Much like in the Middle East region, angry young Americans use social media to mobilise for change
On May 14, 2000 — Mother’s Day in the United States — three-quarters of a million people gathered in Washington DC to draw attention to the country’s growing problem with gun violence. Dubbed the Million Mom March, the event took place 13 months after the country’s first high-profile school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, in which two young men killed 12 classmates and one teacher.
After hours of speeches, personal testimonies, songs and prayers, those of us in the crowd left with a sense that a movement had begun but the momentum just wasn’t there.
Four years later, Congress allowed a 10-year ban on the manufacture of so-called assault weapons to expire. Eight years after that, 20 children and six adults were gunned down in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Americans on both sides of the gun issue assumed that horrific event would be the catalyst to take a new look at weapons laws but it was not to be.
By this time, the National Rifle Association — a lobbying group whose power comes not just from money but even more by the numbers of members it can count on to vote for pro-gun candidates — had a firm grip on elected officials across the country.
The mass shootings continued — in schools, company parties, nightclubs and on the streets of Las Vegas — but all we did was shake our heads and pray. Until Valentine’s Day of this year.
This time, a well-armed angry young man picked the wrong school at the right time. The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida had had enough and they were determined to be the survivors that made a difference in this debate.
And so, on March 24, almost 18 years after the Million Mom March, I again joined the crowds, cheered the speeches and sang the songs. This time, the level of momentum feels different.
This time, it feels as if the move to restrain and regulate this nation’s love affair with guns just might latch on, just might work.
What’s different? Several factors are worth noting, not only for US politics but also for anyone watching the hotspots in the Middle East.
First, the people leading this movement are the people whose lives are most at stake. It would be presumptuous to compare a mass shooting in a wealthy US suburb with the daily fear and despair that comes with war and economic and civil strife in the Middle East but the young people in these high schools — and in this country — are tired of never knowing whether this is the day violent anger will encroach on their lives. And, much like youth across the globe, they do not trust the government to protect them.
To the anger, fear and mistrust add the continuing explosion of social media and there is a rising tide that just might lift boats where you least expect it. We saw it in Tunisia in 2010 and later in Egypt, Yemen and other Arab states when Facebook became the information source of choice for anti-government activists.
In Florida, the message was spread on Twitter and the students turned their favourite communication tool into a platform for change. During the March for Our Lives events — 450 of them around the world, according to Vox.com — teenagers dominated the stage with an eloquent fury that roused the crowds — those in person as well as those across the internet.
It can be argued the social media-driven “Arab spring” could boast only scattered success and one wonders whether the Parkland students can do any better at maintaining momentum. It is notably possible and here’s why.
While it’s not been easy for these teens to have been thrust into the Twitter glare — and, individually and as a group, they have attracted vicious, hate-spewing enemies — they still know they can speak openly without fear of governmental restraint or physical retribution. They will not be jailed for endorsing change. Their social media accounts will not be turned off and they will not have to fight from the shadows.
A key weapon on their side is the ability and right to vote for change. They are urging those who will be 18 this November and others to register to vote and to get out there and exercise that right. This is a nation in which voter turnout can matter in elections and the students recognise that putting gun-control supporters in office is a big step towards reform.
Finally, they have the backing of women — mothers, grandmothers, sisters, teachers — and, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, the voices of women in the United States are rising to a place of true power.
For anyone who studies activism, the Parkland student movement will be one to watch.