Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
The media and the public have tended to offer support for the teen protesters from Parkland, Florida, and other predominantly white communities. It’s been a different story for youth of color.
In the spring of 2016, African-American children as young as 11 marched in protest against the gun violence in their Miami neighborhood of Liberty City. The low-income area had lost 13 teens and children so far that year to guns. The kids demanded the right to play outside safely; they held signs and chanted slogans like “We want to live” and “We want to see another day.” Phillip Agnew, leader of the Florida-based Dream Defenders, a youth-led group fighting for racial justice, said the demonstration didn’t get much attention from the national media at the time.
Liberty City is about 40 miles from Parkland, Florida, site of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School two weeks ago. But it’s been hard not to notice the difference between how youth-led protests against gun violence in these two communities were received. Since the Parkland tragedy, the national news has been filled with the school’s student survivors, who rose up to protest school shootings and demand—in eloquent and defiant terms—tighter gun legislation. Across the country, teens have been walking out of class in solidarity, often standing together in silence for 17 minutes, one for each of Parkland’s victims. National walkouts are planned for March 14, the one-month anniversary of the shooting, and April 20, which will mark 19 years since the Columbine High School massacre.
Though some of the response to the young activists has been hostile—several Parkland students have received online death threats, and right-wing conspiracy theorists have accused them of being fake “crisis actors”—many other op-eds and think pieces have praised the student-led movement as a heroic moment of moral reckoning for a generation. Celebrities such as George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey have pledged to back the protesters, donating $500,000 each to help pay for the student-led March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on March 24.
Many school districts have also been supportive of the student efforts: At Missoula, Montana’s Hellgate High School, for example, principal Judson Miller stopped short of openly endorsing a walkout on February 21 by hundreds of students, but told staffers to use the protest as a “teachable moment.” In Wake County, North Carolina, where several high schools have seen student walkouts, schools communications director Lisa Luten told CityLab, “We respect the students’ right to protest. Our priority is supporting them and making sure they are safe.”
And for those schools that are threatening to punish student protesters, lawyers such as Jay Urban of Milwaukee are offering their services pro bono. “Perhaps lawyers can be pressure on school districts to do the right thing,” he said. Colleges and universities have issued statements noting that punishment for participation in peaceful protests will not affect high schoolers’ chances of admission.
In contrast, teens and adults of color have often faced very different responses when protesting gun violence. Indeed, while youth of color have been confronting the issue for years, the protests and actions associated with the Movement for Black Lives have often been criminalized, greeted with police repression and public scorn, or simply ignored.
Florida Governor Rick Scott, for instance, snubbed calls from the Dream Defenders to hold a special session on the state’s “stand your ground” law in 2013. The law removes the duty to retreat before using force in self-defense, and figured in the trial of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted of gunning down 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012. A group of Dream Defenders peacefully occupied the Florida state capitol in Tallahassee for 31 days to pressure the governor for the meeting, to no avail.
Parkland students, on the other hand, traveled to Tallahassee last week to meet with Florida lawmakers, including Governor Scott, and participate in a press conference at the capitol. They also interfaced with Florida Senator Marco Rubio and two Florida legislators in a town hall on CNN. Though the Florida legislature recently rejected a ban on assault rifles and advanced legislation on arming teachers, despite appeals from Parkland students, it also moved forward on imposing a three-day waiting period on gun purchases and raising the age to buy a gun from 18 to 21.
Many black scholars and activists are drawing attention to this stark contrast, while at the same time championing the Parkland students—and seeing the rise of their movement as an opportunity. Dream Defenders, for instance, has submitted a proposal to bring the young people from Liberty City and Parkland together at a town hall to talk about their trauma. Both communities have something to gain from collaboration. “The black teens haven’t been able to talk because there hasn’t been anyone to listen,” Agnew said. “And the students from Parkland haven’t been able to grieve because the public wants them to be spokespeople.”
As CityLab’s Brentin Mock reported back in 2015, this isn’t the first time that the “natural alliance” between largely white gun control groups and the Black Lives Matter activist community has been explored. For Agnew, the idea is both to create a larger and more formidable movement and to share with the Parkland teens and other young allies what youth of color have learned through their own activism.
“Dream Defenders trains young people to organize,” he said. “We want to show them how to do it bigger and more effectively.”