One of the most important things to understand about these kinds of protests is that they’re a lot of fun.
You design a creative sign, carpool or catch a bus down to D.C. with your friends, stand around for a few hours chanting and cheering, watch a few of your heroes speak or perform, then spend the evening checking out the sights before you head home. And perhaps most importantly, you get to feel good about yourself and have your own beliefs validated. You get to feel righteous and powerful and optimistic about the future, and that’s a high that no other activity can match.
This is neither an endorsement nor a criticism of Saturday’s #MarchForOurLives, organized by student activists who have become national figures after surviving the massacre that killed 17 of their classmates and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last month. I’m simply stating a fact. At my tiny Christian school, we’d get a day off every year to attend the March for Life, and it was one of our big social events. Many a high school romance blossomed in the back of our charter bus during the long red-eye ride back to Pennsylvania.
Still, in the era of Trump, protesting as a feel-good outing appears to have hit new heights of popularity. It seems as though there’s a new one every few months: the Inauguration, the Women’s March (Parts I and II), the March for Science, and now the March for Our Lives.
As I made my way down Metro’s red line and across the crowded platform of the Archives station in the heart of Washington, D.C., I overheard several marchers comparing the weather, turnout, and organization of this march to that of previous protests, and realized that many of them were seasoned veterans. One man carried a clearly repurposed sign that had originally read “VOTE OUT DEPLORABLE REPUBLICANS 2018” before he’d crudely pasted “NRA” above “REPUBLICANS,” the letters overlapping like a middle school poster presentation. This was just one example of the general conflation of liberal causes on display: pussy hats, Planned Parenthood totes, pro-LGBT stickers, anti-Trump signs, and DREAM Act buttons were all out in force.
I weaved my way down Pennsylvania Avenue through a diverse crowd of high schoolers, parents, aging hippies, and church groups (including a few priests in their vestments), trying to get as close to the stage erected outside the Capitol as possible. As elbow room decreased, I fell in behind a woman in a wheelchair, and followed in her wake as she parted the water like Moses. Unfortunately, my shameless exploitation of the disabled could only carry me so far, and I finally hit a solid wall of bodies right between the Newseum and the Canadian Embassy.
For the next hour, I stood around waiting and feeling incredibly awkward over being there as an observer rather than a protester. It was strange being ambivalently analytical, neither sympathetic nor hostile in full measure, in an environment brimming with total self-assurance.
I grew up steeped in semi-rural Western Pennsylvania gun culture, and many of my Saturday mornings in high school were spent at the shooting range with my dad. I even worked a few shifts at the local gun store when they needed temporary help, and the guys who owned it became like uncles to me. Listening to gun shop talk, I learned all the arguments against gun control forwards and backwards. “An armed society is a polite society,” “if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” “guns are our last defense against government tyranny,” and so on. I still accept some of these arguments and made the case for the last one here at TAC. I will always insist on my right to have a gun that myself and my family can depend on, and I maintain that sweeping, Australian-style confiscations would be a disastrous overreach totally incompatible with America’s unique culture.
On the other hand, the massive disparity in the rates of gun deaths between the United States and the rest of the developed world has led me to question my early pro-gun enthusiasm. At the march, I felt tempted to applaud whenever a speaker or video attacked the NRA, having thrown out my membership card two years ago when the group failed to condemn the shooting of Philando Castile, an African-American man shot by police while legally carrying a gun. Since then, I’ve come to regard the NRA as the right-wing Planned Parenthood. Both organizations are immensely powerful in Washington, and both advocate for unlimited access to something a significant majority of Americans agree should be at least somewhat restricted.
Thankfully, the MSD students’ demands fell far short of full confiscation. They consisted instead of universal background checks, a renewal of the Clinton-era assault weapons ban, and a ban on high-capacity magazines. These are not radical proposals, and despite the chants of “Not one more,” they would not stop all massacres, though they might prevent some. In the last three years, three mass murderers who should have been barred from legally purchasing firearms have been able to do so due to human error. Other killers, like the one who massacred 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, simply stole the guns they used.
The factors that led to the MSD massacre are various, with mental health, gun policy, school security, and law enforcement incompetence all playing a part. But for the student activists who spoke at the march, things were simple. Speaker after speaker rejected calls to focus on school safety rather than gun control, with Alex Winn arguing that arming teachers would be as absurd as arming pastors and movie theater ticket-takers. “All it comes down to is life or death,” Winn said. “If you take money from the NRA, you have chosen death… We choose life!”
Watching their faces up close on the screens, I was struck by their total sincerity. There wasn’t an ounce of political Machiavellianism in any of these kids. Cocky and abrasive as they sometimes are, the one thing they aren’t is insincere. Several broke into tears. One vomited on stage while reciting a poem. Emma Gonzalez stood silent and stony-faced at the microphone for almost five minutes to pay tribute to her fallen classmates.
I may not always agree with these tough, traumatized, windmill-tilting kids, but I sure as hell admire them. They believe with every ounce of their being that they are fighting for their lives against forces that are nothing short of diabolical.
With the students’ moderate proposals and President Trump’s apparent willingness to negotiate, it seems possible that the march might be the beginning of a constructive dialogue, but I fear that there might be drawbacks in believing too strongly in the righteousness of one’s cause. The increasing frequency of these protests can only serve to convince everyone who attends them that they are on the side of goodness and truth, that everyone who disagrees is a slave of greed and corruption, and that compromise with the other side is thus out of the question.
Thanks in part to the attitudes engendered by such marches and rallies, each side of the American divide—the March for Lifers and the March for Our Lives-ers, the disciples of Emma Gonzalez and the ones who drive four hours to attend a Trump rally—now sees the other as a satanic death cult. And nobody wants to sit down at the negotiating table with Sauron.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.