A Young Man Reflects on Gun Violence Walkout Protest

A Young Man Reflects on Gun Violence Walkout Protest April 6, 2018
What follows are the reflections of a high school senior on the national gun violence walkout by public school students. I’ve not published his name, although he gave me permission to do so. That was my editorial decision.
A few weeks ago, my school, RHAM High School, participated in the nationwide demonstrations against the senseless violence that occured at Parkland, Florida in February. Most high schools in Connecticut, from what I’ve been hearing from classmates, had some sort of event. And at the ones that didn’t, students still ran out of the building at 9:45am.
I say that RHAM participated because there were posters made weeks in advance, there were t-shirts made on the day, and the demonstration was actually held in the gym. (We are fair weather protesters.)
Every class was put on hold that Wednesday morning. It would be disingenuous to argue that the whole morning was student-run. At 9:45am, I was kicked from my spot in the library, my math homework never to be finished, and lead into the atrium where I was asked to make a decision– file into the gymnasium for the demonstration or sit in the cafeteria and abstain. I sat at the front of the cafeteria with a group of fellow disagreeable seniors. We made dark jokes about what our classmates and teachers were thinking from their elevated walkway as they went into the noisy gymnasium. To some, we were heartless and cruel, and we wore that false assumption as a badge of honor.
The plan was to gather for seventeen minutes for the seventeen victims of the shooting, but it wasn’t until 10:20 that students began exiting the gymnasium. Tired of waiting, I found a former teacher who also chose to abstain, and went up to chat. Once I was standing with the teacher, I saw how just how many of my classmates were sitting out. Later, I asked different teachers who did protest, wanting to get a conservative estimate of how many students sat out. The estimates I received from teachers ranged from 400-550 students (35-50%).
Curiously, when talking to students and teachers about the event, the description of what exactly the event was varied.  The teachers and students who chose to sit out all gave the same general reason, and one student summarized the sentiment well– “I don’t want to be told when to protest.” This particular student told me that he wasn’t conservative, he just saw the event as political and didn’t want any part of it. The students and teachers who did participate were bewildered why likely half the school would not– particularly the teachers I spoke with. I got the sense from talking to several teachers that the event was akin to the event we have each year for Veteran’s Day. Even if you hate the Iraq War, you still go because it’s about veterans; even if you support the second amendment, you still go because it’s about the victims of the shooting. Both teachers and students described the event as a student-run memorial for the victims. It was for solidarity. Some saw the large amounts of students abstaining as a communication issue, that the school didn’t properly distance themselves from the political demonstrations that were happening around country.
These past couple weeks there has been an effort to show solidarity amongst students, while intentionally being vague about what exactly we agreed on. The idea that the event was simply a memorial for those who were killed was shrouded by the t-shirts that faculty wore with “#NeverAgain” and #OurVoice.” CNN will say that those hashtags are the branding of a children’s revolution for gun control. At the art school I attend in the afternoons, students used these hashtags to connect their anti-gun march with the one that will happen in Washington next weekend; RHAM Administration will claim it is apolitical. There was a table set up during lunch to register students to vote. There was a survey sent to all students (that none of the teachers I talked to knew about) with questions like “Should there be a restriction on the types of guns an individual can purchase? (semi automatic weapons, bump stocks)” and “On March 14th students across the country will attend school and exit the school at 10am to sit outside and peacefully protest… Would you consider doing that to speak against gun violence?
These actions taken by my school have muddled what should be their intention– communication. Are we communicating our collective grief to those who lost so much? Or is there something more happening here? In some ways, what the school did is worse than have a blatantly anti-gun protest. But by not saying anything, the school has made unhelpful additions to the public dialogue in two ways.
The event was all things to all people. To those who wanted it to be, Wednesday morning was a protest against the NRA, and/or the Republicans who support them. To everyone else, this was just a memorial. This was a children’s revolution to those who wanted it to be, but the fact that every class was put on hold for forty-five minutes on the instructions of school leadership makes the whole thing seem like bourgeois theatre. The students at other schools who received suspensions for walking out were the only ones actually revolting.
More egregiously, by not saying anything the school is allowing anyone to characterize the other side however one wants to. There was a whole lot of virtuousness around both sides of this. What I heard about the people who sat in the cafeteria, was they were “selfish,” “taking advantage of the opportunity to chat with their friends,” “a disappointment,” and “a bunch of assholes.” Maybe these people thought that I was heartless for not mourning the seventeen deaths. Maybe they thought I was evil for supporting the NRA. I’ll never know. But I, and the cynical young men I sat with, are guilty of this as well. We felt like rebels, proud to piss off those who took all this too seriously. We saw the contempt on a few teachers and student’s faces, and we assumed that everyone went to the event for the same reason.
More in more I’m seeing the apolitical choice being eliminated, (See CNN’s Watching ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ is a Political Act or the NFL last season) and this is a terrible idea. If this type of event happens again, I’ll be asking my parents to let me stay home. I thought that abstaining would be enough, but it seems to have become its own political action. In the same way, I want to be clear that many teachers were doing their absolute best to be apolitical, whether they attended the event or abstained.
At my art school, kids talked in class about their horrible parents calling last Wednesday pointless. At the art school, everyone’s dad doesn’t understand. But hypothetical dad is right.  If you hold a student solidarity event and a week later, when I ask around, I get five different answers about what we were solid about, and 35-50% of students didn’t participate, then you failed. At least the students in the pictures The Courant took made their message clear. (Although I was humored to see that many of the photos are from art school I attend, so obviously even in those places not every student is on board.)

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