This spring marks 19 years since the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. American adults could have – and should have – addressed this problem then, before the 14 students who were recently murdered at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were even born. Where adults have failed repeatedly, and many have simply given up, the youth are now leading the charge.
On March 14, high school students all over the United States will walk out of class to mark the one month anniversary of the shootings at Stoneman Douglas. Additional days of protest are planned for March 24 and April 20 — the latter being the anniversary of the shootings at Columbine.
Following the righteous fury of Stoneman Douglas survivors Emma González, David Hogg, Jaclyn Corwin, Cameron Kasky and others (and building on the networks and expertise of existing organizations such as Everytown for Gun Safety), a nationwide, youth-led movement for gun reform is emerging under the social media hashtag “Never Again.”
There have already been walkouts and other protests at high schools and middle schools in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and elsewhere. The movement is growing.
Whether these protests will lead to real change is not yet clear. Young people have very little formal political power. They do not have the money to rival big donors, and they are a terribly ineffective voting bloc.
Many cannot vote, and those who can do not do so in large numbers. However, teenagers have other strengths, the greatest of which may be a blatant disrespect for the status quo.
In this case, they have refused to accept the prevailing wisdom that the National Rifle Association is an invincible bedrock of American political life. They have rejected as foolish older generations’ assurances that there is nothing that can be done to reduce gun violence in this country.
Teenagers have been on the front lines of every major U.S. social movement in the last century. Through protest, high school students have succeeded in changing dress codes, desegregating schools and businesses, ending bans on dancing, and forcing the firing (or re-hiring) of teachers, coaches and principals.
They have won multiple U.S. Supreme Court cases. They have even toppled governments.
In 1936, students in Alameda, California walked out of class to demand the re-instatement of their recently fired superintendent, William Paden. The city’s mayor, after initially threatening to declare martial law, caved and brought Paden back. The teens won, and their victory inspired other high schoolers, setting off a minor high school strike wave across the country. The mayor’s administration, meanwhile, collapsed amid a series of scandals.
In 1950, the mayor of New York City was so frightened by a citywide high school student strike that he ordered City Hall to be defended by more than a hundred police officers (25 of them on horseback), as well as FBI agents.
The students’ demand was a raise for their teachers, and they eventually won it.
Stoneman Douglas student Emma González has publicly referenced the young people of Des Moines, Iowa, who — by protesting the Vietnam War — established student free speech rights with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines decision. A walkout by high school students was integral to an even more famous U.S. Supreme Court case as well — Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
But protest alone did not create these victories. Protests only work when they apply pressure on the powerful.
For youth movements, success has generally hinged on young people’s abilities to split the adult coalitions aligned against them. They have had to isolate their opponents by attracting adult allies to their cause: parents against the principal, principals and teachers against the schoolboard, parents and lawyers against legislatures, etc.
In Alameda, the students won in large part because they made common cause with adults who were already angry with Mayor Hans Roebke for their own reasons. This alliance brought positive newspaper coverage for their strike, additional pressure on city hall from recall petitions, and a fundraising dance — for strike supplies — hosted by a local hotel.
More famously, in 1957, nine black high school students desegregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas by repeatedly putting their own lives in danger, creating a public relations nightmare that prompted President Dwight Eisenhower (and the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army) to intervene on their behalf against the state’s segregationist governor, Orval Faubus.
Just as those students undercut the authority of Gov. Faubus and of Mayor Roebke, #NeverAgain is trying to isolate the NRA. For example they are using the heightened platform of the moment to pressure companies that either have traditionally offered perks to NRA members (such as Delta Airlines, Hertz and Avis), or that must balance the financial benefits of unrestricted gun sales against the possibility of boycotts of their other products (such as Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Fred Meyer and L.L. Bean).
If these efforts continue, they could undermine one of the NRA’s major public strategies — using mainstream associations to legitimize its fringe positions and normalize its dangerous agenda.
#NeverAgain youth activists have also tried to pressure politicians directly, including the Florida legislature, President Donald Trump, and Sen. Marco Rubio, whose obvious national ambitions may make him especially vulnerable. Thus far, they have had little success. This may have to be a task for adults, who can provide the money and votes that youth cannot. Companies such as Walmart willingly implementing some of the most popular reforms, such as age restrictions and bans on specific weapons, could make legislation more palatable, though they could just as likely end up strengthening the argument that regulation is not necessary.
To win, #NeverAgain will have to continue to ramp up pressure on the NRA and its backers, and gain allies among responsible and knowledgeable gun owners. The movement will have to create division between Republican voters and NRA-backed candidates and, as importantly, between the NRA and other major conservative donors. Activists will ultimately have to force a political realignment that convinces the Democratic Party to take a meaningful stand on the issue.
There is a real danger, however, that the NRA will be able to capture the narrative and capitalize on this crisis, furthering its goal of arming everyone, without restriction — beginning with school teachers.
For now, #NeverAgain is gaining momentum and attracting both support and ire from the nation’s adults. School administrators in Waukesha, Wisconsin; Somerset County, Maine; and Needville, Texas, for example, have issued stern warnings against student protests. On the other side, dozens of U.S. colleges and universities have offered statements of support, promising that punishment for protesting would not negatively impact students’ chances for admission.
The upcoming student days of action, paired with other issues impacting public education, should force the issue into the spotlight even further — compelling Americans of all ages and political stripes to choose a side.
The youth leading this nationwide charge follow in the footsteps of more than a century of teenage rebels, from the Uprising of the 20,000 that challenged sweatshop working conditions in 1909, to the Chicano Blow-Outs of 1968, to the Gay-Straight Alliances of the last few decades.
#NeverAgain activists are also beneficiaries of a protest culture that has been hard-fought and sustained more recently by the Sanctuary/DACA movement, #MeToo and the Women’s March, Standing Rock, the Movement for Black Lives, and K-12 teachers’ strikes in West Virginia and elsewhere. All of these, as it happens, have included the participation of high school students.
How these many movements together make common cause — and identify shared structural and individual opponents — will be of the utmost importance if this is to become an effective mass movement.
That question will depend not just on what the youth do in the next few months, but also on how responsible adults react — on whether they decide to leave the sidelines.
Dawson Barrett is assistant professor of U.S. History at Del Mar College. He is the author of “Teenage Rebels: Successful High School Activists, from the Little Rock Nine to the Class of Tomorrow” (Microcosm Publishing, 2015) and “The Defiant: Protest Movements in Post-Liberal America” (New York University Press, May 2018).