How the #NeverAgain Movement Is Disrupting Gun Politics

How the #NeverAgain Movement Is Disrupting Gun Politics

How the #NeverAgain Movement Is Disrupting Gun Politics

The gun-control movement has never been able to talk about race—until now.


Two days before the March for Our Lives drew as many as 800,000 demonstrators to Pennsylvania Avenue, students at Thurgood Marshall Academy in southeast Washington held their own rally in the school gymnasium. “Living in DC, it’s easy to be in a bubble. We live in the nation’s capital. There’s the monuments, the statues, the memorials, and all of that,” Jayla Holdip told her classmates. “But we need our stories to be heard. It should not be normal for everybody in this room to be affected by gun violence.”

In 2016, 77 percent of all homicides in Washington, DC, were committed with a gun, and Thurgood Marshall is located in one of the most dangerous zip codes in the city. In the past two years, the Sixth and Seventh Police Districts, which cover the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, recorded 154 homicides and 829 assaults with a deadly weapon in which a gun was used. By comparison, the Second Police District, which encompasses a geographical area about as large as the Sixth and Seventh combined but also has a richer and whiter population, saw just five homicides and 37 gun assaults over the same period.

“Gun violence is an issue that our DC community and other cities have experienced for generations. Although we personally have not experienced a school shooting, we know the destruction of guns all so well,” said Zion Kelly when it was his turn to speak. At the beginning of the school year, Kelly’s twin brother Zaire, also a Thurgood Marshall student, had been shot and killed on the way home from a college-prep class. He was 16. In January, Paris Brown, a junior, was shot to death less than two miles away—the second person in a school of fewer than 400 students to be killed with a gun since the school year began.

Murders in this part of the city, much less meetings of student activists, aren’t normally headline news. But that day, two risers full of news cameras were on hand to record the rally. “To these cameras,” said one of the students, Aaron Woods, staring directly at the camera to the laughter of his classmates, “and these government officials who we’re trying to reach—yeah, we’re looking for y’all.”

The cameras were there because some of the now-famous students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, had come to join the rally. They didn’t waste any time noting the irony. “We’ve seen again and again the media focus on school shootings, and oftentimes be biased towards white, privileged students,” said David Hogg, one of the most visible Parkland survivors. “Many of these communities are disproportionately affected by gun violence, but they don’t get the same share of media attention that we do.”

Hogg’s admonition wasn’t immediately absorbed by at least some of the media people present that day—when Hogg had to depart early, a good number of the camera crews followed him into the hallway, even as the Thurgood Marshall students were still speaking. But the Parkland survivors and other youth leaders of #NeverAgain have made it clear that they’re aiming to build a movement that’s multiracial and inclusive—one that addresses gun violence everywhere, not just in suburban schools and movie theaters. In so doing, they are trying to eliminate one of the central paradoxes of our gun-control debate: While a disproportionate number of the victims of gun violence are black, most mainstream gun-control advocacy is conducted by white people, and the subjects of race and racial inequality have, for the most part, gone unbroached.

The contemporary gun-control movement was essentially born again after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in late 2012. Until that point, politicians very rarely talked about new gun laws. Even when a gunman killed 12 people and injured 70 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, right in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign, then–President Barack Obama refused to call for any new legislation.

Then Newtown happened. Six adults and 20 children, all between 6 and 7 years old, were massacred in 11 minutes by a 20-year-old shooter wielding a semiautomatic rifle and two handguns. In the shock and outrage that followed, several new gun-control groups were born: Americans for Responsible Solutions, now called Giffords after its founder, Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot in 2011, and Everytown for Gun Safety, which is funded by Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman and former New York City mayor, and which absorbed Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action. The first real gun-control push in decades revolved around the 2013 bill proposed by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), which would have expanded background checks for gun purchases and heightened gun-trafficking penalties. It failed to get the necessary 60 votes in the Senate.

These post-Newtown groups genuinely care about gun violence in the inner city, and the policies they’re advocating really would help: Background checks and tighter enforcement against so-called straw purchasers would stem the flow of handguns into big cities, where they are overwhelmingly responsible for most of the violence. (In Chicago, for example, over 90 percent of the guns recovered at crime scenes were handguns, and in 95 percent of the cases where police could identify the possessor, that person was not the first purchaser of the gun.) But in the same way that the opioid epidemic suddenly focused national attention on the pointless, punitive nature of the War on Drugs only after the crack-cocaine epidemic had ravaged cities and exploded the prison population, the political space for gun legislation didn’t truly open up until white kids in the suburbs started becoming victims, too.

