Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment,” a new book that Princeton University Press plans to publish this March. He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Students all over the country are justifiably outraged. The “lockdown” generation has had to suffer through the normalization of terror in their schools.
Unlike the “duck-and-cover” children of the 1950s and 1960s, who spent portions of their school time hiding under their desks and watching Bert the Turtle warn them about how to survive nuclear fallout, this time the violence is very real.
Columbine, Newtown and now Parkland are just a few of the schools we all know for the wrong reasons. We are at the point where there are enough school names to fill a memorial wall in D.C.
And this only includes the schools with massacres. We barely consider it newsworthy anymore when school kids fire at fellow students with smaller weapons.
The political leaders of our country predictably veer toward inaction – with President Donald Trump somehow turning his promise to do something into a call for more weapons in schools and the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre delivering outlandish warnings about socialism.
But students are taking action.
Earlier this week, students conducted a nationwide walkout to bring attention to the need for gun control. At a CNN town hall Wednesday, they confronted Sen. Marco Rubio to press him on why he seems so desperate to please the NRA – even after blood had been shed in his home state.
At several rallies and press conferences, the nation has seen the raw emotion of the youngsters who suffered through the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and are simply desperate to go to school without having to fear a spree of bullets. They are imploring the nation to do something about the guns and to stop, as they put it, the “BS” excuses.
But can they turn their outrage into a long-term mobilization that builds pressure on members of Congress and act as a counterweight to the NRA? As Americans learned with the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s, the only way to change a broken status quo is through unrelenting grassroots pressure.
Unlike most gun control efforts in the past, this time students are emerging at the center of this campaign. If they can do this right, their presence can have a powerful effect.
But they must realize that success on this hotly controversial issue is anything but inevitable. Students will encounter massive obstacles and they need to be prepared to confront each one head on.
The most important thing the students should realize is that a movement needs to be well organized if it is to last over time.
This is especially challenging for students who have busy lives and face the normal pressures of adolescence. Without strong organization, most movements fade – including movements with younger people.
It is important for the students to create some form of an organization with a clear leadership structure that is committed to fighting for regulations over time and defending any regulations that might pass from retrenchment. Such an organization would provide a durable structure to guide the protests.
In the early 1960s, the establishment of the Students for a Democratic Society proved to be crucial to the growth of college-age protest and to its effectiveness on campuses across the country. If an organization comes out of this moment, its leaders can change over the years while the mission remains in place.
Any new student organization also must form alliances with more established groups. They can’t do this alone. Just as civil rights groups in the 1960s allied with unions and religious leaders through umbrella groups like the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, student organizers need to do the same today to strengthen their political punch.
There are many groups announcing that they are breaking ties with NRA, including businesses like Enterprise, so the alliances are essential. There are also groups already in place, such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Violence. Both have been working on gun control for years.
If the students can hone in on a couple of pieces of legislation, rather than making amorphous demands for addressing the problem, they might have a better chance at keeping this coalition together around specific outcomes.
The students who emerge as the leaders will need an effective media strategy. The news cycle is brutal these days. For all the attention being showered right now on the school shooting and the student survivors, it is inevitable that the news media will move on – and it will do so rapidly. The next outrageous tweet from President Trump, a new development in the Russia investigation, a weather emergency or a national security crisis overseas, even a celebrity sex scandal, can quickly divert the attention of reporters.
The key for the student leaders will be to develop a two-track system. In the first, student organizers should be working through alternative media outlets outside of television, where there is more room for multiple stories. The second requires that students be prepared to capitalize on what political scientists call “focusing events,” whether that be a planned march or, unfortunately, another school tragedy to keep attention on the issue.
Civil rights organizer Martin Luther King Jr. was brilliant at doing all of this. He kept open lines of communication to African-American newspapers and mainstream reporters on the beat of race relations even when the headlines turned to other stories. King used moments like the police violence against African-Americans in Birmingham and Selma, as well as mass events like the March on Washington, to keep attention on racial injustice.
Students also need to realize that electoral politics matter more than almost anything else. For a generation already cynical about government and the political system, this can be hard. But the students need to realize just how much they can achieve. As Ron Brownstein reported in the Atlantic, there are many suburban parts of the country where gun control can be a powerful and effective issue.
For all the support that the NRA commands in rural areas, suburban districts in red and blue states are sick and tired of how elected officials have allowed all sorts of guns to circulate so easily.
There are many Republicans who are being targeted by Democrats in 2018 who have sizable suburban, educated constituencies. While most students can’t yet vote, they can be part of this effort: working for the campaigns of candidates who say yes to tighter gun restrictions, pressing candidates to answer questions on where they stand in front of reporters, and setting up tables on the main streets of America after school to make sure adults don’t forget.
Young people are better prepared than any adult to use the newest social media platforms to influence the elections.
Moreover, students need to pay as much attention to state politics. Four Northeastern states (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island) have already announced that they will take steps to curb gun violence.
In 1964, University of California student Mario Savio delivered powerful words during a free speech movement. Protesting the university prohibition on political activity, Savio unleashed on the system. “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious – makes you so sick at heart – that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”
It is time for students to put their bodies upon the gears of the broken machine that lets people get their hands so easily on weapons of mass destruction.
The nation is at an important crossroads after Parkland and much of what happens next will depend on students. They must remain the heart of this campaign. Their words are the strongest antidote to the money and lobbyists of the NRA. The NRA’s resistance will be immense, but it is not insurmountable.
Young Americans have shown in other moments of history that their voice can matter. Indeed, it can change the course of the nation. Now we will see if America’s young people can do so again with the crisis of guns that afflicts our nation.