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'We Can't Let Fear Consume Us': Why Parkland Activists Won't Give Up
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=42128"><span class="small">Lois Beckett, Guardian UK</span></a>   
Monday, 11 February 2019 14:59

Beckett writes: "Today, David Hogg and the other students who first spoke out after the Parkland shooting are focusing on the quiet, unglamorous work of grassroots organizing."

David Hogg and other Parkland activists are focusing on the quiet, unglamorous work of grassroots organizing. (photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images/March For Our Lives)
David Hogg and other Parkland activists are focusing on the quiet, unglamorous work of grassroots organizing. (photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images/March For Our Lives)


'We Can't Let Fear Consume Us': Why Parkland Activists Won't Give Up

By Lois Beckett, Guardian UK

11 February 19


Almost a year after March for Our Lives, gun control has faded from the spotlight. But these student survivors aren’t done

avid Hogg grew an inch over the past year. He notices it when he squeezes his lanky, now 6ft 1in frame into another airplane seat and struggles to fall asleep. Hogg is often on the road now.

A year ago, at age 17, he was interviewing and filming his classmates as they hid in a closet from the gunshots they had just heard on their Parkland, Florida campus. Now, the 18-year-old and a small group of his friends have become internationally recognized gun violence prevention activists. For nine months after a shooting at their school left 17 students and teachers dead, the founders of March for Our Lives fought nonstop to vote out National Rifle Association-backed lawmakers, criss-crossing the country to hold rallies and voter registration events, as well as to build connections with veteran gun violence prevention activists in cities like New York and Chicago.

Today, Hogg and the other students who first spoke out after the Parkland shooting are focusing on the quiet, unglamorous work of grassroots organizing. The group is training eight regional directors to help build out their March for Our Lives local chapters. They want to prepare for the 2020 presidential election by expanding the national reach of their youth voter registration and turnout operation.

Yes, some of the teenagers are making plans to go to college next year. Yes, they are dealing with grief and exhaustion and backlash. They have had to learn to set some boundaries for the work they are doing, as well as learn how to weather brutal political losses. November’s election saw longtime allies of the National Rifle Association win tight races for governor and US senate in Florida, the Parkland students’ home state. By early January, a Republican legislator in Florida had filed a bill attempting to repeal the few compromise gun control measures the state had passed after the Parkland shooting.

But the students who inspired national school walkouts last spring to protest government inaction on gun violence have seen enough progress that they want to keep fighting. Youth voter turnout nationwide spiked ten percentage points to an estimated 31% in 2018: still low, but the highest midterm election rate in decades. At least some of that increase is likely due to March for Our Lives’ months of protests and get-out-the-vote efforts.

“One of my goals in the next two years is to get 71% youth voter turnout in 2020,” Hogg told the Guardian in a recent phone interview. Just under 50% of voters 18-29 voted in the 2016 presidential election.

Why choose 71% as a goal?

“I like the way the number looks,” he said. “I think it’s a good goal that’s going to be hard.”

On the other hand, he said: “I think there’s a lot of people that, quite frankly, really, really, really hate our president.”

There’s no big election to organize around in 2019, but that does not mean there isn’t urgent work to do, the group’s new director of outreach said.

“I think this is the year of building,” Jackie Corin, an 18-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and one of the group’s founders, said. “We’re not stopping, we’re not looking at it as an off-year.”

Mobilizing young people

March for Our Lives currently has nearly 200 local chapters across the country. By 2020, the group is hoping to “double that, or even more”, Corin said.

When Hogg has asked politicians for advice on how “to get change as quickly as possible,” he has been advised that it’s necessary to work both inside and outside the system. He is already talking about running for Congress as soon as he turns 25. If there are still politicians touting endorsements from the NRA after 2025, Hogg said, he would like to campaign against one of them.

“If there was a Democrat that had an A rating from the NRA, I would totally try to primary them out.”

He’s only one of the young activists who is now considering a career in politics. Corin, who has been organizing logistics for the group’s nationwide bus tours and local partnerships while also trying to finish high school, is also thinking about elected office.

