Don’t stop now.
That’s the first bit of advice for the young people who walked out of their classrooms Wednesday in one of the largest protests in American history. Tens of thousands of high schoolers across the nation took part, demanding action on gun control and school safety.
The next bit of advice would be: Don’t wait for permission.
Imagine if the colonists had asked the British for permission to hold the Boston Tea Party ... OK, that’s a cheap comparison, but I couldn’t resist.
The point is that protest tends to be all about not seeking permission. You could say it takes place when the rules that guide things like permission no longer make sense.
For high school students it’s a little tricky, because they’re still not grown-ups. And while they have rights to freedom of expression, granted to all Americans under the First Amendment, they can be subject to discipline if the rights of other students or the interest of maintaining education are considered greater.
The Record-Journal’s Jesse Buchanan recently took a look at the Supreme Court case that has set the foundation for rights when it comes to high schoolers. Mary Beth Tinker was 13 when she was suspended for wearing a black arm band with a peace symbol to her Iowa school in 1965. The Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, decided in 1969, backed the right to express a political view as long as the expression was not disruptive to the school.
One of the interesting things about the Tinker case is that it involved someone so young. In general, most of the protesting in the 1960s and 1970s was going on at the college level, or at least involved those of college age who did not see the point in being sent to die in Vietnam.
Wednesday’s protest was at the high school level, by those who are demanding that after the mass shooting at a high school in Florida “enough is enough.”
“We as a society and a community have become numb and desensitized to these acts of violence,” said Joe Crespo, a Platt High School senior.
“Up until now, it feels as though we were the only generation without a purpose,” he said.
The Vietnam war era was the time of the “generation gap.” The phrase referred to a difference in thinking between young and old generations that was more than not seeing eye-to-eye, it was as though the generations were living in different worlds. Today, the task at hand involves confronting the political influence of a powerful organization, the National Rifle Association.
Consider the lengths an NRA-backed lawmaker went to in Florida recently in opposing gun restrictions:
“We’ve been told we need to listen to the children,” said GOP Rep. Elizabeth Porter, as quoted by the Palm Beach Post’s columnist Frank Cerabino. “Are there any children on this floor? Are there any children making laws? Do we allow the children to tell us that we should pass a law that says no homework? Or you finish high school at the age of 12, just because they want it so?”
Confronting that kind of reasoning is going to take perseverance, and courage.
Students in Wallingford walked out despite a warning. The administration had sent out letters saying students could face discipline for walking out, then announced after the walkout there would be no discipline issued – which reminds you of the parenting advice against making empty threats.
“As students, we felt it was necessary to take a stand for what we believed in, despite the risk of a consequence,” said Hollianne Lao, a Lyman Hall senior.
“… We didn’t want to compromise our intent, even without administration support,” she said.
That’s the spirit that can lead to change, and here’s hoping it won’t let up. If there was ever an opportunity for a generation to make a better world it’s theirs.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.