The emergent student mobilizations against gun violence could potentially grow into a social movement capable of fundamentally changing the gun violence and militarism that pervades American society and culture. However, to do so, they will have to take up the ways that Black people are disproportionately impacted by these phenomena.
A look at the significant differences in how the student mobilizations against gun violence are being greeted compared to the Black insurgency of Black Lives Matter is a productive place to start — it’s important to take stock of why these two mobilizations of young people have been viewed differently. The Black uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement exposed the racism and brutality of American society that the political establishment always works so hard to shroud.
Many of those who participated in the rebellions and went on to be active in the movement had their “Parkland moment” in 2007 and 2008, when young Black people flocked to the polls to put Barack Obama in the White House. Those young Black voters had also experienced the shock of government futility when the Bush administration allowed Black New Orleans to drown, and when Bush facilitated the implosion of the domestic economy that resulted in their parents’ homes being foreclosed and their jobs lost. The record turnout for Obama in 2008 and 2012 was rooted in a belief that our institutions should and could work to improve the lives of ordinary Americans. But when Obama stood by passively while the status quo continued — including the state murders of Oscar Grant, Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner and Mike Brown — young Black people erupted in protest. In doing so, they revealed the interrelated spokes of Black oppression in the US: racism, militarism, poverty and inequality. In doing so they exposed what Martin Luther King, Jr., in an earlier period referred to as the “systemic rather than superficial flaws,” in US society.
The emergence of the anti-gun student mobilizations has, for the first time, given the liberal establishment a sense that Trump as president is vulnerable.
Of even more consequence, young Black people went into rebellion with a Black man as president. The Black movement in the twilight of Barack Obama’s presidency exposed the duplicity, cravenness and callousness of American politics and in doing so it undermined the US’s role as a global moral authority. Black Lives Matter in the midst of the Obama era highlighted the limits of government when it comes to actually making Black lives matter. But those contradictions resonated most loudly at home as the Black movement has always done historically. As historian Nancy MacLean has argued:
Because the United States had confined African Americans so long to the bottom of the social order and built so much of its culture on rationalizing the violation of its stated ideals, as their struggle gained momentum, it upset every location in the hierarchy. The very identity of whites was built on their notion of Blacks: to unsettle that was to bring into question their self-conceptions as well.
Black movements are never popular, because they reveal the ugly underbelly of American history and society. Even liberals, who recoil from what they perceive to be the “imperfections” of US society, often reject the systemic critiques that arise from the struggles of working class and poor Black movements and thus, they end up calling for patience, pragmatism and incrementalism. They seek to contain the struggle as opposed to generalizing and expanding it.
Conversely, the students at Parkland and beyond have been welcomed with open arms. Their protests have inspired genuine expressions of solidarity and admiration from a wide range of people — admiration at the courage and strength of young people confronting their mortality and the intransigent madness of American politics. The protesters have also received significant support from members of the liberal elite, some of whom are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the organizing efforts.
Liberal Establishment Support for the Parkland Students
The liberal establishment is quite happy to support anything that embarrasses Trump, just as much as its representatives were loathe to support anything that threatened to embarrass Obama. Black Lives Matter activists were chastised for not having a list of demands, for the absence of a charismatic leader, and for many activists’ refusal to endorse Democratic Party politicians such as Hillary Clinton, while only receiving vague promises of reform. Of course, the Democratic Party was hamstrung by years of having advanced a program of law-and-order based on the most grotesque and coarse caricatures of African Americans as criminals. From Al Gore’s original invocation of “Willie Horton” to Bill Clinton’s crime bill to Hillary Clinton’s racist dog whistle of “super predator” — the Democratic Party had remade itself with racial codes and innuendo barely distinguishable from the rhetoric of the openly racist Republican Party. Black Lives Matter activists infuriated the political status quo as activists interrupted Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton with demands to account for the party’s complicity in racist policing and a plea for clear promises.
We should not confuse the racial politics of the media with the racial politics of the students.
But with the Democrats out of power, the liberal establishment is no longer quite as concerned with activist decorum and reasonableness. Its members are encouraging protests, ponying up big money and hoping to reap the electoral benefits.
But beyond these issues, the emergence of the anti-gun student mobilizations has, for the first time, given the liberal establishment a sense that Trump as president is vulnerable. Trump has been impervious to liberal establishment attacks that have centered on his immorality, boorishness and rank corruption. The failure of any of these attacks to adhere reflects the low expectations among the electorate concerning the behavior of elected officials. It also shows the cynicism with which the public regards the Democratic Party’s convenient shock with Trump while ignoring their own party crises.