National media interest in the Parkland movement peaked and then faded last spring after the students organized their first major event, the March for Our Lives in Washington, which drew hundreds of thousands of protesters in the nation’s capital, and at least 1 million protesters at 800-plus sister marches worldwide. By then, the Parkland activists were already making a conscious effort to convert their viral social media presence into the only kind of currency that can truly challenge the power of the National Rifle Association: not money, or media attention, but turnout.

Working with young gun violence prevention activists from across the country, the Parkland made a bet this past spring that local organizing – and more local news coverage – could make a difference in the 2018 midterm elections. Over the summer, the March for Our Lives activists traveled on a bus tour to dozens of states to host rallies and voter registration drives, all with the goal of increasing youth voter turnout in the midterm elections. They also sent a separate delegation of activists touring across Florida, which saw an even higher spike in youth voter turnout in November. Statewide, 37% of young Florida voters participated in the election, a 15-percentage-point increase the Associated Press reported, with especially high youth turnout in cities with large populations of college students.

While March for Our Lives cannot take sole credit for the 10 percentage point jump in youth voter turnout in the 2018 midterms nationwide, the students certainly deserve some of the credit for a “really impressive” achievement, said Jessica Morales Rocketto, the political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and a former digital organizing expert for the Clinton and Obama presidential campaigns.

“If that’s in your first [election] cycle, what can happen in your second, third, four, fifth cycles?” she asked.

Political activists have been trying to solve the problem of low youth voter turnout for years, and except for Barack Obama, she said, there haven’t been many successes.

If the March for Our Lives is “even moderately successful” in continuing to increase youth voter turnout in the next five or 10 years, that will have a big political impact, she said. If they can replicate the kind of success they saw this midterm cycle, she said, the students could become a political force that would rival the influence of the labor movement or outside groups like MoveOn.

The next chapter

There were no guarantees that the March for Our Lives would be able to sustain their movement even this long. It’s true that the Parkland activists started with advantages most youth activists have not given: name recognition, media attention, “the moral high ground” of being survivors, the immediate financial support of powerful backers like Oprah and George Clooney, who were among the celebrities who pleged $500,000 to support the nascent movement.

But “none of those things guarantee success, in any way, shape or form”, Morale Rocketto said.

“A lot of times in political and movement spaces, there’s an emphasis on whatever is the hot thing,” she said. “That’s where they could have begun and ended, as the hot thing.”

When they began to speak out after the shooting at their school, Parkland students wanted to make sure that their murdered friends were not forgotten in the endless series of American school shootings, that the news cycle did not simply move on after the latest series of “thoughts and prayers”. They have achieved that goal. Today, Democratic 2020 presidential candidates are courting the approval of the Parkland movement. California senator Kamala Harris mentioned the students as an inspiration in her campaign memoir. In December, the students traveled to South Africa to accept the International Children’s Peace Prize.

But teenagers also said they wanted to make Parkland the last mass shooting in America. On that goal, they aren’t even close. In the months they have been mourning their own lost friends and teachers, the Parkland survivors have had to watch more school shootings, more domestic violence murders, shootings at a yoga studio, a bank, a synagogue, a video game tournament, a country music bar. A death count of five or six people lost in a mass shooting now barely makes a ripple in the Trump administration news cycle.

The strange celebrity the Parkland students have been given is often painful. In the students’ memoir of their movement, published this fall, Emma González, the most famous of the March for Our Lives activists, described how uncomfortable it feels to be recognized on the street. “All of us know what it feels like to be Harry Potter now,” she wrote – the boy who became famous for living when the people he loved died, the boy constantly reminded of the worst day of his life.

The students’ ability to make a political impact has sparked constant harassment, including from conspiracy theorists who labeled the teenagers “crisis actors”, as well as pushback from gun rights activists who show up to the students’ events fully armed. Hogg, in particular, has sparked the ire of right-wing pundits, who have publicly mocked and dissected his grades, SAT scores, and college rejections and acceptances. (He took a gap year after graduating last spring, and announced in December that he would be attending Harvard in the fall.)

“Even when people come up to us quietly to say thank you, you never know if they’re someone who’s going to support you if they’re just trying to shiv you or punch you or shoot you at close range, disguised by a friendly face,” González wrote.

The hostility some of their political opponents show can be frightening, Corin said, but “there’s nothing we can do. We can’t let that fear consume us.”

