Fighting to be free from gun violence

March 13, 2018

The student walkouts on March 14 can contribute to a deepening of the resistance.

STUDENTS AT over 2,500 schools in every part of the country will be walking out of their classes on Wednesday, March 14, for 17 minutes--one for every student killed in last month's massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida.

The #Enough walkouts, which were called by the youth wing of the National Women's March, will vary from place to place. Some will be bigger than others. Some have been initiated by principals, while others are being organized by students in the face of administration resistance. Some will include calls to get armed police officers out of schools, while others will focus more on gun laws.

But what they will all have in common are youth who know that the adults empowered to run our country are running it right off a cliff, whether the issue is gun violence, climate change or student debt.

Many of those walking out tomorrow also understand that the culture of vigilante violence promoted by Republican politicians and the National Rifle Association (NRA) has roots that extend beyond those disgraceful bottom feeders.

Students stage a walkout for gun reform in St. Paul, Minnesota
Students stage a walkout for gun reform in St. Paul, Minnesota (Fibonacci Blue | flickr)

This is a generation that has grown up watching viral videos of police officers killing unarmed civilians--and that has never taken a breath in an America that wasn't at war.

As one of the Parkland student leaders David Hogg recently explained:

I don't want to see another teacher with a gun. I don't even want more school resource officers [police inside schools]. Do you know the racial discrepancies they have against African American and Latino students? We're going to create a system where we widen the school-to-prison pipeline.

The U.S. has an addiction to guns and gun violence, which is why the solution of those who claim to speak for America to every horrific mass shooting is the same: We need more guns, not less. The main debate among the adults in charge has been whether we should be "hardening" schools with armed teachers or more armed cops.

But the school walkouts--and the coming protests on March 24 and beyond--are an opportunity to galvanize an opposition that can both break NRA's stranglehold on the political system and take on the creeping militarization of U.S. society--starting with our schools.

IT'S A symptom of our broken democracy that one of the most immediate actions taken in response to the Parkland shooting is something most people are against: arming teachers inside schools.

Distributing weapons to school workers is a subsidy to the gun makers who fund the NRA that only increases the potential for deadly violence every time a teacher breaks up a fight or feels momentarily threatened by a student--which the evidence tells us is far more likely to happen when the student is African American or Latino.

It's important to see that the NRA is a right-wing organization first and a gun rights organization second. The NRA claims that gun regulations are part of a plot to "eradicate all individual freedoms." But it rarely takes up the cause of Black and Brown people who, like Philando Castile, are shot by police or, like Marissa Alexander, are sent to jail for lawfully possessing or using their guns.

This double standard goes all the way back to the Second Amendment itself, which granted white citizens the right to arm themselves for Indian wars and slave patrols, but denied that right--and all others--to the people being targeted by those early guns.

Today, the NRA ideology that all gun regulations are government tyranny plays an important role in getting millions of working-class people to support the corporate agenda of destroying our remaining labor and environmental protections.

That's why, as this country has become flooded with twice as many guns per person in the U.S. as there were 50 years ago, we haven't gained any freedom at all. Instead, we are far more shackled by debt, longer work hours and the highest imprisonment rate in the world.

These shackles of economic and racial inequality don't just correlate with gun violence. They fuel it.

Suicides, which account for almost two-thirds of U.S. gun deaths, are at a 30-year peak--the result, according to Harvard Professor Robert Putnam, of the "links between poverty, hopelessness and health."

Most gun homicides are also products of poverty and desperation: victims and perpetrators are overwhelmingly poor and working class, and disproportionately Black.

Then there's the gun violence of police officers, which is just as much of an international outlier as our other forms of gun violence.

Some 1,100 people were killed by police last year--accounting for a staggering one in three people of the people killed with guns last year who were killed by someone they don't know. These killings, of course, rarely result in an officer even being arrested, let alone convicted.

ALL THIS is to say that while school shootings are especially horrifying because they can strike anyone and anytime, most gun violence--like everything else in 2018 America--is severely unequal, both in who it targets and who gets punished.

So the question facing this exciting new student movement isn't whether we should be for gun control, but where we want those controls to be directed.

In a country that locks up millions of street-level drug dealers, but rewards pharmaceutical companies that push opioid pills, we need to focus our energies on the gun companies flooding our neighborhoods with increasingly deadly weaponry--and the NRA demagogues who whip up fears of government takeover to keep those sales coming.

Guns should be subject to at least as many health and safety regulations as shampoo--somehow that's a bold thing to say in 2018 America--which can mean everything from ending the firearms industry's immunity from lawsuits to ending the sale of weapons like the AR-15.

But it's critical that this new movement also take on the escalating firepower coming into our communities via police departments.

It's a good first step that one of the four demands of the #Enough walkout is to end the 1033 program that transfers surplus military weaponry to local police departments. But we should also push to get police out of our schools. As Los Angeles teacher Gillian Russom wrote at last week:

Thirty thousand additional school police were added after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, but this didn't reduce the number of school shootings. In fact, the criminalizing and alienating impact of searches can have the opposite effect, by reducing the bonds of trust that students have with adults, making them less likely to seek help or report signs of danger, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.

Finally, we need to reject the idea that we can become safer by increasing profiling--especially of those suspected to have mental illness.

After a horror like the Parkland shooting, of course everyone wishes that Nikolas Cruz weren't able to get a gun. But stripping people with a disability of a right enjoyed by the rest of the population both sets a dangerous precedent and could actually cause more harm by pushing people away from seeking help that might get them a diagnosis which would land them on a government blacklist.

WE NEED a movement against gun violence that understands that our problem is not a few violent people who must be contained, but a crushingly cruel and unequal society that pushes people into violence--against themselves and others.

We have to take on the culture of vigilante violence promoted by weapons makers and their shills in the NRA and Republican Party--as well as the wider political system that demonizes Black people peacefully protesting police murders and spies on Muslims who express outrage at the bombs that drop regularly on Afghanistan and Yemen.

If the idea of taking on this wider culture of American violence might seems impractical, let's remember that until last month, few thought there was anything that could be done about gun violence. If the 2012 shooting of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary didn't change anything, the reasoning went, than nothing will.

But if there's any lesson we should have learned since Donald Trump's election, it's that change doesn't happen just because things get really bad.

It happens when enough of us decide to stop waiting for politicians to save us and take action into our own hands--whether it's the #MeToo movement exposing sexual predators, or football players taking a knee against racism, or West Virginia school workers staying out on strike until they won the raises they deserve.

Students in Parkland, Florida, and across the country who are walking out of school tomorrow are a part of this wave of resistance. They've already punched a hole in the NRA's image as an unstoppable force. And they're contributing to making Trump the most unpopular president in the history of opinion polling.

The walkouts will bring political issues that have remained bottled up in the cul-de-sac of mainstream politics out into the arena of social struggle--and they can add to the experience of people organizing activism for the first time.

And after March 14, it will be time for those committed to resisting the right, whether they just attended their first demonstration or have been active for many years, to draw lessons from the school walkouts and fit them into a wider resistance that wants a different world from one where Trump and the NRA call the shots.

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