The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A generation of kids betrayed by their adult leaders is fed up

RuQuan Brown speaks to the crowd during the March for Our Lives rally last weekend in Washington. (Leigh Vogel/Getty Images)
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Right after D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser introduced RuQuan Brown, a Harvard University student and football player, to the massive crowd on the National Mall on Saturday, he let her have it.

“I have to be here because of the very disgusting and intentional ignorance from the city and nation’s elected officials,” he told attendees of March for Our Lives, who were rallying to end gun violence. Brown, 20, would have rather been anywhere else. Instead, he was telling his story, again.

“When I spoke with Mayor Bowser two years ago about creating safer spaces for Black children and people in our city, she told me she’d handle it,” Brown said. “If that were true, I wouldn’t be on this stage.”

Brown is part of a vanguard of young Americans who are fed up, betrayed by a generation of leaders who have failed to protect, nurture and grow them.

Thousands of youth gather in Washington to protest gun violence

Organized by the kids who survived the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., four years ago, the youth movement against gun violence today is angry, fueled by common sense issues and largely uninterested in the political gamesmanship of the adults who speak fondly of children but repeatedly put them last on their list.

Brown, who lost a stepfather and a football team member to gun violence, is tired of telling his story to leaders who refuse to make change. “Since our elected officials are extremely broken, ignorant and irresponsible,” Brown said to the crowd, “I’ve been left with no other choice but to explore and discover what it is going to take to keep me, my 10 siblings, my future children, you and yours safe.”

He added, “I thought it might be through education, but we are unsafe in our schools. I thought it would be through leisure, but we are unsafe on vacation. I thought it would be through career, but we are unsafe at work. I thought it would be through politics, but we are unsafe in our capital, too.”

The kids are fed up. Here in the District, a few youth organizations teamed up and held a debate for the mayoral candidates. “A forum like this is both exciting and intimidating,” said D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) after a grilling so intense, you could almost see the sear marks on his psyche.

‘Nothing happens when you have a shooting on a city street’

The kids who have ducked from gunfire in their neighborhoods asked him about gun violence. The ones who see their friends couch surfing or doubling up asked him about homelessness. They wanted to know why he is getting rid of police in their schools and what is up with the lack of grocery stores in their neighborhoods.

The kids are watching. And listening. They are asking and they will be voting.

“Their questions were raw,” White said. “And they don’t let you off the hook.”

“Keep schools safe. Keep the cops in school.”

“More peace programs, jobs for Blacks. Less guns.”

“These charter schools are plagued with violence.”

These are some of the issues the kids wrote on posters at the forum and buttonholed the candidates on at the reception.

“It’s easy to think they’re not hearing us,” said Briana Sturdivant, 17. “But I would say they did answer some questions.”

Lourdes Robinson, the District’s youth mayor, is 16 and a high school sophomore. She is not old enough to vote, but she did not hesitate to corner White on what is happening in her neighborhood.

“There has been a rise of youth violence in D.C.,” she said to him. “What plans or steps do you plan to take to address the issue of violence without increasing police population in our communities?”

Indeed, 2020 was the first time that gunfire killed more people 19 and younger than car accidents. The rate nationwide jumped 30 percent, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The District is on its fifth straight year of an uphill climb in statistics.

Bowser has tried to make changes with increased police patrols, outreach workers sent to hot-spot neighborhoods and more programs for those at risk to violence. But it remains a complex problem in a country whose states have wildly different gun laws.

White took a deep breath and explained that he understands the dynamics of a housing crisis and inflation that help fuel more crime. Robinson liked that he understands the dynamics of the city.

“However, I feel he’s out of touch with youth,” she told me in a text conversation we had after her questioning of White. “There isn’t a clear plan for the youth besides creating schooling for everyone.”

Plans, platforms, platitudes. The kids have heard it all. And they are fixing to be one of the few American generations who will face more violence, homelessness and less opportunity than the one before them. That is messed up.

“I’m disappointed that most politicians haven’t done their job of ensuring the best outcomes for all people in this country,” Brown said after the weekend rally, when he went back to work on his anti-violence campaign and business, raising money for families of gun violence victims.

The rest of the kids went back to their cities and states to lobby, canvass, plead and protest. They are prepared to make change, and they will.

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