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We Sanction Rage Along Racial Lines

Today, the anger of American students was on full display as thousands participated in a National School Walkout. These young people, fed up with gun violence, left their classrooms for 17 minutes to mark the 17 lives lost to gun violence one month ago today at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

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Nationwide Student Walkout

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Most of these teens are too young to vote, but they will enact political change by using their bodies and voices to rage against inaction by adults in their communities and legislatures. Their demands for meaningful legislation restricting access to America’s domestic weapons of mass destruction just may prove successful; after all, they have already won concessions in the notoriously difficult Florida legislature. Hell hath no fury like a teen with a purpose.

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As a civics teacher and the parent of a teen, I can’t help but beam with pride as students hand letter protest signs, furiously text peers urging participation, organize teach-ins to ensure all involved know their rights, and even post photos of their protest manis.

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And as a media professional I can’t help but look askance at my industry: we are covering these students’ rage, but are we telling the whole story? This is not the first group of enraged teens to try to turn the tide in this country. But this time, we listen. What’s changed?

Mainstream broadcast media outlets have acknowledged the righteousness of post-Parkland anger; they have seriously sought to understand the goals of student organizers; they’ve devoted significant time to covering the protests, and even without agreeing to policy prescriptions, have largely applauded the the participatory actions of these young people.

This seems right to me. It should makes us angry. Indeed, Elle.com was conducting our national survey of American anger as the news of the shooting deaths in Parkland, Florida first began to dominate the airwaves. The adults who responded to our survey were angry too. Gun violence was one of the top issues they cited as a cause of their daily anger.

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The question for media and for the wider public is whether we validate expressions of political of anger only from some and not others. Parkland, Florida is a predominately white, affluent, suburban community. In recent years we have been more reticent to acknowledge the grievances of black, Latinx, poor, and urban families, and of communities whose impatience with inequality and grief in the face of violent loss is expressed as anger. We sanction rage along racial lines.

We sanction rage along racial lines.

Beginning in 2013 thousands of public school students in Philadelphia, PA engaged in repeated walkouts and public demonstrations to protest severe budget cuts that left their schools without arts education, sports programs, upper level courses, and after school activities. These cuts were life-threatening in both the short term for students living in a city marred by gun violence and in the long term for young people who were denied opportunities to fully explore their talents and academic potential. According to the most recent figures, Philadelphia’s school district is 49 percent Black and 20 percent Hispanic; this was an action planned and led by and for students of color.The protests continued for nearly two years, but were mostly treated as a local news item unworthy of substantial national media coverage. The anger of black school kids in Philadelphia simply did not register for most.

The same summer Philadelphia students took to the streets, Florida students took over the state legislature. In August 2013, outraged by George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin, the Dream Defenders staged Florida’s longest continuous demonstration with a 31 day occupation of the state capitol.

Dream Defenders protest in Miami on August 14, 2014.

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Members of Dream Defenders at the Florida Capitol on August 1, 2013

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Like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High teens, whom they preceded by nearly five years, the Dream Defenders were angry because their peer had been shot to death by a gun wielding stranger and nothing in Florida law seemed likely to stop it from happening again. They came, indignant and organized, saying “Enough!” In the end Gov. Rick Scott refused to call a special session to address the Stand Your Ground law.

Five days ago, just over three weeks after the Parkland shooting, the same Governor Scott signed a $400 million school safety bill that creates a waiting period for gun sales and raises the minimum age to buy rifles from 18 to 21.

In 1963 the children of Birmingham, Alabama, fed up with the indignities of Jim Crow segregation walked out of their schools.

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A student protesting segregation in Birmingham in 1963

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Bull Connor met them with dogs and water hoses.

Firehoses were used on the student protestors in Birmingham in 1963

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Exasperated with economic and ethnic inequality in their schools, Chicano students walked out of East LA schools in 1968. More than a dozen student organizers were arrested on conspiracy charges.

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Sheriff’s deputies form a line across street at Garfield High School during a student demonstration on March 5, 1968. Similar confrontations occurred at other schools.

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Impassioned young activists in New York, Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, Charlotte, and Chicago, irate with the callous, unpunished, videotaped deaths of black men, women, and children have insisted Black Lives Matter. They have been labeled terrorists.

Perhaps this is why it had to be the young people of Parkland who could finally turn the tide. Today thousands of American young people will walk in the footsteps of black and brown student activists who have shouted and raged against injustice for decades. Maybe this time we will hear them because we will not be afraid. Maybe this time we will not recoil from an outrage that’s been suppressed for generations.

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