Change Never Happens Until Young People Like Emma González Demand It

Emma González. Photo: RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images

Three days after 17 people were killed at her school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Emma González took the stage at a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to criticize the continued laxity of our nation’s gun laws, the National Rifle Association, and the politicians who continue to prove themselves either unwilling or unable to protect their constituents.

“The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us,” she said. “And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and our parents to call BS. Companies trying to make caricatures of the teenagers these days, saying that all we are self-involved and trend-obsessed, and they hush us into submission when our message doesn’t reach the ears of the nation, we are prepared to call BS.”

With her buzz cut, a wrist full of colorful friendship bracelets, and a piercing voice holding back tears, 18-year-old González cut a powerful figure — a young woman forced to bear a terrible burden, a teenager propelled by the righteous anger of a youth whose elders have failed her.

González wrote her ten-minute speech just hours before Saturday’s rally, telling People that when she gets in the zone, “My fingers can do no wrong.” “Emma, beautifully, has no composure, because she’s not trying to hide anything from anybody,” her fellow Stoneman Douglas student Cameron Kasky told The New Yorker.

In the wake of the shooting, many have pointed to González and her fellow students as potentially galvanizing forces in the gun control debate. Indeed, these teens have taken matters into their own hands with remarkable adroitness and poise. They launched the #NeverAgain movement. They have dominated the narrative of the shooting by granting hundreds of media interviews, always returning to the need for greater gun control. They have spoken directly to politicians, through tweets, interviews, and by organizing a trip to meet lawmakers at the state capital. And they are organizing the March for Our Lives, a nationwide protest on March 24 to end gun violence.

This isn’t fair — kids shouldn’t have to fight their leaders to demand safety — but it isn’t surprising either. Students have been at the forefront of our country’s most powerful social movements, including the civil-rights movement, and the feminist, environmental, and anti-war movements. Nor is it surprising that a young woman with a shaved head and the last name González has become a figurehead for #NeverAgain. As MIT professor Sasha Costanza-Chock wrote in their 2012 paper “Youth and Social Movements: Key Lessons for Allies,” “Around the globe, wherever we look closely at social movements, we find that some of the most ‘invisible’ young people are also the most active, engaged, and creative in movement strategy and tactics, as well as media production and use.”

And the Parkland survivors have made incredible use of the media. Since Saturday, a CNN video of González’s speech has been viewed over 140,000 times. She has a new verified Twitter account (@Emma4Change) where she retweets news about the #NeverAgain movement, and the March for Our Lives, and also mentions from celebrities like Laverne Cox, Demi Lovato, and Zendaya. Like most teenagers today, she has an implicit understanding of the power of social media and branding, and she is using it to fight a battle that long predates Twitter or YouTube.

Throughout our history, America has been dragged into progress by our youth, and by the people we most often marginalize. In 1964, a decade after the Supreme Court struck down segregated schooling in Brown vs. Board of Education, over 450,000 black and Puerto Rican students took part in a citywide protest of the New York City public school system, and its continued segregation. In 2012, undocumented activists like Jorge Gutierrez and Nancy Meza staged a sit-in to pressure the Obama administration into deferring the deportation of undocumented youths. We fight them, and dismiss them, and eventually, slowly, we follow them, kicking and screaming the whole way.

In her speech, González said: “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because, just as David said, we are going to be the last mass shooting.”

Will this turn out to be true? Who knows. But youth involvement has precipitated some of the greatest advancements in our country — why can’t ending gun violence be the next?

Change Depends on Young People Like Emma González