Students furious about school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and confronting the National Rifle Association and its political allies as they demand gun control laws with new urgency, are impressing an earlier generation of protesters who took to the streets 50 years ago.
As survivors of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School prepare to lead a march in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, veterans of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s are praising them for their quick mobilization and their fearlessness.
"I think they’re focused, and I think they’re creative," said Abe Peck, an editor at the underground newspaper, the Chicago Seed, in the 1960s and the author of "Uncovering the ‘60s: The Life and Times of the Underground Press." "They’ve also done something which all movements have to do, they’ve identified an enemy."
"They’re osmosing certain previous movements," he said.
Saturday’s March for Our Lives, in Washington, D.C., and smaller marches in every state in the nation come a little more than a month after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, a former student at at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, returned to the school and opened fire. As students and teachers hid in closets and huddled under desks, he killed 17 of his former schoolmates.
Almost immediately, the students upended what had become the accepted response to bloody school shootings: thoughts and prayers from politicians and others but no action on curbing the prevalence on guns in the United States. They debated the NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch at a televised town hall on CNN. One student, Cameron Kasky, 17, demanded Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio stop taking donations from the NRA. Another, David Hogg, also 17, told Bill Maher that he had hung up on the White House asking him to attend President Donald Trump’s listening session on gun violence. Trump needs to the screams of the students, Hogg said.
At a gun-control rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, days after the shooting, 18-year-old Emma Gonzalez, a senior at the school, vowed: "We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because … we are going to be the last mass shooting. Just like Tinker v. Des Moines, we are going to change the law."
Gonzalez was referring to Mary Beth Tinker and her older brother John, who when they were 13 and 15 in 1965 wore black armbands to school in Des Moines, Iowa, to protest the Vietnam War. They and other students were suspended when they refused to remove them.
With the help of the ACLU, they sued and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled 7-2 that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gates."
Mary Beth Tinker, now 65, said that she and the others were ordinary people living in extraordinary times just as the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas are. She predicted that their protests would be turning point in what the former nurse called an epidemic of gun violence.
"This issue has been percolating for awhile," said Tinker, who now speaks to students about the First Amendment and visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 2013 as part of a tour of schools. "It really started with Black Lives Matter and it’s just the mistreatment of young people has gotten to the breaking point. And it’s good that young people are turning their grief into action and they’re also joining together across racial divides and economic divides and that’s very exciting to see."
Their activism isn’t coming in a vacuum, said Angus Johnston, a history professor at the City University of New York who specializes in student activism.
"We’re seeing a tremendous upsurge of student protest and youth activism and generally lots of people in the streets and organizing and running for office and taking action in all sorts of ways," he said.
Many of the Florida students are in Jeff Foster’s AP government class and had been studying the NRA even before the shooting. They consciously used the protests of the 1960s as a model, they say.
The junior-class president, 17-year-old Jaclyn Corin, told the liberal political podcast "Pod Save America" this week that they were following the example of students from the Vietnam War era and especially Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence.
"We are peacefully protesting," she said. "That’s what the school walkout encompassed. That’s what the march is going to be like. And we’re just not fighting fire with fire, we’re fighting the NRA with the hopeful voices of the generation that’s going to soon be the core power of America."
Sixty-six percent of Americans want stricter gun laws, a Quinnipiac University poll released Feb. 20 found, the highest level since it started asking about the topic after the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Support jumped almost 20 points since 2015. Sixty-seven percent polled wanted a ban on assault-style weapons.
The students want assault weapons banned, the sale of high-capacity magazines prohibited and background checks to be required for all sales at gun shows and online.
They are prominent on Twitter and Facebook and other social media, and it’s where they take on the NRA and call out trolls who try to falsely label them actors not survivors.
When the NRA posted a video featuring Loesch flipping an hourglass and warning “every lying member of the media” and “every Hollywood phony” that their time was running out, 16-year-old Sarah Chadwick struck back with a spoof. She mocked Loesch in her own video, with her own hourglass. “To every spokeswoman with an hourglass who uses their free speech to alter and undermine what our flag represents,” Chadwick said, “your time is running out.”
Peck chronicled the earlier decade of upheaval, from the Summer of Love in San Francisco and the Pentagon demonstration in 1967, to the Democratic Convention in Chicago the following year, when police outside clashed violently with protesters. These students are non-violent and "just so smart and so organized," he said. The question will be whether they can keep it up.
"The war was a root canal for us, year after year," Peck said. "What happens when the seniors graduate? What happens when ordinary life takes over? Obviously this was a life changing event for many of these kids but can they sustain it?"
Bill Zimmerman, an anti-war activist who helped lead the Indochina Peace Campaign and Medical Aid for Indochina, said both groups were motivated by public policies that put their lives at risk.
The earliest anti-war demonstrators were driven by moral objections, but young people joined in massive numbers after the number of men drafted into military service surged in 1966 to more than 380,000, he said.
"And it helped create a movement that eventually had a major impact on the public policy that before had only been addressed by people concerned with morality," he said. "So there may be a parallel today, because these kids are not dealing with gun control as an abstract issue. They’re dealing with it in terms of their own safety."
The students successfully organized a school walkout on March 14, a month to the day of the shooting, when students left their classrooms by thousands in cities across the country, sometimes defying authorities as they did. They pushed Florida lawmakers to pass modest but unprecedented new gun control laws, the first in the state in two decades, raising the age to buy all firearms to 21 and restricting gun access to people who show signs of mental illness or violence, among them.
Looking forward, they plan another walkout for April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, and will try to vote out opponents to gun control in the midterm elections.
Dawson Barrett is an assistant professor of U.S. history at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, and the author of "Teenage Rebels: Successful High School Activists, from the Little Rock Nine to the Class of Tomorrow." High school students have been a part of every one of the country’s movements, but what is new now is the size of the protests.
"I think we are very likely witnessing what are almost certainly the largest protests by high school students in U.S. history," he said.
To be effective, he said, students have to recruit adult allies, which this group has done from organizations urging gun control.
"If they want to play a role in the fall elections, they’re going to have to maintain momentum after this weekend and after the April 20 walkout and how they do that, I don’t have those answers," he said. "But that’s going to be so important.
Zimmerman, now a partner in Zimmerman & Markman, a national political consulting firm based in Santa Monica, said that to keep attention on their issue, the students will have to address the public policy questions seriously but also take actions that could involve civil disobedience and offend some people.
"The stakes for some kids are going to be life and death so the kids of action they take need to comparatively militant and dramatic and forceful," he said.
It is hard to know whether their protests will explode into a national movement or fizzle, he said. The gun control laws they convinced Florida lawmakers to pass, though limited, were enormous symbolically, he said.
"So the elements are there," he said. "It hasn’t happened yet but the elements are definitely there for this thing to turn into a major national mass movement."