What’s been achieved?

March for Our Lives is still focused on gun policy. The group is hoping to play a stronger lobbying role to pass gun control bills in state houses this year, as well as pressuring the senate, which is still controlled by Republican allies of the National Rifle Association, to pass a historic bill expanding background checks on gun sales. They have an 18-year-old as their lobbyist in DC.

It’s possible to measure the influence of March for Our Lives so far by tallying up their year of wins and losses. Dozens of gun control laws passed at the state level in 20 states. Eight states, including Florida, passed extreme risk protection order laws, which give family members and law enforcement a way to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from a person at risk of hurting others or themselves.

These laws are already being used to prevent shootings, Hogg said. “The thing that I’m most proud of is the stories that were not reported on because they didn’t happen.”

Nationally, Democratic candidates, including many running on gun control platforms, swept the House of Representatives. One of the first priorities of the new Democratic House majority was introducing a new, stronger bill to expand background checks on gun sales. At the same time, Republican gun-rights supporters consolidated control of the senate, which will likely block the passage of any gun control legislation until at least 2020. And with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, Trump gave the NRA what it spent more than $30 million to secure in the 2016 elections: a lasting majority of pro-gun justices on the Supreme Court.

If the sole bar is “passing Congressional gun control laws,” then it looks like the March for Our Lives has not done much to disrupt the status quo of America’s broken gun debate.

But the attempt to measure the Parkland students’ impact in terms of bills passed or not passed may miss the broader point. March for Our Lives has a more ambitious outlook than just policy. They are mirroring what the NRA and the Republican Party have done so well for decades: using the gun debate as a wedge issue, and aiming to take and hold power for a generation.

The central framing of the March for Our Lives – young people rising up against corrupt politicians so beholden to special interests that they will risk kids’ lives rather than change – is a resonant one. And it would be easy to extend that same framing to a broader set of issues, from racism to criminal justice reform to climate change, not just gun violence or school shootings.

A national movement

While the media spotlight still focuses most often on a handful of the most famous Parkland students, the teenage survivors a have spent the past year connecting with young activists who have long advocated for gun violence prevention in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. Their goal is to build a truly national movement, and they’ve already developed a deep bench of young leaders across the country – activists who are organizing on the local level, as well as with the national movement.

In Arizona, Jordan Harb, a high school student who led a walkout protest after the Parkland shooting, went on to run a statewide youth voter registration campaign, in which high school students too young to vote worked to register their 18 and 19-year-old friends. In Wisconsin, Bria Smith, a charismatic 17-year-old local activist who joined the March for Our Lives’ voter outreach bus tour this summer, has been deeply influenced by the political training of her summer activism. She’s still working with March for Our Lives, as well as traveling across the country to speak with other young activists on racial justice. She also recently became the president of her local youth council in Milwaukee.

Even if March for Our Lives disbands in a few months or years, the group will still have been instrumental in training a generation of young organizers across the country. If they can stick together, it’s hard to overestimate the political benefits of having a national network of media-tested, donor-connected, eloquent 25-year-olds who have been organizing campaigns together since their late teens.

If you ask different members of March for Our Lives whether they organization will still exist in five or 10 years, they will give roughly the same answer. (They have always demonstrated impressive message discipline.) They don’t want the organization to exist forever. Within ten years – even by early 2021 – they hope the US will have already passed a set of stricter gun laws, invested in local violence prevention programs, and significantly reduced gun violence. But might the group still exist in some form, focused on youth voter engagement? Yes.

This was the answer that Hogg, among others, gave , in a phone interview that had been scheduled for 9pm. He was very tired, but he gamely answered questions for about an hour. Finally, before answering that last question, he paused. There was some noise in the background. “Does March for Our Lives still exist in four years? Yeah – one second. I’m brushing my teeth.”

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+1 # DongiC 2019-02-12 06:55
These young people from Florida represent what is best in America: compassion, commitment, dedication to a noble cause and courage, definitely courage. Facing down some of the Trump troopers, standing up to NRA defenders, the March for Our Lives members never know when they might meet some deranged, gun-loving nut armed with a shooting iron or a knife with mayhem in his mind. Still they persist. I admire these young heroes so much. They are the hope for all our futures.