--Sign at the March for Our Lives
By David K. Shipler
Every big march has a personality and a mood. The 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “I have a dream,” was the friendliest large crowd I’ve ever been in, with warmth and smiles and easy conversation among strangers—except during Dr. King’s speech, when the hundreds of thousands on the Mall fell quiet under the cadence of his hopeful appeal to the conscience of America.
The November 1969 demonstration by the New Mobilization Committee against the Vietnam War, mostly grim and peaceful, disintegrated late in the day as militants in the Weather Underground threw rocks, bottles, and paint at the ground-floor windows of the Justice Department, and then at police officers who replied with volleys of teargas and nightsticks.
The 1995 Million Man March, billed as a demonstration of atonement and renewal by African-American men, was conducted in an air of firm, morality-driven conviction and contemplation as speaker after speaker confessed, apologized, pledged, cajoled, preached, and promised.
The 2017 Women’s March, the day after Donald Trump’s Inauguration, displayed all the difficult emotions of that moment for those who decried his election: defiance, bitterness, resentment, resolve—but with a tincture of dry wit represented in the hand-made pink pussy hats worn to mock Trump’s boastful claim to a pussy-grabbing habit.
Today, the March for Our Lives in Washington was different. There was some wit in the signs, to be sure (“Trump Loves NRA Because It’s Easy to Spell”), and some laughter from the cramped crowds of teenagers and younger kids, of teachers and parents and other adults from the graying and limping to the lithe. We weren’t all solemn all the time. Just most of the time. It didn’t take a big push to get us to the edge of angry tears.
Photo by Debby Shipler
High school students from Pennsylvania held up a long white sheet with so many names of dead kids written on it that you couldn’t read them unless you got close. A middle-aged woman stared at the sheet of names, a kind of portable monument as moving as the memorial to the dead in the Vietnam War, and then she turned away, her face wet with tears, and went to one of the boys and wrapped him in a desperate hug.
She carried no sign and wore no button, but since everyone has a story, hers might have been too painful to put on a placard. Who knows? There were hundreds of thousands of stories on Pennsylvania Avenue, and hundreds of thousands of fears. The faces were the beautiful faces of America—white and black, Asian and Latino, all brought together from urban slums and upscale suburbs by those Parkland, Florida kids who hold the future of our country in their hands and in their hearts.
So, in a paradox, a march to mourn and to demand became exhilarating. It can happen that tragedy suddenly taps a well of goodness.
Today I was reminded of what followed in Israel, after several hundred Palestinian civilians in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila were massacred in cold blood by Israel’s allies, the Lebanese Christian Phalangists, in 1982. Israel’s army controlled the area and did nothing to stop the slaughter. How actively complicit Israeli officers were in allowing the Phalangist militia to enter the camps quickly became a burning question in Israel. In an explosion of conscience, some 400,000 Israelis (nearly 10 percent of the population) rallied in Tel Aviv to demand an official commission of inquiry. I had never witnessed such an uplifting transformation of rage into a soaring call to moral virtue. (The demonstrators got their commission, which fixed “indirect responsibility” for the massacre on the Israeli army.)
Washington today saw the same rising of an elated commitment borne of these young Americans’ faith in the power of the ballot box to expel the negligent, the calloused, the ethically corrupt. Volunteers with clipboards circulated to help voters register. Two young women, separately, held signs announcing that today is their 18th birthday. In this sad time, the next generation is showing us its inspiring faith in the promise of democracy.
Survivors of the Valentine’s Day shooting that took 17 lives in Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have been so eloquent, so sensible and passionate, so clear-voiced and practical in their specific proposals for gun regulations that they have awakened something exciting in the country. Emma Gonzales, David Hogg, Sam Zeif, Julia Cordover, Cameron Kasky, Jaclyn Corin, Kyle Kashuv, Ariana Klein, Alfonso Calderon, Lorenzo Prado, Lane Murdock, and others at Douglas and elsewhere across the country come from both sides of the political divide but have found common ground here. Google their names in 10 years and bet that they’ll be making things better in whatever circle of influence they have drawn for themselves. (And bet that college admissions officers, who often give preference to agents of change, are jotting down these names.)
Significantly, the extreme right seems so scared of these kids that they have to treat them with contempt or pretend that they aren’t involved at all. An absurd accusation that Mr. Hogg and others are really “crisis actors” has circulated on the internet, apparently believed by gullible Americans. And the National Rifle Association today went into contortions to discredit the entire sweep of mass marches across the country, saying:
“Today's protests aren't spontaneous. Gun-hating billionaires and Hollywood elites are manipulating and exploiting children as part of their plan to DESTROY the Second Amendment and strip us of our right to defend ourselves and our loved ones.”
Time for an historical reminder: On April 23, 1951, Barbara Rose Johns, 16, led a walk-out from the segregated R. R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, to protest inferior conditions. The black school had no gym, no cafeteria, and insufficient room for its students. Some classes had to be held in the auditorium, old school buses, and tar paper shacks. Ms. Johns engineered a gathering of the students in the auditorium, and then a student protest that eventually grew into one of the cases in the Supreme Court’s decision, in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down school segregation.So, never underestimate kid power. As one youngster’s sign declared today, “You Can’t Put a SILENCER On Our Voices.”