Two Movements: Student Mobilizations Against Gun Violence and Black Lives Matter

High school students demonstrate for gun control in Minneapolis, February 21. Photo: Fibonacci Blue. via Flickr.

First published at Socialist Worker.

I have seen many comments on social media about the significant difference in how the emergence of the student mobilizations against gun violence has been greeted compared to the Black insurgency of Black Lives Matter.

It is an important discussion to have because if these current mobilizations hope to grow into a social movement that can fundamentally change the gun violence and militarism that pervades American society and culture, it will have to take up the ways that Black people are disproportionately impacted by these phenomena.

At the same time, it is important to take stock of why these two mobilizations of young people have been viewed differently.

The Black uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement exposed the racism and brutality of American society that the political establishment always works so hard to shroud.

Many of those who participated in the rebellions and went on to be active in the movement had their "Parkland moment" in 2007 and 2008, when young Black people flocked to the polls to put Barack Obama in the White House.

Those young Black voters — who had also experienced the shock of government futility when the Bush administration allowed Black New Orleans to drown and when Bush facilitated the implosion of the domestic economy that resulted in their parents' homes being foreclosed on and their jobs lost — turned out in record numbers for Obama in 2008 and 2012 with the belief that our institutions should and could work to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.

But when Obama stood by passively while the status quo continued — including the state murder of Oscar Grant, Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and many others — young Black people erupted in protest.

In doing so, they revealed the interrelated spokes of Black oppression in the U.S.: racism, militarism, poverty, and inequality. They exposed what Martin Luther King Jr., in an earlier period, referred to as the "systemic, rather than superficial, flaws" in U.S. society.

Of even more consequence, young Black people went into rebellion with a Black man as president.

The Black movement in the twilight of Barack Obama's presidency exposed the duplicity, cravenness and callousness of American politics — and in doing so, undermined the U.S. government's role as a global moral authority. Coming in the midst of Obama's time in office, the Black Lives Matter movement highlighted the limits of the U.S. government when it comes to actually making Black lives matter.

But those contradictions resonated most loudly at home, as the Black movement has always done historically. As historian Nancy MacLean has argued:

Because the United States had confined African Americans for so long to the bottom of the social order and built so much of its culture on rationalizing the violation of its stated ideals, as their struggle gained momentum, it upset every location in the hierarchy. The very identity of whites was built on their notion of Blacks: to unsettle that was to bring into question their self-conceptions as well.

Black movements are never popular because they reveal the ugly underbelly of American history and society. Even liberals who recoil from what they perceive to be the "imperfections" of U.S. society often reject the systemic critiques that arise from the struggles of working class and poor Black movements.

Thus, they play a role of counseling patience, pragmatism, and incrementalism. They seek to contain the struggle as opposed to generalizing and expanding it.

Conversely, the students at Parkland and beyond have been welcomed with open arms.

Among ordinary people, the gestures of support are genuine expressions of solidarity and admiration at the courage and strength of young people confronting their mortality and the intransigent madness of American politics. But the liberal elite, some of whom are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the organizing efforts, also sees opportunity.

The liberal establishment is quite happy to support anything that embarrasses Trump, just as much as they were loathe to support anything that threatened to embarrass Obama. BLM activists were chastised for not having demands, for the absence of a charismatic leader, and for many activists' refusal to endorse Democratic Party politicians like Hillary Clinton, while only receiving vague promises of reform.

Of course, the Democratic Party was hamstrung by years of having advanced a law-and-order program based on the most grotesque and coarse caricatures of African Americans as criminals.

From Al Gore's original invocation of Willie Horton — a supposed example of how rival Michael Dukakis was soft on crime that was later taken up by George H.W. Bush — to Bill Clinton's crime bills to Hillary Clinton's racist dog whistle about "super predators," the Democratic Party had remade itself with racial codes and innuendo barely distinguishable from the rhetoric of the openly racist Republican Party.

BLM activists upset the political status quo as activists interrupted Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton with demands to account for the party's complicity in racist policing and a plea for clear promises of change.

But with the Democrats out of power, the liberal establishment is no longer quite as concerned with activist decorum and reasonableness. They are encouraging protests, ponying up big money, and hoping to reap the electoral benefits.

Beyond this, however, to the liberal establishment, the emergence of the student anti-gun mobilizations has, for the first time, given a sense that Trump is vulnerable as president.

