Mechanical pencils, color-coded binders, highlighters, calculators, and an $80 classroom lockdown kit. Students across the country are being welcomed back to school this month by a dizzying loop of pep rallies and active shooter drills.
In Gainesville, Florida, 5,000 students as young as four years old were given a backpack full of free school supplies in exchange for participating in a “Stop the Violence” rally. In New Orleans, faith groups organized a community event they describe as “a gun buy-back and back to school bash!” There’s obstacle courses, face painting, and a gun buy-back booth – a startling illustration of how much gun violence has become a part of childhood in America.
As the world becomes increasingly unstable, schools have become a battlefield for a system in decline. From COVID lockdowns which led to years worth of missed learning, to a mental health crisis that saw a fivefold increase in suicide attempts among kids 10-12 years old over the past decade, to the right-wing war on queer students, the fact that young people risk being shot to death in school is almost unbearable.
Gun Violence Plagues Teens
While gun violence in schools reached an all-time high in 2021 with a record 42 school shootings, gun deaths among kids are by no means limited to just high profile mass shootings. Many teens, especially Black and Latino teens, live under the constant threat of community gun violence. Black children and teens are 14 times more likely to die of gun homicide than their white peers.
The right wing has seized on these statistics for years to paint a picture of Black teens as inherently more violent. This is a sickening line of argument covering up for a much more vicious reality. An increase in gun violence is directly correlated to higher poverty rates, poorly funded schools, and a lack of essential resources like public parks and fully stocked grocery stores. In other words, gun violence is a symptom of austerity.
The response of the political establishment of both parties has not been to reverse austerity and beef up public services, it’s been to militarize schools and implement curfews for teens – tactics that are at best untested and at worst actually increase crime. This has correctly provoked a backlash in cities like Chicago where teenagers spoke out against Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s new 10:00 PM curfew.
While the increase in gun violence in general is clearly directly linked to the starving out of public schools, and public services more broadly, this alone cannot explain the increase in particularly brutal, premeditated mass shootings targeting children. To understand that, we have to analyze capitalism’s social decay.
Young people are more isolated now than they ever have been before. Even before COVID, teens were staring down an extremely unpredictable future: climate disaster, political instability, crippling student debt, very few job prospects. It would be shocking if the inheritance of a world in turmoil didn’t produce an increase in violence and antisocial behavior.
The lucky part of this otherwise bleak story is that there actually is a way out of it, and it’s a two-fold solution. In the process of building a youth movement for common sense gun control, fully funded schools, social services, jobs programs, and safe communities, not only can we potentially win those things, but we can also build the type of solidarity and common struggle that can overcome social isolation.
What Type of Movement
After the devastating school shooting in Parkland, Florida in 2018 which claimed the lives of 14 students and three staff members, nearly two million Americans took to the streets demanding common sense gun control under the banner March For Our Lives. It was one of the largest protests in U.S. history, and came a week after mass student walkouts swept the country.
The movement was led by high school students who had been victimized by their peer, and then revictimized by the inaction of the political establishment. Their fury at bipartisan hand-wringing struck a chord across the country and March for Our Lives became one of the biggest youth-led protests since the Vietnam war.
There are a lot of important lessons that can be learned from this movement, both what it did well and what needs to be done differently in the future.
The massacre in Parkland was perpetrated by a child who embodied the worst elements of the societal crises we see today: militarism, far-right fanaticism, violence, social alienation, and a lack of quality mental healthcare.
The majority of gun homicides that affect young people don’t take on these extreme characteristics. But the student survivors from Parkland recognized that a youth movement for common sense gun control needed to speak to the experiences of all young people living under the threat of gun violence.
They linked up with youth groups in cities like Chicago and L.A. where gun violence looks very different than in their Florida suburb but where conditions are actually more dangerous. During the mass student walkouts, many Black and Latino students in inner-city schools took action in solidarity with their peers in Parkland. That the movement consciously fought to overcome divisions and unite students of all races was extremely important and points toward the type of youth movement we need now.
However, there were two things that ultimately held back the movement. The first was its ties to the Democratic Party and the second was its limited demands.
The main slogan of the movement was “Vote them out” – which is understandable when you’re face to face with NRA-backed Republicans who are opposed to even the most basic gun control measures. But the movement stopped short of pointing toward who we’d need to vote in. The Democrats have done nothing to earn the votes of young people. Despite being in power, they refuse to cancel student debt, refuse to take the necessary steps to minimize global warming, and refuse to take any comprehensive action on gun violence.
The student movement today cannot look to the Democratic Party as a reliable ally. As we wrote at the time, we need to fight for a political alternative that “draws [its] strength from social movements” and is “unapologetically independent from big business and corporate money.”
David Hogg himself, a survivor of the Parkland shooting and one of the lead activists behind March for Our Lives, has recently drawn a similar conclusion and has come under immense fire for speaking truth about deadly Democratic inaction.
The other thing that hamstrung the movement was its lack of a fighting set of demands. They called for common sense gun control measures which we support, but fell short of spelling out the type of fundamental program we need to end violence.
Uprooting all forms of antisocial violence in our society will require a top to bottom overhaul of our social and political priorities. We need fully funded public schools that have well-resourced social service programs including music, art, and libraries. We need socialized health care that includes high-quality and easy-to-access mental health services. We need to demilitarize the police and public schools. We need a massive jobs program, a cancellation of all student debt, and fully funded public services.
Fighting for all this and more will require the creation of new youth organizations where students from different schools, cities, and states can come together to discuss demands and next steps.
Building this type of student movement, one based on solidarity and a vision for a better world, is the best possible antidote to the social isolation and despair that fuels violence.