On the last day of spring break, I headed out with a few high school friends to the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. We piled onto a Red Line train and rode downtown in a crowded Metro car—crowded overwhelmingly with members of Gen Z, people born in the late 90s and early 2000s. Inspired by the tragic shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, students everywhere, including in Chicago, have been outspoken activists on the issue of gun control over the last few months. They remind lawmakers of their power and responsibility to keep students—and all citizens—safe. But while the March for Our Lives drew crowds of hundreds of thousands, many feel as though it has not been as inclusive as it could have been.
On one hand, the march brought a diverse array of speakers to the stage from all around the country who acknowledged not just mass shootings like the one in Parkland, but also the cycles of violence in cities like Chicago. In one of the most powerful speeches of the day, 11-year-old Naomi Wadler declared, “I am here to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page.”
Later, Martin Luther King Jr.’s granddaughter Yolanda Renee King, a 9-year-old, led a powerful cheer proclaiming “we will be a great generation.” Bringing the young King to the stage was an unmistakable invocation of the civil rights movement and the legacy of her grandfather.
I also saw many at the D.C. march with signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” and “Stop Police Violence.” This recognition from both the organizers and the participants—that the problem of gun violence is multifaceted and affects various groups differently was refreshing— but I would have been surprised to see anything different: this rally was organized completely by high students who have grown up in a world that is beginning to prioritize representation and inclusivity.
But, on the other hand, the faces of the student leadership of the March for Our Lives Movement have been predominantly white. Just because black voices are broadcasted from the stage doesn’t mean that the suggested gun policy changes will take their needs into account. A Black Youth Project article by Jamila Mitchell points out that the “manifesto” put out by Parkland students fails to include plans for restorative justice related to gun violence that black activists have been advocating for years. She writes that increasing school security has historically backfired for minorities in the past, and why should it be any different this time?
Indeed, the measures taken specifically at Stoneman Douglas High School after the shooting have so far proven Mitchell’s point, as they have not taken into account black voices. Kai Koerber details his discomfort with the increased police presence in a recent Miami Herald article. He said, “It’s bad enough we have to return with clear backpacks. Should we also return with our hands up?” In response to Koerber’s and other black students’ concerns, the Herald reported that “Rev. Rosaline Osgood, a Broward County school board member, said that she never would have thought of that consequence of heightened police staffing.”
With all the brutal police shootings that have been carried out with impunity in the past few years, and the Black Lives Matter movement that arose in response, it seems untenable that the safety of her black students did not cross her mind. Yet, apparently it didn’t. It is for this reason that continued student leadership is so important, as these issues are at the forefront of young people’s minds much more than that of the older generations’. While the March for Our Lives movement hasn’t been perfect thus far and must include a more diverse slate of leaders, the young activists are at least trying to engage a broader audience and, most importantly, open up the conversation.
Opening up the conversation seems particularly relevant right now on our campus, as a fourth-year student of color was shot on Tuesday by a University of Chicago Police Department officer as he was having a manic episode. In the body cam footage, we hear the office say, “Mental, he’s a mental,” which seems to suggest that he was aware that the boy was not being purposefully belligerent and perhaps could have engaged him in a different way. I don’t want to speak too soon—I’m sure more details about last week’s shooting will be released in the coming days—but the police presence on the South Side has not always accorded with the desires of its residents and this shooting certainly brings the issues surrounding gun control and police brutality home for us, just as they are once again are surfacing on a national level. What I hope to see, in the conversations that will certainly follow this tragedy, is true representation and diversity of leadership.