Nearly a million young people marched for their lives on March 24 in Washington DC and cities throughout the nation. They railed against the fact that in the wealthiest country in the world, youth no longer feel secure in their schools, their neighborhoods and their daily lives, and demonstrated against the politics that promotes the death industry over their survival.
The March for Our Lives in Washington D.C. and other U.S. and world cities was unprecedented. It developed out of a new response to the February massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that left 17 persons dead.
This wasn’t the first attack on students in their classrooms. Since the April 20,1999 Columbine massacre shocked the world and started a debate over guns and violence, there have been more than 200 shootings in U.S. schools, with hundreds murdered. When the ban on assault weapons expired at the end of 2004, the number of yearly attacks almost doubled, along with the number of victims. It has continued to increase in recent years by about 10 attacks annually. The March 24 demonstrations marked the moment that the hundreds of thousands of young people who marched and the many more who support them finally said, “Enough is enough!”
The youth are aware that their demands for gun control go beyond the single issue. Theirs is a historic movement—one of the most common signs at the demonstrations read simply: “We Are the Change.”
The young people, most of high-school age like the Stoneman Douglas students, are building organizational structures through social media, mainstream media presence, mobilization and lobbying. It’s hard to know if their raised voices, their passion, and their organizing prowess are enough to break the grip that the gun lobby has on Congress. But the youth are building a real movement, not only against unfettered access to weapons of war, but also against a capitalist-patriarchal system with deep roots in violence.
The school gun massacres and others such as the one in Las Vegas in 2017 that killed 58 people and left 851 wounded, with very few exceptions, have been committed by white males. Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, said the Parkland students should stop marching against laws permitting the easy purchase of automatic weapons and instead focus on school bullying, insinuating that mass murderers are harassment victims who reach a snapping point.
A telling response to his inane comments immediately began circulating in the internet: “If bullying were the problem behind this violence, the killers would be women, people of color, and the disabled. But that’s not the case. Those who kill are those who think their privileges in a racist patriarchy are absolute.”
The motives vary, but the general profile is of men who seem to think that they have the right to exercise power, and that the best way to do that is with a high-powered lethal weapon in their hands. When they feel they have been robbed of the power of their birthright, they seek to get it back by killing. They claim entitlement–the supposed privilege of being above the others.
What kind of society teaches such a violent model of domination and subordination? What kind of society facilitates the expression of this model in blood, guaranteeing everybody and anyone the means to kill in mass?
The patriarchal paradigm lies at the root of this violence. It teaches that men’s superior physical strength gives them control over the family and places their will above the will of women and children. Even when it’s not imposed through violence – though it often is – society’s standards reinforce this concept, which gives men more prestige, more economic power, more liberty, and more positions in power. Their role is to protect or discipline– never to empower–those who are supposedly weaker. Because of that, the most vulnerable end up seeking protection from the most powerful, who are precisely the ones who present the greatest threat.
The role of the state mirrors this model. Far from a social compact, the capitalist state today foments relationships of dependency, oppression and inequality. The system uses guns as a caveman’s club, to bludgeon the subordinate into permanent submission. From police brutality aimed at African Americans in U.S. cities, to the paramilitaries unleashed against the indigenous people of Chiapas, to the abusive husband with an AK-47 in the closet, the forces of repression disguise themselves as providers of security, even as they feed off the violence they themselves provoke. Militarism proposes that violence must be met with more and stronger violence, which generates a death spiral as it consolidates the domination model and strengthens the patriarchy.
When Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland killer, was arrested, he was wearing his junior ROTC shirt. The Reserve Officers Training Corp program is how the U.S. military conducts on-going training on school campuses across the United States. ROTC students as young as 14 are taught the use of arms, emphasizing macho values such as loyalty to country and to the armed forces, physical conditioning aimed at asserting oneself, leadership over others, and belief in a masculine god.
Aside from whatever personality disorders he may have had, Cruz found in his ROTC club an environment conducive to his fantasies of domination, just as he found in the free market the weapons he could use to carry out his plan of revenge.
The students’ call for arms control and an end to violence aimed at youth is a profoundly radical demand in this context. The women and girls who protest femicides and sexual harassment, and the men and boys who reject violence as identity and survival, are protesting for something that goes beyond gun control laws–or the lack of them. They don’t feel safe in their own spaces: their schools, their neighborhoods, their homes. They accuse the system of promoting and supporting the violence they face, and they have risen up to reject a future where this is considered normal.
The eloquence of their voices flows from their desperation and rage against a society that has failed them. Though school massacres present a more acute problem in the United States than elsewhere, young people, especially women, from many countries live in increasingly violent societies. In Mexico, just a few days before the historic March for Our Lives in Washington, UNAM students from the #NosHacenFalta (We Miss Them) collective led a tour of the sites on campus where bodies of murder victims have been found and organized a protest against impunity and the authorities’ repressive response to violence on campus.
They stated to students and victims’ families gathered on the campus green, “We came to listen to each other, to share our rage and pain, to give ourselves hope, and to think together about how to continue struggling in an organized way against the femicidal and homicidal violence that is killing us.”
Since 2002, there have been 49 murders within the university community. The Mexican students condemned the “institutional and narco-state violence that threatens us in the streets, in the classrooms, in our own houses.”
In Mexico and Washington and around the world, young people are organizing in defense of their lives. It sounds basic. But in the face of a system of death, it’s a monumental struggle that deserves the support and solidarity of the entire society.
Laura Carlsen’s column was originally published in Spanish with the Mexican peoples’ news service Desinformémonos.
Translation for the Americas Program: Kelly Garrett