Three days after surviving a mass shooting at her school, 17-year-old Emma Gonzalez made a seven-minute speech about the hypocrisy of politicians who receive campaign donations from the National Rifle Association and then send victims of such attacks nothing but thoughts and prayers.
“We call BS,” she said. She ended her speech with a crystal clear imperative: “If you agree, register to vote.”
There may be no scarier sentence to a Republican Party that has shown itself to be rooted in the promise of white supremacy. Especially when it’s coming out of the mouth of a young Latina in a swing state. Register to vote.
That’s because, according to a report by the Center for American Progress, if just 30% of the currently unregistered but eligible people of color heed Gonzalez’s words and then turn out at current rates and vote in similar patterns, they can tip Florida blue in the 2020 presidential election. Registering 40 percent of more than 1.2 million eligible blacks and Latino who aren’t on the state’s voting rolls can tip Florida in this year’s midterm elections. (A similar calculation holds true in North Carolina and Virginia.)
In the next two months attention will focus, as it should, on the March 14 National School Walk Out and the March 24 March for Our Lives. These actions are aimed narrowly at the simple message that Congress must pass gun control legislation. Enough is enough; massacres like the one in Parkland, and Southerland Springs and Las Vegas and Orlando and all the other devastated towns and cities must not be repeated.
But Gonzalez’s recurring theme of “we call BS” can also be heard as a rallying cry for millions of subjugated women, people of color and progressives in the U.S.: We see your systematic attempts to devalue, distrust and disenfranchise us, and we call BS.
When Florida passed a voter ID law effectively suppressing the vote of people of color in 2011, we noticed. When conservative states all over the country giddily responded to the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act in 2014 by passing a slew of voter suppression laws, we noticed. When President Donald Trump tried to throw the nation a red herring by claiming that “millions of people voted illegally” in 2016, New York University law school published a report entitled “the missing millions” that said, essentially, “we call BS” in more academic terms.
Gonzalez’s message is about regulating guns, but it is also about power. She and her fellow student activists want to prove that the U.S. is still a democracy where people, not only wealthy elites and lobby groups like the NRA, can shake their leaders into submission with their votes. That desire fueled my work organizing a local Get Out The Vote campaign with the Industrial Areas Foundation in Virginia, another swing state with an increasing share of voters of color.
Gonzalez was 10 years old when Arizona passed its racial profiling law, S.B. 1070, which was eagerly copied by other states, such as Utah, Georgia and Alabama. She may not have read the Harvard Latino Law Review’s report grounding that law in a history of racism dating back to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. She may not have noticed the seven bills introduced in Congress between 2007-2010 seeking to disenfranchise children born on U.S. soil to immigrant parents. But she has likely seen in her daily existence how Latinos have been discriminated against.
As author Junot Diaz said in his acceptance speech for the Hispanic Heritage Award, “we find ourselves attacked and demonized and endangered.” Which is why, perhaps, Gonzales sounds so much like Diaz in her call to action. Diaz said, “we cannot just survive or live. We have to fight for justice. We have to fight for equality.”
Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of VotoLatino, agrees. “Fellow Americans,” she recently tweeted, “we have to stop our handwringing. We must stop asking what we need to do to stop mass shootings. We know. Vote. Register our friends. This is on us.”
Given her call to action, Gonzalez may have realized that Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) belongs to a generation that grew up in a country where the population was overwhelmingly white; whereas by the time Emma turns 50, there will be no racial majority in the U.S. It is the right’s existential fear.
Gerrymandering, vote dilution and voter suppression can slow the pace of change in this country, but with a 34 percent growth rate of “minority” groups and only a 4 percent growth rate of non-Hispanic whites in the South, change is nevertheless coming.
Accused Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz’s affiliation with a white supremacist group was alleged, and then questioned. Regardless, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented 100 people killed or injured by “alt-right” white terrorists in 2017 alone. If white supremacists keep coming for the children of people of color, even the NRA won’t be able to stop those voters from expelling politicians who reject gun regulations, as Florida House Republicans just did.
Organizers will tell you power comes in two forms: organized people and organized money. Gonzalez may not be able to compete with the NRA’s budget, but if she stays focused on the call to registering new voters, demographics are on her side.
No one knows the trauma of gun violence better than its victims. It’s time not just to listen to their pain, but to hear their prescription for how we can heal. We can start with their simplest of asks: register to vote, and help others do the same.
Jessica Sarriot is a master in public affairs candidate at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. She worked as an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation in Virginia.