In the days before and after more than two million Americans participated in the March for Our Lives, the gun-violence conversation has focused on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivors and their “student movement.”
The school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and the passion of the teenage survivors have become a catalyst for the current movement. With the help of some well-resourced benefactors, including Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney, the survivors organized an extraordinary rally in D.C. and sister marches around the country in a mere six weeks.
However, the young faces of the advocates have created an assumption that “youth” and “students” are the core of the movement. My research tells a different story about who participated in the March for Our Lives — and it is more complicated and less well-packaged for prime time.
As part of my research on the American Resistance, I have been working with a research team to survey protesters at all the large-scale protest events in Washington since President Trump’s inauguration. By snaking through the crowd and sampling every fifth person at designated increments within the staging area, we are able to gather a field approximation of a random sample. So far, the data set includes surveys collected from 1,745 protest participants.
During the March for Our Lives, my team sampled 256 people who were randomly selected. This gives us the chance to provide evidence about who attended the March for Our Lives and why.
Like other resistance protests, and like previous gun-control marches, the March for Our Lives was mostly women. Whereas the 2017 Women’s March was 85 percent women, the March for Our Lives was 70 percent women. Further, participants were highly educated; 72 percent had a BA or higher.
Contrary to what’s been reported in many media accounts, the D.C. March for Our Lives crowd was not primarily made up of teenagers. Only about 10 percent of the participants were under 18. The average age of the adults in the crowd was just under 49 years old, which is older than participants at the other marches I’ve surveyed but similar to the age of the average participant at the Million Moms March in 2000, which was also about gun control.
Participants were also more likely than those at recent marches to be first-time protesters. About 27 percent of participants at the March for Our Lives had never protested before. This group was less politically engaged in general: Only about a third of them had contacted an elected official in the past year, while about three-quarters of the more seasoned protesters had.
Even more interesting, the new protesters were less motivated by the issue of gun control. In fact, only 12 percent of the people who were new to protesting reported that they were motivated to join the march because of the gun-control issue, compared with 60 percent of the participants with experience protesting.
Instead, new protesters reported being motivated by the issues of peace (56 percent) and Trump (42 percent), who has been a galvanizing force for many protests.
March for Our Lives protesters were also more likely to identify as ideologically moderate. About 16 percent did so, higher than at any other protest event since the inauguration. But unsurprisingly, it was still a very liberal crowd: 79 percent identified as “left-leaning” and 89 percent reported voting for Hillary Clinton.
Thus, in some respects the March for Our Lives mobilized a broader group, including many new protesters and more moderates, than some previous marches. But a remaining question is whether this event will catalyze further action either on gun control or on other issues, as other large-scale demonstrations have.
The March for Our Lives had the allure of a free concert — in fact, the event’s website maintained a list of performers but never listed the speakers. But it is one thing to turn out to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ariana Grande perform, and quite another to vote in the midterm election in November.
Dana R. Fisher is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. She is writing “American Resistance,” which will be published by Columbia University Press after the midterm elections.