During the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City in 2011, there was a man who appeared regularly with a sign, painted in black block letters on a white painter’s canvas, that read, “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.” At first glance it felt lazily ironic, directionless, representative of the disorganization that was so often read into (and occasionally true of) the movement. But it was also appropriate. Everything was a mess, and to list all the things that needed changing on one canvas would have taken many more yards and smaller print. Rather, “shit is fucked up and bullshit” became shorthand for the need for systemic change.
I heard that echo in Emma Gonzalez’s now-famous “We call BS!” speech calling for greater gun control, not just because of the word choice, but because it got at a more overarching grievance. These student activists, who led March For Our Lives rallies this weekend in Washington, D.C., and across the nation, are protesting a lack of gun control and a dysfunctional democracy where the so-called adults in the room are doing nothing to stop mass gun violence. They are either defending the way things are, or are actively making the status quo worse on a range of issues that go beyond a strict definition of gun violence but tie back to that issue—health care, racism, income inequality, and wars of adventure in the name of making America great again.
The March For Our Lives was a declaration that the status quo is intolerable. Like the Women’s March that greeted Donald Trump’s inauguration, it was representative of what political theorist Jodi Dean called a “mobilized middle.” These protesters may not have joined the movement for Black Lives, or gone to an Occupy encampment, or participated in the new Poor People’s Campaign. But, particularly since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, they too have begun to realize the need for dramatic change.
While the Women’s March felt in some ways like a defense of the pre-Trump state of things, which would have presumably continued under Hillary Clinton if she had won, this march felt bolder, broader, presenting demands that went beyond the bounds of pre-2016 politics.
The specific demands are still in flux. One set of demands was released by a group of Parkland students who were given control over The Guardian’s U.S. website for the weekend, and drew some immediate concern from organizers and experts. The proposals included more funding for mental health research and professionals—a laudable goal, but it came with the recommendation that privacy laws be amended to give police more access to mental health records. These demands, mental health professionals and longtime anti-violence activists noted, would do more to stigmatize people with mental illness and expand the reach of over-powerful police departments than to stop gun violence. Black organizers also noted that for many students school already feels like a prison, with metal detectors and armed police—none of which has stopped or slowed gun violence. As Douglas Williams noted, “the only thing that more school resource officers will do is reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline.”
These flaws were in many ways a function of privilege, but also of time—these activists, who have only been organizing for a month, are still learning, and so the answers they reach for are often those already on offer from a variety of gun control organizations. But these were not the only demands being made. From stages around the country, a different vision of a world without gun violence was on offer.
In Washington, D.C., teen organizer Edna Chavez spoke of learning to duck bullets in L.A. before she learned to read, and of the death of her brother to a bullet.* She had sharp words for the treatment of students like her on the south side of the city. “Arming teachers will not work. More security in our schools does not work. Zero tolerance policies do not work. They make us feel like criminals,” she said. “Instead of police officers we should have a department specializing in restorative justice. We need to tackle the root causes of the issues we face and come to an understanding of how to resolve them.” She called instead for paid internships and job opportunities for young people.
Eleven-year-old Naomi Wadler of Alexandria, Virginia, speaking also in Washington, D.C., declared that her thoughts were her own, that she was not “a tool of some nameless adult,” when she called out the lack of attention to the deaths of black women “whose stories don’t make the front page of every newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.” Wadler, who had organized a walkout in her elementary school, remembered Courtlin Arrington, Hadiya Pendleton, and others by name. “We know that life isn’t equal for everyone and we know what is right and wrong,” she said.
Wadler’s concern for girls was echoed in the signs carried by many marchers in different locations around the country: “My uterus is more regulated than guns in this country,” and “girls’ clothing in schools is more regulated than guns in America”—nods not just to what politicians feel is more worthy of their time, but also to the link between guns and masculinity and the issue of control. Several signs also asked where the so-called “pro-lifers” were.
In Boston, elementary school teacher Nino Brown called for a moment of silence for Stephon Clark, killed by Sacramento police on March 18. “All of my students come from working class communities that are plagued by violence. All of my people, oppressed people, colonized people are sick and tired of being ignored by those who are in power,” he said. His community, he said, was being “suffocated” by segregation, redlining, underfunding. “In a word, we can’t breathe,” he said, echoing the last words of Eric Garner, killed by the New York Police Department.
He added, “Teachers and community members are rising up and speaking out against this system that continues to put profits above people—and we know the NRA loves their profits. We the teachers demand that all of our children be able to attend schools that are fully funded with wraparound services to help students deal with the trauma and help mitigate that violence.”
Trevon Bosley of Chicago also called for greater funding for schools and work programs. “When you have a city that feels we need more Divvy bikes in downtown Chicago for tourists rather than more funding for workforce programs that get guys off the streets real jobs, you have gun violence,” he said. “It’s time for the nation to realize that gun violence is more than a Chicago problem or a Parkland problem but it’s an American problem. It’s time to care about all communities equally.”
Those demands are not as simple as “ban assault rifles.” But with a government that sees “ban assault rifles” as impossible anyway, why not, these marchers ask, aim higher? Calls for “common-sense gun control,” a phrase often used but rarely explicated, have not worked. They did not bring hundreds of thousands into the streets. Instead, what brought so many people out was an expansive movement that made space for the possibility that real change is more than a tweak here, a nip there. It was a movement calling for a new common sense, capable of bringing radical-seeming ideas into the mainstream.
*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Edna Chavez delivered her speech from Los Angeles. It was Washington, D.C. We regret the error.