There has recently been a spark of student activism following the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida. This student activism culminated on March 24th with the March for Our Lives in Washington D.C. This march pushed the message of student safety from gun violence in schools and an increase in the regulation of assault weapons. Prior to the march, activists had staged walkouts, attempting to disrupt the schools and get their message across. While it is too early at this point to see the effectiveness of this activism, we as workers and some of us students also, wish to see peace and an end to such tragedies as what happened in Parkland.
The radical left has taken issue with the core member base and the platform of the movement. It is no secret that the movement is made up of mostly suburban white students and has in many places openly ignored the efforts of movements from working class communities that came before. While the students from Parkland have openly admitted their knowledge of their privilege and the double standard in the media, they have done little to fix it. The Stop Police Terror Project DC had released a statement during the march thanking the local Movement for Black Lives and Moms Demand Action for “…[ensuring] DC youth of color are included in the March for Our Lives”. This lack of action from the main organisers and many local organisations has confirmed many of our suspicions of the somewhat anti-working class nature of this bourgeois movement.
Megan Black and Olivia Mumma are two student activists in the Northern Virginia area. They both co-founded the group Save Our Students – NoVA (SOS – NoVA). While not being a primary force behind the march in DC, the group was formed out of the response to the tragedy in Parkland and the interview provided some much needed insight but, was not without its ambiguities.
The questions asked during the interview were mainly for probing into the platform of the movement at large. This included their responses to recent criticisms about the ignoring of working class movements before. However, it started with talk of tactics. This proved little more than a restating of basic tried and true methods that are not worth major concern. Both Black and Mumma did say that they have been using an increased amount of social media to reach out to students, a growing trend amongst political movements. Mumma also stated that instead of leaflets and flyers, they used business cards as handouts. The reasoning provided was, as Mumma put it, that “kids don’t want to look at things on the walls or read long posts on facebook”. This was interesting as it does show a way of simplifying agitation tactics that may have some value, although it is hardly an original concept. What can also be said is that in spite of the largely conservative population in the Northern Virginia area, they did mobilise many students (around 400) in a walkout. This is nothing to bat an eye at.
When probing into their platform, I found that it was very sparse. This is to be expected from a single-issue movement but, many of the questions asked were the first time they were being asked. These questions were important concerns the radical left and working people had about the movement. The first platform related question asked was whether or not the movement was pro-gun control or anti-gun violence. Black clarified that: “Nationally the movement is anti-gun violence… calling for education and gun safety”. She then said: “the movement that started out of Parkland (including SOS) is pro-gun control”. What was then interesting was a sort of separation of SOS from their organised walkouts. Black stated that “the walkouts were meant to be inclusive of people that had different stances on it” and just as “a gathering of those who wanted to make sure that nothing like Parkland ever happened again”. This “open forum” approach seems like a good concept but, skepticism arises when looking at how this movement has operated. SOS – NoVA has operated with the, albeit begrudging, support of the school administration and county school board. There have been no suspensions or major disciplinary actions. These walkouts, meant to be disruptions, have not been. The school has also publicly announced these walkouts, giving students a specific time to leave class. These school sanctioned walkouts while providing those who legitimately want to protest a safe way to do so, has also provided those not genuine with an excuse to leave classes. This “open forum” excuse seems like a way to inflate the numbers of legitimate walkout attendees. This probably coming from a realisation that their politics alone are not responsible for the large turnout.
They were then asked of the criticism that this recent movement has ignored the past movements of PoC, working class ones that came before it and how it has been able to get the attention they could never have dreamed of. Their responses seemed cognisant of that fact and wanting to bridge the divide. They admitted that they are, to quote both Black and Mumma,“privileged white kids walking out of school and being exalted”. Black also stated that it is “problematic that there are communities not being represented in the movement”. It was also mentioned how the Parkland students have tried “reaching out” to the Movement for Black Lives. However, what has been said by BLM and others is that this reaching out has been backed up by little to no action. Black students from the school in Parkland have been given very little coverage and this has yet to be addressed by many groups. The leadership of SOS – NoVA also has little to no representation of PoC communities within their ranks.
The last two questions asked were about the ties of far-right wing extremism to mass shootings and of their belief in American democracy’s effectiveness in pursuing change. In response to the question of right-wing extremism, Black said that it was “not a part of the platform we have discussed yet” also stating that they had not discussed most of their platform “until reporters started calling”. Showing a sort of unpreparedness. However, they did call right-wing extremism a “contributing factor” to many mass shootings which, is more of an answer than many would expect from groups like these. When asked about the ability of American “democracy” to allow radical change, Black, wearing a t-shirt from a congressional campaign, gave a typical answer. “To some extent but, maybe not radical change”. Black, a self-described socialist, stands by this statement and is active in congressional campaigns. Needless to say, not the typical behaviour of a socialist. Black then stated that “…we can try to elect people who are progressive and won’t necessarily be our enemies”. What congressmen she refers to as “not our enemies” is a mystery to most working people. Considering most will never be our friends. Also, who are suburban upper class students to say a congressman can represent working class interests? I would say they cannot and this represents an ignorance of the realities working people face.
In the end, it is hard to see these movements moving much more beyond what they currently are: suburban, upper middle class, white students walking out against guns without real knowledge of what that means. It is our hope as workers that this will change and some elements seem redeemable. Some seemed willing to rise above it and come to a realisation that working class interests need to be truly represented. Not just in words but, in action! Working people want to support this movement, just as we have always supported movements against violence in our communities. In the current form, this movement does not represent our interests and should not be given much more than passive support.