My 15-year-old son texted me from the streets of Iowa City last week, as he joined other kids in a walkout to support survivors of the shooting that took place earlier this month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. By the time they reached the historic Old Capitol of Iowa, their ranks had swelled to hundreds.
A lot of people aren’t happy with these kids. A school district in Texas announced last week that any students participating in such protests against gun violence would be suspended for three days. A Nevada school district threatened to keep kids from participating in school-sponsored events, including benching school athletes, if they took part in walkouts; a district in Wisconsin issued a blanket “unexcused absence” for any student engaged in protests during the school day.
On the evening of the walkout my son participated in, our school district sent an email saying he hadn’t been in class and asking if we, as parents, would grant permission for an excused absence.
My son didn’t need permission, though. He was following the lessons of his history books ― and what I believe is our best American tradition for change.
“History reminds us that young people have often played this role as catalysts for resistance.”
In her extraordinary speech at a rally last week, Stoneman Douglas high school student Emma Gonzalez invoked the actions of an earlier generation of students in Iowa.
“Just like Tinker v. Des Moines, we are going to change the law,” she said, referring to students who earned the right to protest the Vietnam War at their school. That 1969 Supreme Court ruling affirmed that students do not have to “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Then-Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote unequivocally:
In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school, as well as out of school, are “persons” under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State.
My son also reminded me that his peers’ actions were not a symbolic gesture of youthfulness. Iowa’s Republican-controlled legislature passed one of the state’s most extreme pro-gun bills last year, barring law enforcement from notifying firearms sellers if any gun owner’s permit has been suspended or revoked. It also allows any kid under the age of 14 to “legally shoot pistols or revolvers” as long as they’re under the direct supervision of a “sober” guardian over the age of 21.
In 2011, Iowa passed a law that allows legally blind residents to obtain permits to purchase guns and carry them in public.
Reeling somewhere between rage, incredulousness and grief, my kids and their schoolmates are simply fed up with adults, sober or otherwise, who have thrown up their hands at the seemingly unbreakable grip of the NRA on Iowa’s legislature.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) was a featured speaker at the organization’s Women’s Leadership Forum Summit last year, and lawmakers such as Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have openly accepted massive amounts of campaign contributions from the group. Ernst’s last campaign raked in over $3.1 million in gun lobby expenditures alone.
“We are going to be the last mass shooting,” Parkland students have boldly announced, setting off a ripple effect that challenges this kind of campaign complacency in my generation.
As walkouts take place and are planned across the country ― nationwide protests are set to take place in March and April ― these kids are not only leading the resistance to the gun lobby in our elections. As a father, journalist and historian, I also realize they are galvanizing the resolve of their parents and communities in a historic moment to find the courage and leadership for a broader change in policy-making.
History reminds us that young people have often played this role as catalysts for resistance.
Two months ago, for example, federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima struck down a 2010 Arizona law that had effectively banned the teaching of Mexican-American studies in a Tucson school district. That historic legal decision was the result of an arduous and long-term campaign of walkouts, protests and teach-ins led by Mexican-American high school students and supporters who continued to confront a law that served “an invidious discriminatory racial purpose and a politically partisan purpose,” according to the federal ruling. The youth never gave up.
This multiyear resistance campaign by the Tucson students came 50 years after the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963, when young people faced down the police forces of Eugene “Bull” Connor in order to challenge segregation policies in parks, businesses and neighborhoods. The controversial role of kids in the protests served as a turning point in the civil rights movement.
Defying high-powered water hoses, police dogs and blows from police batons, hundreds of Birmingham kids were arrested, thrusting the brutality of the city’s segregationists into the national spotlight. Then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy warned Connor, among others, that “an injured, maimed, or dead child is a price that none of us can afford to pay.”
Within a week of the children’s arrests, local leaders had negotiated agreements for desegregation at lunch counters and other businesses. Later that year, they had negotiated for desegregation in schools. Similar walkouts led by students in East Los Angeles, California, in 1968 reframed a national discussion on the inequalities of education from those most affected by failed policies: the students.
Decades earlier, in 1903, children joined famed labor leader Mary “Mother” Jones as she marched from Philadelphia to New York to expose child labor conditions. Although it took years for states, and eventually the federal government, to pass child labor laws, the historic 125-mile march set off the ripple effect that first brought the issue to national attention.
We’ve arrived a similar hinge moment in history.
Thanks to the organizing tools of social media, as well as coverage in local and national news outlets, young people from Florida to Iowa to California have made it clear that they don’t plan to wait for years for our representatives in office to act on gun control and finally break from the grip of the NRA on state and federal levels.
For that, they sure don’t need my permission for an excused absence. Instead, they have my gratitude and respect.
Jeff Biggers is the author of the forthcoming book Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition.