The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The best strategy for the Parkland students: Go on strike

Grieving students, friends and family gathered outside of the Federal District Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale to demand stricter gun control laws. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Like people, societies tend to know they’re perpetrating grave wrongs long before they stop. The moment of recognition and the moment of repentance are not one and the same, and there is often a great deal of vacillating before one finally resolves to change. For individuals, any number of things can prompt that final commitment; for societies, hearing the victims of its wrongs seems to be a crucial step.

This is what makes the voices of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., so powerful. It’s what makes these kids, unfairly burdened as they are with rescuing a country from self-destruction, uniquely suited to the role they’ve taken on. It’s why we need them.

It’s why they ought to go on strike.

Opponents of gun control know that the stories of ordinary people whose lives have been destroyed have a particular strength in democratic contexts, which is why so many have been quick to slander the students who have spoken up. That smear campaign, coupled with the remarkably ill-conceived proposal from President Trump that we ask teachers and tutors to double as marksmen and assassins in order to prevent school shootings, suggests that a new energy has emerged in the wake of the Parkland shooting. The gun lobby is out of ideas for holding off this reckoning and knows that these students, with their heartbroken honesty and furious authenticity, could spark a real shift.

Which is all the more reason for these students to forge ahead — and to turn from conversation to demonstration if circumstances don’t change quickly.

Young people in peril have done as much before. Throughout the Vietnam War era, universities were rocked by sit-ins and occasional student strikes: In 1968, Columbia University shut down for the latter half of its spring semester after students and faculty struck in objection to the arrest of student anti-war and anti-racism activists. In 1969, students at Harvard University boycotted classes for more than a week over a similar incident. In 1970, a week-long student strike at the University of Washington saw upward of 10,000 participants band together to oppose the slaughter of their peers.

Back then, the country took note. And public school kids striking would be all the more moving than university students: Because of truancy laws, high schoolers risk real legal discipline for striking.

For that and other reasons, it should not fall to them to challenge the conscience of a nation.

And yet it has. Strikes are effective on several levels, but what unites them as a form of demonstration is that they make the point that society can’t get along unless everyone participates. When workers strike, capital suffers. When students strike, they underscore the hopelessness of a nation without its young and emphasize the impossibility of social continuation if children are too frightened for their lives to learn.

What should the kids strike for? For any number of things: to demand that politicians stop accepting money from the National Rifle Association and the rest of the gun lobby, quit hiding behind suicidal interpretations of the Second Amendment and put legislation for human flourishing over spurious constitutional arguments (imagined or otherwise) and plain greed. It’s neither fair nor reasonable to expect these kids — or any victims or survivors of mass killings — to draft specific policy. Their central demand should be that legislators undertake that process seriously and in good faith, which they ought to have been doing all along. Legislators need to do what needs to be done: bans, buybacks, some combinations thereof. What they need to be told is to do it.

The task before the Parkland students — and other students who choose to join them — is bigger than any one piece of legislation. It’s about reversing a climate of tolerance, not toward specific mass shootings but toward the conditions that permit them. Achieving that will take time and effort and community support. As of now, nationwide student walkouts are already planned, and some districts are claiming they’ll take disciplinary action against participants. A strike could easily be longer-term and affect students dramatically — though members of their communities can ease the impact.  

If you want to support striking students, do what you can given your role: Don’t tally absences, don’t hand down suspensions, don’t punish your kids for doing what they have to do. If you have space to offer them, share it; if you have materials or food or water to supply, bring it; if you have time and solidarity to give, join them. They’re doing what’s in their power to change a ghastly culture. The least we can do is the same.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Why the Parkland students have made pro-gun conservatives so mad

Molly Roberts: Why the Parkland kids might be different

Jennifer Rubin: Will dramatic TV moments on guns make a difference?

Greg Sargent: Angry about Trump and gun violence? Do this now, Democrats.

Alexandra Petri: Modify my views on guns, or vilify traumatized teens? I have chosen the latter.