On March 24, thousands marched in Nashville for the March for Our Lives in solidarity with the hundreds of sister marches happening nationwide and around the world. The Vanderbilt students who made this march successful were mostly freshmen who were generally inexperienced with planning events of this scale, let alone within the timeframe of a mere thirty days. Since I, too, was one of the student organizers of this march (I was on the Guest Speakers and Entertainment committee), I can attest to the fact that working in solidarity with a larger movement against gun violence was both exhausting and exciting. Having the support of many proud members of both the local and global community wasn’t only invigorating, but it was also reassuring. We knew that what we were working toward was not only important to us personally, but also that those around us considered it worth paying attention to.
With those feelings of pride and hope, I also experienced what could only be described as hurt and a little bit of shame. I watched so much of the world embrace the youth activists behind the March for Our Lives (M4OL), watched them receive public support from big names everywhere, watched them be the recipients of widespread sympathy. They were branded as fierce, courageous youths who were able to somehow maintain relevance in an otherwise hurried media cycle that chews up and spits out tragedies like stale gum.
I feel hurt because what the students behind March for Our Lives are fighting for – relief from senseless tragedies caused by guns – has been the goal of young black activists in the United States for years. Simply put, black people are disproportionately impacted by the influence of gun violence; the FBI found that, in 2016, African Americans made up 52 percent of the country’s murder victims, almost three-fourths of which were carried out with guns. This, coupled with the massively disproportionate rates at which unarmed black individuals are the recipients of lethal force on behalf of law enforcement, has given organizations such as the Movement for Black Lives and student-led groups such as the Dream Defenders plenty of reasons to call for change.
So why do we all of a sudden mobilize around gun violence now, when these groups have been minimized, erased, and delegitimized time and time again? We’ve seemed to forget how the Dream Defenders organized a month-long sit in to protest Florida’s “stand your ground” law years ago and there’s a laundry list of complaints about Black Lives Matter. When we think of reasons to belittle or overshadow the work of these groups, we erase the value of the people they were created to protect: black youth. It’s hard to discount that the reason why M4OL has garnered this much attention is because of the whiteness of its leaders and of the town impacted by this particular instance of gun violence (Parkland is 84 percent white and only 6.5 percent black, according to the 2010 census).
The student activists of Parkland know their privilege. They know that they’re at an advantage because people just seem to have an easier time sympathizing with students who look like them. I suppose seeing white children be victimized makes us more inclined to help; perhaps we are able to take them more seriously when they’re not labeled as thugs or troublemakers. And while I am both impressed and grateful about the fact that they’re using their power to give a platform for people fighting for the safety of minority children from gun violence, it just won’t be enough. There’s only so much that they can do; their power only goes so far.
When we see Black Lives Matter activists begin to grow impatient with the lack of change brought about by their efforts to make this country safer, we tell them to be patient, that change doesn’t happen overnight, that they just have to “wait their turn.” However, the March for Our Lives student activists received almost instantaneous responses to their cries for reform. We immediately gave them interviews with the country’s top journalists, a town hall that allowed them to confront politicians with the entire nation watching, and sympathetic media coverage.
Meanwhile, with Black Lives Matter, for instance, we spend our time debating the “pros and cons” of the movement. We operate by acting like there is an argument to be made against the safety of black youth, which only legitimizes the loss of innocent lives even more. Regardless of all the disparities in the way they’ve been treated, at their core, the two movements carry the exact same message: stop killing people. Since one of them is specifically focused on black lives and the other is not, it’s hard not to view the difference in reception as racial. We label these young black activists as black identity extremists while we warmly liken the M4OL activists to the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. We argue that Black Lives Matter has no real platform while simultaneously praising how on-target and focused the M4OL activists are with their policy aims. When we reward activism with a promise for change for one group and demonize the other, what we are doing is sending a message to the ignored group that their concerns have no weight in this country, that what they fight for is not as important. That’s frankly unacceptable.
Instead of relying on student activists from one group to redirect attention to marginalized student activists from another group, it should be our job as a country. White people shouldn’t have to “hand the mic over” to black people; as humans, as victims, as activists we all deserve to be listened to. This way, we can give the appropriate attention to different causes that impact different communities in our country while also understanding that some groups will have more concerns than others. This also means that we do not have to think about causes such as the March for Our Lives and organizations such as the Movement for Black Lives as mutually exclusive. I, for one, will gladly be active in both.