By JOHN LESLIE
Student-initiated demonstrations, in the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., shootings, which tragically claimed 17 lives, have energized a drive for more restrictions on gun ownership. High school students are mobilizing on this issue in a way they have not done in a long time.
The March for Our Lives, calling for greater restrictions on gun ownership, built events large and small in more than 800 cities worldwide on March 24. The main march, in Washington, D.C., has been labeled as perhaps the largest demonstration ever held there, with more than 800,000 estimated participants.
In Philadelphia, the crowd of approximately 15,000 was overwhelmingly white, and the majority were older people. High school aged students were a very small minority of the marchers in Philadelphia, and similar percentages were reported in other cities, like Oakland, Calif.
While high school students, including Parkland survivors, were among the main speakers in many areas, Democratic Party operatives and politicians often joined the youths on stage. In San Francisco, for example, Board of Supervisors President London Breed spoke, in addition to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. This can only be seen as an attempt by the Democrats to take the reins of the movement and channel it into electoral action.
Behind the scenes, Democratic Party constituency groups like Move-On and Planned Parenthood, and gun-control groups, lent logistical and financial support. Prominent liberals like George and Amal Clooney, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Kate Capshaw all made significant contributions of $500,000 each. Other corporate sources gave large contributions. The movement also raised more than $3 million through a gofundme page.
The NRA and the right have responded to the actions of the young activists by seeking to demonize them, calling them Nazis and traitors. The ludicrous reactionary former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum suggested that the students would be better off taking CPR classes than fighting for gun control. Santorum has since backed off from this assertion.
Rightist trolls have particularly targeted Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez, with one GOP politician calling her a “lesbian skinhead.” Rightists also attempted to red-bait her because of a Cuban flag patch on her jacket, and photo-shopped a photo of her ripping a target to make it look like she was ripping the constitution. The 18-year-old Cuban American is openly bisexual and the president of her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).
The March For Our Lives raised three demands—ban the sale of assault weapons while preserving their use by police and military, prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines, and close loopholes on background checks. Parkland students writing in the British Guardian offered even more intense proposals, like increased police presence at schools and relaxation of HIPAA privacy laws to make it easier for mental health professionals to share details about their patients with law enforcement. In all, the content of the Parkland “Manifesto” is law-and-order oriented and based on the notion that the state should have a monopoly on force.
March 14 student walkouts
In the March 14 student walkouts, tens of thousands participated in big cities, small towns, and rural communities. In some areas, parents, school administrators, and teachers were supportive. In others, students were threatened with punishment or received detentions or suspensions. In Atlanta, schools were put on lockdown to prevent a walkout and kids took a knee in the hallway instead.
In contrast to the Parkland Manifesto, a list of demands issued by Chicago students for the walkout on March 14 has a significant number of social demands. These include full and equitable funding for schools in Black and Brown communities, more social workers and nurses, more favorable teacher to student ratios, spending on better school building facilities, and stopping charter school expansion. Beyond this, the Chicago students demanded an end to the criminalization of youth, elimination of gang databases, and no guns in schools.
Philadelphia students raised similar demands. In Philadelphia, students clearly demanded “divestment from school police officers.” They also questioned the myth that police in schools are an adequate replacement for guidance counselors. Cops and guidance counselors receive very different training.
The Philadelphia demands also explicitly include protection of families and students from ICE arrests around schools and “gun control that does not result in targeted policing of black and brown bodies: Just like outside school grounds, Black and Brown people are unfairly targeted by law enforcement using racist stop-and-frisk practices.”
An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 26, 2018) quoted an African American student, Jordyn Williams, 15, as explaining, “I want the same thing that those [Parkland] kids want … I’m not saying that those kids’ lives didn’t matter. I’m saying they aren’t the ones being treated like nothing.” Another student, Kaiyah Taylor, said, “We have a lot of dying in our community, and no one is paying attention.”
Activists should link the demands of students with those of teachers and the broader working class for greater investment in education, health care, and jobs. We should seek to link this new youth mobilization to Black Lives Matter and the broader struggle to strengthen public education. The way forward requires us to get at the economic and social roots of alienation and violence.
The right to self-defense
We must unequivocally support the right of the students to protest and their right to free speech. But this does not require support to every demand that is put forward. In this regard, calls for banning certain types of firearms, rigorous background checks by the state, etc. are bad mistakes. Indeed, if the police and military are allowed to have assault weapons, no civilian ban could ever prevent right-wing bigots from getting their hands on them, given their intimate association with those institutions.
Gun control has often been used to disarm Black and Brown people, while the law has ignored the actions of racists. Following Hurricane Katrina, for example, Blacks in New Orleans were disarmed while cops gunned down Black people fleeing the city. The racial disparity in convictions for gun crimes is greater than for any other class of federal crimes (47.3 percent were for Black people in 2013). And Blacks were far more often to be faced with mandatory minimum sentences and enhanced penalties.