Shaped by this political context, the post-Newtown gun groups are, at their core, small-C conservative. They emphasize soccer moms who want to protect their children, or law-enforcement officers who think the streets have become too dangerous, or veterans who believe weapons of war should not be used by civilians. They also haven’t been able to get hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets—preferring an inside game of slow consensus building with lawmakers and taking small legislative wins where they can.

Yet during almost exactly the same period that these post-Newtown groups took off, in what often seemed like a universe parallel to the Newtowns and Auroras, a vibrant, youth-led, anti-racist movement against police and vigilante shootings was rising up across the country. “We’ve been marching. We’ve been rallying. We’ve been saying our chants and our calls for justice,” said Samantha Johnson, co-chair of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, which formed in response to Trayvon Martin’s death. “We, as activists, understand the ebb and flow of how society views individuals in certain communities of color. We understand that.”

The #NeverAgain movement is poised to bring these two streams together. “It’s important, as people of the American society and people in the media, [that we] recognize this inequality and that we work to solve it,” said Hogg. “First, though, we must call it out, and we must call it for what it is, and that’s racial bias towards us and many other people that’s not only in the media, but that’s in our society, too, as a whole.”

The March for Our Lives rally featured several speakers of color who drew specific, sustained attention to the toll that gun violence takes in inner cities. It wasn’t just a pro forma checking of that box, but a central part of the movement that the students are trying to build. Edna Chavez told the crowd in DC about her brother, killed by a gun in Los Angeles. “My brother, he was in high school when he passed away. It was a day like any other day. Sunset going down on South Central. You hear pops thinking they’re fireworks. They weren’t pops. You see the melanin in your brother’s skin turn gray.” Sixteen-year-old Mya Middleton described having a gun stuck in her face in Chicago. “He said, ‘If you say anything, I will find you.’ And yet, I’m still saying something today.” And the star of the rally, who created perhaps its most viral moment, was Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old from Virginia. “I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential,” she said. “For far too long, these black girls and women have been just numbers. I am here to say ‘Never again!’ for those girls too.”

These kids are disrupting politics as usual in other ways as well. #NeverAgain’s key tactical innovation has been to call bullshit on the country’s broken dialogue around guns—that’s literally one of the movement’s slogans. “We call BS,” Parkland student Emma González declared in the speech that helped jump-start the movement. “Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS.”

That’s an explicit rebuke to the National Rifle Association’s tired talking points, but also an implicit repudiation of the cautious incrementalism that has characterized the post-Newtown gun-control movement. When the Las Vegas shooting happened last October—the deadliest mass shooting in the United States—there was no federal policy response except for a clarification of federal rules that may ban bump stocks, which allow semiautomatic guns to operate at nearly an automatic rate of fire. The youth leaders of #NeverAgain are much more maximalist in their views and straightforwardly unafraid to reject small-scale compromises as insufficient. “When they give us that inch, that bump-stock ban, we will take a mile,” said Delaney Tarr, one of the Parkland survivors, at the rally. This radicalism—or, some might say, utopianism—is rooted in a strange mix of youthful confidence that all the world’s problems can be solved, and a horrendous and very adult experience with flying bullets and bloodshed. “Talking to politicians, they’re always gonna try to talk around in circles and say that you’re wrong because of X, Y, and Z. But that’s not true. They don’t know what it’s like to be 20 feet from an AR-15,” Alfonso Calderon, a 16-year-old Parkland student, told the crowd at Thurgood Marshall. “They don’t know what it’s like to have somebody that you love die because of laws that are inadequate. And it’s heartbreaking. They’re presenting ideas that aren’t solutions—they’re bandages to stab wounds. It’s just not gonna work.”

The Parkland students have not been afraid to frame the gun problem in stark moral terms—without worrying about the discourse police. “It just makes me think: What sick fuckers are out there that want to sell more guns, murder more children, and, honestly, just get reelected?” Hogg vented in an interview with The Outline earlier this month. “What type of person are you, when you want to see more fucking money than children’s lives? What type of shitty person does that?”

All of this has thrown pro-gun politicians and activists off their game. At the heart of their panic is the notion that the passion gap that has long characterized the gun debate—one in which, for example, 21 percent of gun owners contact a public official to express an opinion on gun policy, versus 12 percent of non–gun owners—may be suddenly, and resoundingly, closing.

