Parkland, Florida…There’s Something Happening Here

There’s something happening here                     
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down~~ Buffalo Springfeild, ATCO Records, circa 1966.   

Sound familiar? More than likely it is but only if you’re an old poot like me. High school students, beginning in earnest with the Parkland, Florida massacre, have emerged as vocal gun-control activists. These young high schoolers who survived the massacre, many of them 16 and 17 years old, have stood in front of a barrage of cameras challenging politicians and voters to finally stop talking and do something about the mass shootings that have turned their schools into killing fields. They have organized walkouts, launched the #NeverAgain movement, and planned the March for Our Lives to take place in Washington, on March 24th, a mass protest against political inaction on gun violence.

That high school students have materialized as political activists might be unexpected to some but not to me. When people talk about student activism, they almost always focus on college students; when they talk about school politics, they almost always focus on parents pushing for changes to programs of study. But while they’re seldom the center of the stories we tell about politics, high school students have repeatedly found ways to exercise their citizenship, even before they have full access to their rights.

Their activism is most often aimed at the places they spend the majority of their time: their schools. During the civil rights movement, black high school students protested funding and educational inequalities, in due course pressing for desegregated schools. Those protests extended well beyond the Jim Crow South. In the 1960s and 1970s, black Boston high school students staged walkouts and boycotts, demanding more black teachers and the inclusion of black history in the curriculum. Across the country in East Los Angeles, Chicano students were staging “blowouts” of their own, with similar demands to improve their education environments.

Anti-racism wasn’t the only crusade stirring high school students to action. Antiwar activism and biased, inaccurate curriculua led to high school protests in the 1960s and 1970s. And the battles spilled over from the classroom and into the courtroom, creating  mushrooming new case law on precisely what rights minors should have, and how many of those rights should accompany them into their schoolhouses.

So student activism pushed in two directions: outward into the world and inward into a new sense of “student rights.” For young civil rights activists, it was clear that battling segregation needed to extend beyond their classrooms. In 1960, a couple of months after college students launched a new sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina, high school students did the same in Charleston, South Carolina, and integrated a lunch counter there; the first such action in the historic, southern, city. But they also developed a new sense of themselves as political protagonists within the high school setting. The student rights movement caught fire in the 1960s and 1970s as students battled from free-speech rights to the removal of police officers from the schools.

The student-led movement that is now emerging from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School matches that tradition, as the students seek places other than the ballot box to make their mark. The heartbreaking aspect of their activism, of course, is that they’re fighting for something that should have been guaranteed long ago: a safe environment where they can get an education that is free from the fear that a disgruntled young white male with an AR-15 will stroll unchallenged into their school and brutally murder them, their classmates, and their teachers.

Like their predecessors, these students are all too aware that their fight cannot stop at their school doors, and that they have to try to change the country’s misperceptions if they, or ironically future generations, are to be safe. Understandably, they’re unwilling to wait until they’re old enough to vote.

In the wake of the massacre that killed 17 people and wounded many more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., students at the school announced their intent to stage the MarchForOurLives in Washington on March 24th in support of gun control. Others called for nationwide walkouts on the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting.

As I said earlier, students have long been at the forefront of social movements, risking retribution both inside and outside of their schools for their activism. As leaders in the civil rights movement more than a half-century ago, students not only proved their ability to pursue social change, but they also ultimately secured the legal rights of students to speak that public schools enjoy today (much to the chagrin of Republicans amd Evangelicals).

Courts also played an important role in protecting students from the start. In May 1963, more than 1,000 students from public schools across Birmingham marched from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to city hall in support of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birmingham Campaign. Defying their principals and, in many cases, their parents, young people risked arrest, expulsion and physical harm to lend their voices and bodies to challenge racial segregation.

Joining in these protests posed high risks but promised even greater rewards. Back when “Nightly News” broadcasts meant something, they showed young men and women in their Sunday best, singing hymns and civil rights anthems, then being viciously attacked by police officers wielding fire hoses, police dogs and nightsticks. President John F. Kennedy later remarked that the images of police brutality in Birmingham made him “sick” as did many other Americans across the country. Public opinion shifted in support of civil rights reforms — including the Civil Rights Act, which Congress passed the following year — in the wake of the Birmingham Campaign.

Despite the political benefit, students faced discipline at school for their involvement. The Birmingham board of education suspended the 1,000 students who had been arrested for the remainder of the school year.

By the late 1960s, protests at high schools increased as teenagers began seeing themselves as agents of change and a growing political force. The civil rights movement and the involvement of young people in direct action campaigns inspired other students to bring their own protests to school. In hundreds of schools across the nation, students launched walkouts, stood in picket lines and wore symbols in support of issues that included changing school dress codes and opposition to the Vietnam War.

And again, protesting students faced resistance from adults, including school administrators, parents, lawmakers and judges. They were suspended, expelled and arrested for their words and actions. But their protests forced local elected officials to acknowledge their grievances.

Such activism hinged on students claiming their First Amendment rights in public schools. And once again, the courts sided with the students. In the landmark 1969 case Tinker vs. Des Moines, the court recognized that young people can and do have political beliefs and the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that teachers and students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

In subsequent rulings, the court has dramatically narrowed the free speech protections afforded to students. In one such case in 2007, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion in which he argued that the court should dispense with Tinker entirely. In the originalist interpretation of Justice Thomas, “the Constitution does not afford students a right to free speech in public schools.”

This past week, as they did in Alabama and Los Angeles 50 years ago, student protesters have forced Americans to have difficult conversations about the nation’s future. Young people often have a greater sense of the possibilities for change than their elders do and less concern about the short-term consequences of seeking long-term reforms.

And as elitist, pampered, privileged, Betsy DeVos sat with Trump in their “listening session” with a stupid, non-wavering grin on her unempathetic face as the students and parents expressed their grief, it looked to me as if she wanted to be anywhere but there.

In any case, young people in public schools deserve the right to be heard. Most cannot yet vote, but they can voice beliefs and opinions in other ways. Perhaps now is the time for students, who are the most affected by school shootings, to contribute their own ideas for change. Many, many adults, who have grown  buried to their knees in partisan tribalism, will hopefully be listening and get off their asses and realize that the scumbag leaders of the NRA are only interested in enriching their own ill-gotten gains, and replace the politicians under their control in November, regardless of Party affiliation.

And in case you thought I might have forgotten this jewel…Cheeto’s suggestion that teachers should be responsible for stopping unhinged teenagers with weapons of war is just about the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, (and considering the source (Trump) that’s saying a lot). If a gunman can walk into a military base like Fort Hood with 100% of the populace ‘highly trained” in firearms use, and still murder 13 people with a pistol, do you honestly think that 20% of teachers having a gun is going to stop the next crazed young white male with an AR-15? Gimme a f*cking break!

Harvey Gold