The rallying cry among politicians for years has been to do it for the children. Now those children are embracing their political power first-hand.
From guns to immigration, the country’s youths are increasingly laying claim to moral high ground in major national debates, demanding they be heard both as victims and as solution-makers.
Thousands of Florida high school students descended on the state Capitol in Tallahassee on Wednesday demanding strict new gun controls in the wake of last week’s school massacre by an expelled ex-student using a legally purchased AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.
Hundreds more students gathered on the grass outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to deliver the same message directly to federal lawmakers — who unlike their Florida counterparts were out of town, home on a week-long vacation.
“Hey, hey, NRA / You can’t beat the PTA,” the students in D.C. chanted.
Exactly a month earlier it was Dreamers who stood on the same spot outside the Senate, rallying behind Democrats inside the Capitol who had forced a partial government shutdown over the Dreamers’ fate.
“We are seeing young people no longer want to lick envelopes but rather are determining the tactics, framing the message, and creating the media for campaigns that reflect their priorities for the direction of the society,” said Henry Jenkins, a professor at the University of Southern California who co-wrote the book “By Any Means Necessary: The New Youth Activism.”
The children make for compelling stories.
Many of the Dreamers are excellent students, volunteers, workers and in some cases even employers themselves. And the well-spoken students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, having come through unfathomable tragedy, make for riveting television.
CNN dubbed them the “student survivors,” and along with MSNBC devoted near wall-to-wall coverage Wednesday to their calls for action both in Tallahassee and in Washington, where the White House also harnessed the students, bringing them in for a sit-down with President Trump.
“I was born into a world where I never got to experience safety and peace,” Justin Gruber, a sophomore at the Florida school, told the president. “There needs to be some change.”
In Florida, students met with state lawmakers to press for immediate action on a gun-control bill.
At a rally after the meetings, they embraced their political power, vowing to challenge the National Rifle Association.
“We are not afraid of you. We will not be silenced by anything you have to say,” one student said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, was in Congress in 2013 when the last major gun control debate broke out in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. That effort to tighten gun background checks stumbled, unable to reach the 60 votes needed for action.
Ms. Klobuchar said she senses the next legislative fight on guns could go the Democrats’ way.
“The difference right now to me is the young people — and it’s not just in Florida — who see this as an outrage that this could happen in their school,” she told reporters.
“It’ll basically wake up some of the Republicans to at least allow for a vote on something as simple as background checks,” she said.
Walter Osborne, a sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School who was rallying outside the Capitol on Wednesday, said he thinks his generation has become more effective because of social media.
“Our generation has more access to media and to communications and we have an unprecedented amount of ability to spread a message to communicate, a time, and a place, and a cause, and to get that across to people,” he said.
Mr. Jenkins said that while the students have harnessed social media, their impact goes well beyond it.
“We are seeing young people effectively speaking via the television and amplifying their voices through cable and broadcast media,” he said. “This is also part of the story — a new generation of political leaders who are stepping up as high school students and forming large scale national organizations in their 20s. We are going to see many more such protests in the years to come.”
John Wall, a professor at Rutgers University-Camden who has studied children and politics, said the rest of the world has been far ahead of the U.S. in youth activism, with children’s parliaments, child labor movements and other sources of organized politicking.
He said that’s both because the U.S. never ratified the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and because Americans “uniquely infantilize children in a private sphere of family and school.”
That’s beginning to change, he said.
“We’re starting to see U.S. children joining this global shift in various efforts such as environmental justice, gender and sexuality rights, Black Lives Matter, and political campaigning. The activism around school shootings is another example,” he said.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
• Alex Swoyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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