The NRA’s Twitter account fell silent on the day of the march, an occurrence usually reserved only for the hours after a mass shooting, when the NRA feels that its advocacy would do more harm than good. On Fox News, as footage rolled of a massive, energetic march expanding the terms of the gun-control debate by the minute, the network’s “young” talking heads criticized the event in boilerplate terms, deploying the shibboleth that armed guards were present at the rally, so guns must de facto be good. (In fact, the only armed guards I saw during the march in Washington were DC police officers.)

There has also been a pervasive effort on the right to discredit the Parkland kids as simply not real. Naturally, some prominent conservatives dubbed them mere pawns of George Soros. The hugely popular blog RedState ran a long post after the march in which the author claimed to have discovered that Hogg wasn’t even at school during the shooting. (He was; RedState retracted the entire post with one long strike-through, but blamed a “confusing” CBS report.) After the march, a photoshopped video of González ripping up the Constitution flew around right-wing Twitter accounts and blogs. (In the actual video, she was tearing up a shooting-range target.)

In the days following the Parkland shooting, as the student survivors were becoming household names, the top trending video on YouTube purported to show that some of the kids were actually “crisis actors,” part of some inscrutable mega-plot to confiscate everyone’s guns. (YouTube was forced to remove the video after an outcry.) Normally the purview of niche conspiracy cranks like Alex Jones, the crisis-actor theory was spread by a Florida legislator’s aide, who was later fired, and reached all the way to Donald Trump Jr., who “liked” posts about it on Twitter. Hogg, one of the main targets of these charges, had to go on CNN to publicly declare: “I’m not a crisis actor—I’m somebody that had to witness this and live through this, and I continue to have to do that.”

Many adults simply cannot accept that high-school kids are sick and tired of mass shootings in their schools, nor that their moral outrage is real. “The fact that these people refuse to believe that something like this could happen is something that all of us don’t want to believe,” Hogg said on CNN. “But the sad truth is that it is.”

It seems clear that in the weeks since the Parkland shooting, the student survivors have been winning their battles. Whether they win the war depends a lot on how this movement evolves and is able to channel the energy of the streets into actual changes to gun policy.

So far, the results have been mixed. In the wake of the shooting, the notoriously gun-friendly, Republican-controlled Florida Legislature did pass a raft of new gun laws: It raised the minimum age for gun purchases to 21, created a three-day waiting period for sales, and banned bump stocks. But it left out most of the Parkland students’ key demands: banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and expanding background checks. The adults of the gun-control movement haven’t cracked that particularly tough nut either—but the kids have, in a way, taken on a much larger task, by very publicly putting on the mantle of solving inner-city gun violence, too.

If you live in a wealthy suburban neighborhood where crime is low and the schools are good, and somebody shoots up the local shopping center, the policy solution is simple: Get rid of the guns, and life can resume happily after that. In the country’s largest urban areas—which have less than one-tenth of the US population but more than one-fifth of the country’s gun violence—shootings are the final coda to a tragic story of economic segregation, terrible educational options, over-incarceration, and a flourishing underground drug trade.

And some of the proposals that accompany gun-control legislation, such as increased criminal penalties and heightened policing, have the potential to harm people of color more than they would help. When Florida legislators passed their post-Parkland measures, they included more law enforcement inside schools and made searches of students much easier. “It’s bad enough we have to return with clear backpacks,” said Kai Koerber, a black student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, speaking to reporters recently. “Should we also return with our hands up?”

While reducing the number of illegal guns flowing into big cities has been a priority of community activists’ for decades, it’s far from the only one, and complex demands will lead to an even more complex political strategy for achieving the fundamental goal: that Americans should be able to live free of the fear of being killed in their neighborhoods or schools.

Black Americans worry about gun violence by a much larger percentage than do either white or Latino voters, and therefore are likely to support drastic solutions. A new, intersectional gun-control movement can thus expand the political base agitating for change. But it might also find itself in a trap in which gun violence can’t be solved until racism and inequality are, too; it might fail thanks to the bigotry of incredibly high expectations.

Reconciling sky-high dreams with the realities on the ground is the very definition of growing up. And the Parkland survivors will grow up alongside their movement. We don’t know where it will go yet, but could anyone else have started it and disrupted decades of bullshit about guns?

“People believe that the youth of this country are insignificant,” said Parkland student Alex Wind during the rally. “People believe that the youth have no voice. I say that we were the only people who could have made this movement possible.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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