Photograph by Martha Stewart/Harvard Kennedy School
Photograph by Martha Stewart/Harvard Kennedy School
In the five weeks since a gunman killed 17 people and injured an additional 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students there have coordinated a sustained national gun-control campaign unseen in the aftermath of any other modern mass shooting. Six of them—Ryan Deitsch, Matt Deitsch, Emma González, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and Alex Wind—spoke at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics last night about gun violence, their vision of change, and March for Our Lives, the national demonstration scheduled for this coming Saturday, that calls for national gun-control legislation.
News had just trickled in of Tuesday’s school shooting that injured two students in Great Mills, Maryland—a community much less affluent than Parkland; the speakers would allude to it throughout the evening. They had spent the day meeting with Boston public-schools students, Harvard faculty members, President Drew Faust, and others. Moderator Meighan Stone, a former fellow at the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, opened with the obvious question: how did the students emerge as leaders in the national gun-control movement so quickly in the wake of the Parkland shooting? “There’s always that moment of decision,” she said, “where maybe unlikely leaders step forward and decide they have power and are going to use their voice.”
“While I was in the car on the way home after my father picked my little brother and I up after what happened on Valentine’s Day, I was listening to the news, and I was looking at my phone and seeing what was going on, and I started to realize: I’ve seen this before,” Kasky, a junior at the school, replied. “I’ve seen this happen countless times. And what happens is we get two weeks in the news, we get a bundle of thoughts and prayers, everybody sends flowers, and then it’s over, and people forget. And I said, what’s different this time? I thought about how other movements had not gotten the change that they needed. I realized: we need to step forward now…We spoke out and said, ‘No—you’re not controlling our narrative. You are not telling our story. We were there, we see what’s going on here, the entire United States—we see past this façade that this is inevitable and this is the price of our freedom.’ We know that we can fix this, but we have to jump now.”
“If you look up on the stage, you’ll notice that something is missing,” Matt Deitsch, a recent graduate, said, pointing out that five of the six speakers were white men. “It makes me absolutely sick that we’re not sharing the stage right now, but I promise you, when you see us on Saturday, we will be.” Each of the speakers seemed hyper-aware of their privilege relative to the many young people affected by guns in low-income and minority communities. González (who became widely known for her “We call B.S.” speech in the days after the shooting) last week met with students from Chicago affected by gun violence. Alex King, a high-school student who had lost his nephew in a Chicago drive-by shooting, told González after his visit to Florida that “the first day in his entire life that he had ever felt safe were those hours that he spent in Parkland, because his community is not as safe as ours. We’re attacked in the most brutal way for one short day. We could never imagine the stuff that they go through on a daily basis for their entire lives, and it’s time that we did try to imagine that.”
Sincere as their remarks were, the students have also proved to be savvy politicians who understand how to stay on message and attuned to the public consensus. “We’re not against law-abiding gun owners” was a phrase repeated more than once, and a few students said they live in gun-owning households. Their demands were relatively modest and limited to what appears according to polls to be the national consensus on gun control: universal, extensive background checks and a ban on assault weapons like the one used in Parkland and many recent mass shootings. They all urged unity among Americans from across party lines, but that didn’t mean they were afraid to name their opponents (the National Rifle Association). The center of their strategy is voter mobilization, activated by on-the-ground, Women’s March-style mass protests: “If you choose not to vote on the side of students’ lives, we’ll vote you out,” Hogg, a senior, said. Beginning with this November’s elections, they hope to make gun control a deciding issue among the electorate.
Throughout the last month, the group has met with political leaders including civil-rights activist and congressman John Lewis (who will speak at this year’s Commencement), who urged them not to be afraid of getting into “good trouble,” Ryan Deitsch, a senior, remembered. They draw inspiration from the history of that movement, sharing with it a sense that they’re fighting something plainly obscene and yet, somehow, politically intransigent. “There’s 300 million products out there that are unregulated and killing someone every 15 minutes,” Matt Deitsch said. “And our politicians choose not to talk about it!”
Knowledge of history, and a broad education, the students stressed, has animated their movement. In response to an audience question about how educators could contribute, González said, “One of the reasons I’ve been so good at speaking about this is because I’ve had creative writing classes for four years. David was in debate. These kids were in drama, TV production—the arts, fund the arts, please!”
Notably missing from the panel was any real discussion of social-media activism. The omission felt intentional: the students were interested in civics, democracy, the place of art and education in their activism; social media often feels like a diversion used to trivialize the concerns of the young. González, for her part, has previously said that she didn’t know how to use Twitter before the shooting. The activists seemed less annoyed than just baffled by disparaging images of their generation (“They like to say we eat Tide Pods!” Ryan said), and in response they framed their campaign as a generational one. Alex Wind, a junior, added: “I don’t think this movement would be possible if we weren’t teenagers.”