June 17, 2019

The Youth Go to Washington — and They Won’t be Leaving

Guest Opinion
By Gary Howe | April 7, 2018

Right from the get-go, it was a magnificent mess. And complicated. In the history of our great United States, for every glorious achievement, history offers up parallel infamies. The Founding Fathers showed profound wisdom in basing our experiment in democracy on the Charters of Freedom. At the same time, they institutionalized slavery for another 89 years and restricted the right to vote for another 144. 

Touring our nation’s capital during spring break this year, I was hooked by the eternal optimism that is intrinsically woven into our nation’s fabric. Today's challenges of impassable partisanship and entrenched power are daunting, but our gleaming national treasures — the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the National Mall, and its memorials — stand proudly as solid structural reminders that we can and will weather terrible fires and storms. Americans rise in the most challenging times, accepting with inevitability our generational rendezvous with destiny. Right now, we are witnessing the moment when a new generation of citizens are finding their voice.

Immediately after the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting of all time in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine's Day, when 17 students and teachers were murdered by a 19-year-old with a semi-automatic rifle in 6 minutes and 20 seconds, we returned to our endless national debate about gun regulation. It started as it always does these days, with both sides saying that nothing can be done. Solving this problem is definitely impossible, everyone agreed. The Speaker of the House obtusely responded, “I think we need to pray.”

But then something very American happened: The young survivors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School skipped the eye rolls and refused to heed the accepted wisdom of their elders. Like many great civic leaders before them, they responded to the tragedy not by cowering, but by finding their voice and amplifying it to the national stage. They called BS to hopes and prayers, and they jumped into action.

They used Twitter instead of pamphlets, but like other young revolutionaries before them, they pushed back when condescending adults belittled them. They supported each other, reaching out to other communities that face gun violence every day. And they brought forth the March for Our Lives, the largest youth-led protest in U.S. history. Over a million people participated nationwide. 

Standing on a platform that is hard to oppose — that American kids should be able to go to school without being shot — the speakers on stage in Washington, D.C. were not radical in their demands. Not one of them called for repeal of the Second Amendment. They called for lawmakers to do their jobs and protect children with policies that are overwhelmingly supported by their constituents, but, distressingly, are opposed by the well-funded lobbyists who steer the lawmakers’ agendas. 

Yet, there was something radical about the march in front of the Capitol. All of the speakers were young. All were students. They came from Chicago and Los Angeles and Parkland, with different backgrounds and different stories, and they spoke with a united, persuasive voice, delivering a message that transcended the single issue of the rally: “We are here. We are citizens. The future belongs to us. Where you adults fail to act, we will act. You may attempt to silence us, but we aren't going anywhere. Fix this, or we will vote you out.”

Their student-led movement is a shining example of the American experience, giving patriots much to celebrate. In their letter to the Parkland students, Michelle and Barack Obama wrote: “Throughout our history, young people like you have led the way in making America better.”

America can be changed. It has changed. It will change again. 

At the National Archives, we are urged to Study the Past, and we are reminded of the encouraging truth that What's Past is Prologue. History is clear: With effort and persistence, the United States of America can overcome great challenges, no matter how immense, no matter how daunting. The change begins when the youth rise up and find their voice. #neveragain

Gary L. Howe is friends to all canines, a photojournalist, writer, urban planner, and former adjunct instructor of American Government and Geography.

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