True, the raw emotion of it has worn off somewhat, but not its memory – never the memory. The sight of fearful students rushing out of Parkland Douglas school in Florida was, in truth, all too familiar an image on our screens – we’d seen it all before. Problem was that all that collective angst, the outpouring of emotion and support, sympathetic news coverage that occurred in other states in other times had come to the same end – nothing. It’s likely millions watching it all unfold thought the Parkland shooting would be little different. It seemed like nothing could shake lukewarm or belligerent politicians, a cold and immovable organized gun lobby, or a media that diligently covered the story until they didn’t and it faded away.
But that was when the adults were in charge of the response. All that changed on the scheduled day of mourning, when 17 minutes was set aside by Parkwood school for grieving over the loss – a minute for each life taken. The problem was that these students refused to take part in a grief organized by a formula. They chafed while standing there, believing their grief should have positive outcomes instead of respectful resignation.
Meanwhile students at the Westglades Middle School adjacent to Parkland refused to comply. One student broke through security (there to protect the students), followed almost immediately by many others. They were heading to a place where a public rally was to be held. Watching all this transpire, the Parkland students, clearly laden with grief, nevertheless followed the younger students to the rally.
We all know what transpired in the hours before and after the incident, but what is important is that while the adults attempted to digest the horror of what happened, the students felt the need to act. But they did more. Deeply moved, they committed themselves to taking on the higher powers in the land – the state legislature, the president himself, and, of all groups, the National Rifle Association. This had been done before in other locations, of course, but something was different about these students: they weren’t merely looking to grieve, but instead wanted system change.
These were citizens, old and young, teachers and students, parents and kids, and they had taken 17 minutes reserved for grief and turned it into something far longer, more sustained, with an edge, and with an organizational capacity that caught even seasoned politicians off-guard. The elected representatives thought they knew how to handle the grief of adult constituents, but when students showed up, well-versed in their arguments, cogent in pressing for legislation, and calling for a new future, the powers that be had come up against a democratic force for which they weren’t prepared. The media proved invaluable in these moments.
There is a moral in this series of events, and it’s for the adults – all of us who call ourselves citizens. It was simply this: the young frequently view the world more as it should be than what their guardians pretend it to be. America believes in religion, fiercely so, and should grasp the principle. The great prophet Isaiah told of the world all people were seeking, where violence would end, the wolf would lie down with the lamb, and children could be leaders in a world where they could be secure. “A child will lead them,” was the way the scripture put it, leaving adults to smile in condescension.
The problem with the Florida students is that they reached out into that future and dragged it into the present, forcing decision makers to stop the charade and get on with the true purpose of power, which is to create a safer and more equal world. And it wasn’t just Florida, as students and others from across the country not only rallied for their peers in Rockland but for the better world they sought. In such a world, 17 minutes is a hugely insufficient time to change the course of events, but in this remarkable student set of actions it was enough to get us started.