Trump has been impervious to liberal establishment attacks that have centered on his immorality, boorishness, and rank corruption. The failure of any of these attacks to stick reflects the low expectations among the electorate concerning the behavior of elected officials, but it also shows the cynicism with which the public regards the Democratic Party's convenient shock about Trump, while ignoring their own party crises.

The anti-gun mobilizations have foregrounded grieving teenagers and their righteous anger with the Republican stooges of the National Rifle Association. The student protests have exposed the undemocratic ways that the NRA controls the public narrative on guns, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign donations and other forms of support.

While public protests by students have pushed these issues to the center of the American political discourse, the students have also emphasized the need to vote in the midterm elections, lobbying, and engagement with the political process.

The Democratic Party establishment, having failed since the election to capture the imagination of its electoral base, must be enthused by the activation and sudden political engagement of thousands of young people.

Thus far, the student mobilizations have been safe to encourage and support. The demands of the students have been broad and in step with large public majorities: background checks, assault weapons ban, and other straightforward demands.

The students in Florida have also encountered the intransigence of government that is influenced by NRA money. While the Florida legislature passed legislation to regulate pornography, it remained opposed to entertaining even debate about guns.

Students who fully expected the momentum of events, fueled by grief and anger, to penetrate the closed circle of their elected representatives received their first lesson in American governance: the will of the majority is rarely reflected in public policy.

Indeed, given the seeming impossibility of passing any gun reform, the public might be surprised to know that enormous majorities support significant reform to American gun laws, according to polls. For example, 87 percent of Americans support a ban on assault weapons, yet Congress refuses to even entertain the possibility.

This speaks centrally to how corporate money and a politically connected gun lobby has much more control over our politics than the desires of the public itself.

If these mobilizations flower into a social movement, it will inevitably force a deeper engagement with the causes of proliferating guns, violence, and the toxic masculinity that often expresses itself in gun violence.

When those discussions emerge, it will be hard to confine the solutions to these spasms of gun violence to simply banning of this or that weapon or universal background checks. And as those moments develop, so, too, will fissures in the student movement between those who wish to continue to see reform of the law as an end to itself and those who come to see the "systemic flaws" of a terribly violent society.

When those young people wind their visceral anger and fears into an analysis that identifies a society founded on genocide and enriched through the enslavement of Black people and the economic exploitation of tens of millions of migrants, they will discover that guns, violence, racism and war is the blood, guts and sinew that binds this nation together.

For some, this is an analysis that will change them — and it will also change the universal love and adoration they are currently experiencing from rich liberals.

It would also be dishonest not to note that that the fresh faces of young, white and middle-class teenagers have made them the objects of sympathy, instead of objects of scrutiny and scorn.

Remember the quickness with which Trayvon Martin was demonized, how Mike Brown Jr., was scorned as "no angel," and when President Obama and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake referred to the Black youngsters of Baltimore as thugs.

Black children are rarely afforded the compassion and empathy reserved for innocent white children. After all, this is why civil rights activists in Mississippi wanted white students to participate in Freedom Summer in the 1960s, knowing full well that their deaths would garner attention and resources that the deaths of young Black people would not.

At the same time, it is important to say that we should not confuse the racial politics of the media with the racial politics of the students.

These young people, after all, have grown up in the Black Lives Matter era. In a Black Youth Project poll taken in 2014, only 41 percent of white youth believed that the "American legal system treats all equally."

This isn't to minimize the depth of racism throughout this country. But it is to allow the possibility that young white people have been paying attention over the last several years and have absorbed some of the critical lessons brought to bear by an anti-racist movement that has shaken this country to the core.

The support of Democrats and their liberal donors is situational and always temporary, based on confining the movement to "winnable goals."

Radicals and activists shouldn't abandon the young people coming into political consciousness today. They need to engage, educate and — most importantly — be there. We have a role to play in expanding the discussion by forcing the issue of race into the public conversations about gun violence and its tremendous range of victims.

We know that African Americans are far more likely to be victims of gun violence than anyone else in this country. Indeed, gun-related homicides are 17 times higher for Black youth compared to white youth. More importantly, African Americans are the most consistent supporters of reforming gun laws, including 76 percent of Black youth who support policies that "control gun ownership."

This means that there is a firm basis upon which genuinely solidarity can be built among young people who see their lives in the crosshairs of a society that already promises them so little.

We are at the very beginning of this social awakening. Let's encourage its development.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and editor of How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective