Students who survived the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School spoke about their push to end gun violence to a packed room at the Harvard Institute of Politics on Tuesday evening.
The event was just days before March For Our Lives, a worldwide series of protests set for Saturday demanding an end to gun violence and school shootings. Over 17,000 people have said they’re attending the Boston march on Facebook, and 41,000 say they’re going to the Washington, D.C. protest.
The roughly 200 people who had won a lottery to attend the event stood as Emma González, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Alex Wind, Ryan Deitsch, and alumnus of the school Matt Deitsch walked onto the stage. Parents and grandparents of the students-turned-activists sat in the audience.
González asked that the panel begin with a moment of silence in honor of the school shooting at Great Mills High School in Maryland earlier on Tuesday, in which two students were injured and the 17-year-old suspected gunman died. The shooting came just five weeks after the shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Harvard Institute of Politics Director Mark Gearan set the tone for the discussion to be “how to turn this moment into a movement.” The activists laid out an optimistic agenda centered around a strong belief in the power of young people—their opinions, their voices, and, importantly, their votes.
“On Saturday, what’s important is that we make sure that we speak up to these congressman, these local and state [legislatures], and let them know that this is what their constituents want,” Hogg said. “If you choose not to vote on the side of students’ lives, that’s completely up to you, and if you choose not to vote on the side of human lives that are innocently taken, thousands of people every year, that’s OK, because we’ll vote you out. It’s as simple as that,” he said to applause.
Elections regularly see low turnout from young voters, but the voting bloc has the potential for huge influence. The activists expressed frustration at not being taken seriously and having the power of young people be underestimated.
“They like to denounce America’s youth. They like to say that we eat Tide pods … These are serious arguments for people who don’t want to support the things that we’re fighting for,” Ryan Deitsch said. “James Monroe, during the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was 18 years old. He became a president of the United States. He’s a founding father and has statues all over this country. He is a patriot. And he was 18 years old. No one accused James Monroe of eating a goddamn Tide pod,” Ryan Deitsch said.
The students who have advocated for gun control reform in the wake of the shooting have garnered an enormous platform, which is largely unprecedented. González has accumulated well over one million Twitter followers, and the students have inspired walkouts at schools all around the country.
The activists acknowledged that they are privileged to have such a voice on the subject of gun violence, pointing out that they’ve met with many people—especially from minority communities—who face gun violence every day but don’t have the same chance to drive the conversation.
“We’ve seen children get murdered in poor neighborhoods that are not covered the same … that’s something that we need to face as Americans, we do have this class and racial bias that is prevalent in the media and our society,” Hogg said.
They expressed wanting to create a unified movement to end all gun violence, not just school shootings, and to involve all people who have been touched by it.
“It’s easy to feel guilty that we have this platform and others that face this tragedy every single day don’t,” Kasky said. “But we have to forgive ourselves for that and represent everybody. We have the spotlight, we need to shine it on the people who are too often ignored.”
They voiced their admiration for civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who they say has been supportive of their fight and has been inspiring to them.
“It just makes me feel so hopeful for the future, with men like this,” Ryan Deitsch said. “Every other congressman, every other senator, they made us sit down at a table, they made us wait a few minutes, they made us late to other meetings because they made us wait, but when we walked into John Lewis’s office … he was the first person to greet me in his own office, and that’s how it should be. That is a civil servant, and that is somebody who is there for the interest of the people. You shouldn’t be surprised to see a congressman in his own office.”
The activists responded to two pieces of criticism they’ve received: that they are against the second amendment and that they are pushing a partisan agenda. They emphasized that they are not trying to take away people’s guns, with some explaining that their families have guns, but rather that they want to make sure guns don’t fall into the wrong hands and to change legislation around weapons of war.
The speakers acknowledged that more Republicans take money from the NRA, but rejected it being a partisan issue.
“There are politicians in both parties accepting money from the NRA, and these lobbyists can’t [rule] our politicians,” Kasky said. “Sure, they own more Republicans than Democrats, but we’re not letting Democrats who are funded by the NRA off the hook.”
When an audience member asked the panelists what the role of teachers can be to prevent school shootings, the students were quick to condemn the proposal from President Donald J. Trump, among others, to arm teachers.
“Do we want to turn our schools into war zones?” Hogg asked. González cut in to answer his question with a whispered “No.”
The students also pointed out that the issue of gun violence reaches far beyond schools, and so arming teachers would do little to curb shootings in churches, movie theaters, or concert venues.
Instead, they called for teachers to give students the education they need to be informed, passionate citizens, crediting their own teachers.
“We learned about the NRA [the day of the shooting], we learned about the NRA and how they are a very powerful lobbying group, and now we’re going up head-to-head with them,” Ryan Deitsch said. “Jeff Foster has definitely prepared us,” he said of a teacher at the high school.
“I didn’t share it with anybody,” González said about the text for her viral speech. “Which is one of the reasons I’ve been so good at speaking about this, is because I’ve had creative writing classes for like four years … the arts, fund the arts, please!”
When asked where the students hope to see the movement a year from now, the activists’ optimism shone through again.
“I see a very different political conversation, and I see a lot of different people in office,” Kasky said. “For the first time in a very long time, I’m looking 10 years from now and I’m hopeful,” he added, eliciting nods from several of the panelists.