During both the Civil Rights Struggle and the Black Power movement, Black activists asserted their right to defend themselves “by any means necessary,” in the words of Malcolm X. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) defended both Malcolm and Robert Williams, who organized a Black self-defense group against the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina in the 1950s. The SWP also defended the right of the Black Panther Party to organize free of state repression.
We understand the Second Amendment as having two souls; it has been employed as a reactionary prop to white supremacy, but it is also a right won by working people and the oppressed for self-defense against racists and fascists.
Build an economy that really cares about kids
Politicians of both parties claim that they “care” about the futures of children, but this caring always seems to take a back seat to the interests of Wall Street and the ruling rich.
We are told by politicians of both parties that we “can’t afford” decent public education. We can’t afford to pay teachers and fund pensions. We can’t afford to build schools, so kids are forced to “learn” in buildings that are in substandard condition. This is, of course, an urban problem. If you drive 40 minutes into the suburbs, the schools are like temples and the education offered is excellent. Teachers in the suburbs are still treated badly, but not as poorly as city teachers.
Honestly, we can afford these things but the capitalists and their politicians choose not to. Instead, they choose military intervention, drones, and handouts to the rich. The U.S. has 800 military bases in more than 70 countries, but our roads and bridges are falling apart and our schools are in horrible shape. Instead of building an economy based on the right to health care and a decent job, wealth continues to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. We spend more on policing and prisons than we do on education.
No one with any power is even considering disarming the police, or ending the manufacture of assault weapons—including for the military and police. Virtually all of the current proposals, from increased police in schools to stricter gun ownership laws to allowing mental health professionals to violate patient confidentiality with police, will lead to a worse situation for working and oppressed people. It will mean increased law enforcement and therefore more people in prisons, and more people facing violent encounters with the police.
Stationing police in schools must be totally opposed. This sentiment was reflected in rallies on March 24, with hand-made signs demanding, “Books, Not Bullets,” and raising similar slogans. In schools where police are stationed, there is an increase in arrests of students and violence against students. Of course, the victims of cop violence and over-zealous policing in schools are disproportionately students of color. Socialists favor the disarming and demilitarization of cops. Schools are not prisons.
For the same reasons, we oppose the Trump/NRA proposal to arm teachers. Such a move, which is insulting to teachers who struggle for resources on a daily basis, would do nothing to make classrooms safer. This would, in fact, make both teachers and students more vulnerable.
“Solutions” that ostracize people for mental illness or violate doctor-patient confidentiality will do more harm than good, because people will hesitate to seek help if they think the therapeutic environment isn’t safe. And we should be troubled by the effort to scapegoat neurodiverse people, who are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators of it. Bigots kill because they are bigots, not because they have mental illnesses. (Politicians and the media have made every attempt to frame the issue of these killings around an abstract notion of guns, and this has erased the racist and misogynist nature of the crimes.)
Socialists fight to change the social and economic conditions that make gun violence happen. We understand that these conditions are effects of capitalism, a criminal and heartless system driven by the thirst for profits.
Socialists support the right to self-defense by the workers’ movement and by oppressed people. But we understand at the same time that political activism must necessarily strive for the broadest possible organization and mobilization of the working class and its allies. Small groups substituting for the mass activity of the working class can unnecessarily expose themselves and the broader movement to state repression.
The Greensboro massacre of Communist Workers Party members is instructive in terms both of the tactical errors of the CWP and the collusion between cops and fascists. The CWP engaged in confrontations with the Klan and raised slogans like “Death to the Klan” in advance of an anti-Klan rally. In collusion with local and federal law enforcement, the Klan attacked the CWP-organized rally, killing five members of the CWP and wounding 10 others.
It’s not the task of the revolutionary party to substitute itself for mass organizations in armed defense. The founding document of the Fourth International, the Transitional Program, points out that, in response to a rising fascist threat, the party should urge that defense guards be formed out of the ranks of the unions and other mass organizations of the working class and oppressed.
At the same time, we can’t rely on the repressive forces of the state—cops, courts, or capitalist politicians—to protect us from fascist or state violence.
In the SWP Education for Socialists Bulletin, “Counter-mobilization, a strategy to fight racist and fascist attacks,” Farrell Dobbs states, “The line of the police is to defend the exercise of the formal democratic rights of the fascists, on the one hand, and not to ‘see’ the violations of the democratic rights of the fascists’ victims. Meanwhile, the cops take full advantage of any violation of bourgeois-democratic law that the anti-fascists may commit. In any kind of confrontation between anti-fascist and fascist forces, the basic line of the cops is to protect the fascists in any way they can and to join in the victimization of the antifascists.”
Photos: March for Our Lives in Shreveport, La. (Henrietta Wildsmith / The Times)