The anti-gun mobilizations have foregrounded grieving teenagers and their righteous anger with the Republican stooges of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The student protests have also exposed the undemocratic ways in which the NRA controls the public narrative on guns to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in the form of campaign donations and other allotments.
While public protests of students have pushed these issues to the center of American political discourse, the students have also emphasized the need to vote, the midterm elections, lobbying and engagement with the political process. The Democratic Party establishment, which since the election has failed to capture the imagination of its electoral base, must be enthused by the activation and sudden political engagement of thousands of young people. Thus far, it has made the student mobilizations safe to encourage and support. The demands of the students, such as background checks and an assault weapons ban, have been broad and in step with large public majorities.
Radicals and activists shouldn’t abandon the young people coming into political consciousness.
The students in Florida have also encountered the intransigence of government that is girded by NRA money. As the Florida legislature passed legislation to regulate pornography, it remained opposed to entertaining even debate about guns. Students who fully expected the momentum of events, fueled by grief and anger, to penetrate the closed circle of their elected representatives received their first lesson in American governance: The will of the majority is rarely reflected in public policy.
Indeed, given what feels like the impossibility of passing any gun reform, the public might be surprised to know that enormous polled majorities support significant reform to American gun laws. Even though 87 percent of Americans support a ban on assault weapons, Congress refuses to even entertain the possibility. Realities such as these speak centrally to how corporate money and a politically connected gun lobby have much more control over our politics than the desires of the public itself.
The Potential for the Student Movement to Reach Beyond Liberal Goals
If the student-led anti-gun mobilizations flower into a social movement, they will inevitably force a deeper engagement with the causes of violence and the proliferation of guns, as well as the toxic masculinity that often expresses itself in gun violence. When those discussions emerge, they will be hard to confine to “solutions” like simply banning this or that weapon or universal background checks.
As those discussions develop, so too, will fissures in the student movement between those who wish to continue to see reform of the law as an end to itself and those who come to see the “systemic flaws” of a terribly violent society. And when those young people wind their visceral anger and fears into an analysis that identifies a society founded on genocide and enriched through the enslavement of Black people and the economic exploitation of tens of millions of migrants, they will discover that guns, violence, racism and war are the blood, guts and sinew that bind this nation together. For some, it’s an analysis that will change them, and that too will change the universal love and adoration they are currently experiencing from rich liberals.
We are at the very beginning of this social awakening. Let’s encourage its development.
It would also be dishonest not to say that the fresh faces of young, white and middle-class teenagers have made them the objects of sympathy instead of the objects of scrutiny and scorn. Remember, the quickness with which Trayvon Martin was demonized, how Mike Brown Jr. was scorned as “no angel,” and that President Obama and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake referred to the Black youngsters of Baltimore as thugs. Black children are rarely afforded the compassion and empathy reserved for white children. After all, this is why civil rights activists in Mississippi wanted white students to participate in Freedom Summer in the 1960s, knowing full well that their deaths would garner attention and resources that the deaths of young Black people would not.
At the same time, it is important to say that we should not confuse the racial politics of the media with the racial politics of the students. These young people, after all, have grown up in the Black Lives Matter era. In a Black Youth Project poll taken in 2014, only 41 percent of white youth believed that the “American legal system treats all equally.” This isn’t to minimize the depth of racism throughout this country, but it is to allow for the possibility that young white people have been paying attention over the last several years and have absorbed some of the critical lessons brought to bear by an anti-racist movement that has shaken this country to the core.
The support of Democrats and their liberal donors is situational and always temporary, based on confining the movement itself to “winnable goals.” Radicals and activists shouldn’t abandon the young people coming into political consciousness: they need to engage and educate these young people and, most importantly, be there. We have a role to play in expanding the discussion and forcing a discussion of race into the public conversations about gun violence and its tremendous range of victims. We know that African Americans are far more likely to be victims of gun violence than anyone else in this country. Indeed, gun-related homicides are seventeen times higher for Black youth compared to white youth. More importantly, African Americans are the most consistent supporters of reforming gun laws, including 76 percent of Black youth who support policies that “control gun ownership.” It means that there is a firm basis upon which genuine solidarity can be built among young people who see their lives in the crosshairs of a society that already promises them so little.
We are at the very beginning of this social awakening. Let’s encourage its development.
Note: Another version of this piece was published by Socialist Worker.