with a conservative agenda, including against gun control.
18-They built on something horrific in order to make a difference where we all can, in a democracy and in order to build towards a better future.
19-This does not change, mitigate, or minimize the 17 lives lost or the 6 minutes of utter terror endured by those who survived. Rather it says: we want a better world. We want better alternatives. We reject the violence. We are fighting and organizing and effectively working for a better way.
How does this apply to higher education?
20-What if every time a racist, misogynist, homophobic or simply hateful speaker who is there in order to create a protest that will gain maximum attention for white supremacist causes were seen as an impetus to organize for larger societal, structural change (not against the particular speaker). I think of how much money Planned Parenthood raised in checks donated on behalf of Mike Pence. What if every supremacist speaker were seen as a perfect time to organize activism in the opposite direction–not to organize to protest the speaker (and give them more attention) but as an occasion to organize in all the ways the Parkland students did.
If the crowd for the reactionary, violent, supremacist speaker were meager compared to a huge turnout for #REV, every violent intellectual assault would become an opportunity to work towards structural change and more media attention to those working for change, not for the speaker. Especially if the visuals and the social media were redesigned to support activism, not the power, centrality, or victim (“My free speech has been denied”) of the invited supremacist speaker. The activist action would need to be significant, creative, a performance of structural change as well as a specific, goal-oriented opportunity to work for that change. Organized Get Out the Vote drives or signing up people to work against voter suppression (poll watchers and others). A great hashtag. All that.
What if this were so commonplace a response to supremacists coming to campus that anyone who accepted a speaking engagement would know they were helping to organize their opponents, not gaining media attention for themselves. Make it the way it ALWAYS happens, so that every supremacist who comes to campus knows they will be met with a handful of likeminded sympathizers and then, across campus, or across the quad, or elsewhere, those who uphold different values organizing for structural change.
Does this solve all the world’s problems? No. But neither does media attention (and state laws) that make college students seem like the evil ones and garner even more attention and power to the violent supremacist.
Take away the guns. Take away the platform. Organize. Learn from the Kids!
REV: register, energize, vote.
#REV: resist, enough, vote them out.
#REV: regime change, equality, victory.
Remember the adage: you cannot change structural inequality with good will. You need to design new structures with equality at the core. I do not believe you change structural inequality with critique and protest alone. We need to design new structures with equality at the core. To do that, we need to have a seat at the table. The Kid’s Table.
IMAGE: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMarch_for_Our_Lives_NYC_(40731).jpg By Rhododendrites (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons