About 500,000 people, largely youth, demonstrated in Washington, DC, in late March, against the continued mass shootings at schools across the country.
There were solidarity mobilisations with this “March for Our Lives”, totalling hundreds of thousands more in some 800 cities and towns. In New York, 150,000 took to the streets, 85,000 in Chicago and 55,000 in Los Angeles.
The spark that lit the tinder of anger and outrage against such shootings – since January there have been 18 school shootings, and many more before – was the response to the 4 February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 were killed.
Survivors of the Parkland shooting planned national actions and sounded the tocsin. The call was picked up in a short while. The first actions were walkouts in schools across the country on 14 March, followed by the March for Our Lives.
The overwhelmingly young speakers in the capital included many Parkland survivors, from 13 to 18 years old, who were universally acclaimed as angry, determined, articulate and ready to “fight”, as one of them said.
Parkland survivors were also featured at a rally of 20,000 in southern Florida, a short distance from Trump’s Palm Beach resort (his home away from the White House), where he was playing golf.
The Parkland survivors understood that they had to reach out to Black and Latino youth, who are victims of gun violence in their communities, including by police. One, Jaclyn Corin, said:
“Parkland is the heart of this movement. But just as a heart needs blood to pump, my hometown needs the alliance of other communities to properly spread this message. We openly recognise that we are privileged individuals who would not have received as much attention if it weren’t for the affluence of our city.
“Because of that, however, we share the stage, today and forever, with those who have always stared down the barrel of a gun.”
She then introduced nine-year-old Yolanda King, granddaughter of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King. Yolanda said:
“My grandfather had a dream that his four little children will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream that enough is enough, and that this should be a gun-free world, period!”
Edna Lizbeth Chávez, another speaker, said, “Hola, buenas tardes. I am from South Los Angeles, California, el sur de Los Ángeles. I am a 17-year-old senior at Manual Arts High School. I am a youth leader. I am a survivor. I have lived in South LA my entire life and have lost many loved ones to gun violence …
“For decades, my community … has become accustomed to this violence. It is normal to see candles, it is normal to see posters, it is normal to see balloons, it is normal to see flowers honouring the lives of Black and Brown youth who have lost their lives to a bullet.
“How can we cope with it, when our school district has its own police department? Instead of making Black and Brown students feel safe, they continue to profile and criminalise us. Instead, we should have a department specialising in restorative justice. We need to tackle the root causes of the issues we face, and come to an understanding of how to resolve them.”
This issue of cops in schools is one of many the speakers took on, as well as opposition to Trump’s proposal to arm teachers. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has in the past proposed that even students be armed, ostensibly to kill a student shooter first. But who would know who was shooting whom? It would turn into a circular firing squad.
There was fierce opposition to the NRA. This outfit presents itself an organisation of hunters, target shooters and others who have guns only for self-defence. In reality, it is the lobby representing gun manufacturers, and opposes all restrictions on guns. It has great sway over Republican politicians and most Democrats.
One sign at the south Florida rally depicted Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice-president of the NRA, with the label “TERRORIST”. The extreme right politics of the NRA leaders was expressed in a speech by LaPierre at a gathering of conservatives after the Parkland shootings.
He focused on what he considers the imminent danger of socialism and communism taking over the country, and only tangentially on guns. He bemoaned that colleges and universities include discussion of the Communist Manifesto and Marxist economics.
He sounded the alarm that the Democratic Socialists of America have chapters in hundreds cities and campuses, and so forth. He charged that the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists – something we haven’t heard from a major figure since the days of Joe McCarthy. And LaPierre said that he wasn’t referring just to Bernie Sanders, but to the whole Democratic Party.
He tied this into the question of guns by asserting that the socialists and communists want to take away the Second Amendment right to bear arms as a first step to taking away “all our freedoms”. He was interrupted with applause at points, indicating that many “conservatives” have become the far right.
As is always true in new movements, in the many rallies across the country there were different viewpoints about what to do. Besides opposition to the NRA and guns in schools, there were other common themes.
One was the demand that assault rifles be banned. In the Parkland shootings, an AR-15 assault rifle was used. Assault rifle were used in other mass shootings in schools and in other venues. Such rifles are quick-firing semi-automatic weapons that can be easily transformed into automatic machine guns.
As the name implies, they are offensive weapons used by armies, having nothing to do with self-defence. They are useless for hunting animals for food because they would blow them apart. Their only use is to kill people.
Another theme was closing loopholes through which practically anyone can buy a gun at guns shows or through second hand sales, and adopting other common sense gun control measures. Any laws passed by Congress about guns can and have been used to victimise Blacks and be used for other reactionary purposes, so any such laws should be carefully reviewed.
Empire of violence
The background to these school shootings is that the US is a very violent country. The US has been at war since 1941, continues to be so in the present, and there are threats of new wars.
The US has more guns per capita than any other country in the world. People here are 10 times more likely to die from guns than in other “first world” countries. The figure jumps to 25 times for gun-related homicides.
Also, the so-called War on Drugs has created a huge illicit trade to meet the growing demand for drugs, which is caused by economic despair. The drug cartels use guns to counter police forces – in the instances when they aren’t working hand in glove with them.
Each drug enterprise also uses guns to protect its turf against competitors. The foot soldiers on the ground, often drawn from the exploited and oppressed who see no other way to survive, are the enforcers and another source of gun violence in many communities.
An example of official violence in the United States is the number of police killings. In 2014, for example, police in the US killed 1,100 people. In the same year, police killed 14 people in Canada, one in the United Kingdom, 12 in China and zero in Germany.
In these and other ways, including TV cop shows, the lesson is taught that guns are needed by “good guys” to kill the “bad guys”. No wonder deranged individuals carry out mass shootings and feel justified – they see the lesson all around them that killing for “good causes” like theirs is OK.
The protesting teenagers, while fighting for their own lives, are seeing the connections with racism and reactionary institutions such as the NRA. Socialists can help them see the connection with what is wrong with the whole of capitalist society.
Another aspect of these demonstrations was the Democratic Party trying to corral all this energy into election campaigning. Democratic operatives were at the demonstrations signing up youth to register to vote. There is growing pressure on this and all other social movements to get behind the Democrats as the non-Trump party in the November Congressional mid-term elections.
Socialists can play a role here too: explaining that the Democrats are no answer to Trump and the rightist Republicans, and fighting for the movement to keep pushing ahead with mass actions of all types.
There are indications that some of our arguments can find support among these youth. A spirit was evident in all the actions that young people would not be told what to do.
One electoral slogan speakers advanced was not to support any candidate who accepts support from the NRA. We will see how this holds up when it comes to Democrats who accept such support. In any case, we want to be there when the Democrats fail to deliver much.