Heartening and heartbreaking -- those were the two words that sum up the March for Our Lives held last Saturday along Pennsylvania Avenue and across the country, throughout the world.
Once the students at Parkland decided to not live in fear, to not let the shooting of their class mates turn them inward, their protest hit a chord. Too many have suffered from our culture of violence -- from the industries that profit and promote a culture of violence -- be it in the mass shootings such as those at Pulse, at Las Vegas, at Newtown, at Columbine and on and on in a list that has grown obscenely long. Or the victims of the random violence that afflicts impoverished black and Latino communities trapped by hopelessness through systemic discrimination jobs and housing, education and health and that has marked communities in Washington DC, Prince George's County, Baltimore, Chicago and on and on in another list that goes on too long. And behind all that is police violence and legalized vigilante actions in which the name Stephon Clark joins Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin in a list that can be traced back to our country's origin.
But these are not just names -- they are people with family and friends carrying the sense of loss that never goes away when a loved one is taken too early, when closure proves impossible because the reasons for the violence are left to fester. And like any wound left untreated, it only gets worse over time. It was because they opened themselves up so we could all see the wounds that made the speeches at the rally so heartbreaking. Usually at demonstrations speakers repeat themselves, they say what we expect them to say, most of us listen only sporadically (at least that is true of myself). But this was different -- the speeches were without cliché, without histrionics, without false bravado. With a maturity beyond their years, in this the youthfulness of the speakers (ranging in age from 11 to 18) shined through because the talks were without artifice. Which is precisely where the pain crept in -- for listening one couldn't (I couldn't) keep my thoughts away from the reality of loss, of the pain, behind each word.
Yet we did not leave the rally feeling defeated and depressed. For the words were sharp and had a message beyond pious sentiment. They spoke of specific legislation that can be enacted now to at least begin to address our society's pervasive gun violence rather than surrender to it. And they took that one step further -- by calling on people to register and vote and by calling for that vote to be used with clear intent: does the candidate accept NRA money or not. That is a powerful message because it is clear in its demand that elected officials be responsible to the public they allegedly serve, not to corporate lobbies with deep pockets. For that is what the NRA is -- or has become -- from a gun-owners organization it has become a gun industry front and just like the private prison operators or defense contractors, they make money out of the destruction of human lives.
It is not much of a leap in that logic to conclude that -- like gun laws -- Citizens United is a cancer in our society for it legalizes the kind of corruption and vote buying the NRA exemplifies. More than that the NRA exemplifies the structural inequality in our society between corporate wealth and public power. By naming those feeding at the trough, those students were striking at the core issue facing us -- are we a country by of and for the powerful or by of and for the people. The fact that this issue came to the forefront as an outgrowth of civic engagement by newly engaged youth is why the rally was so heartening.
Emma Gonzalez concluded the rally asking for a 6 minute 27 second moment of silence -- the length of time of the shooting rampage. In that silence lies the choice we make: will we follow the lead of those students so that the heartbreaks so visibly on display on the speakers’ platform and within the crowd cease being an everyday occurrence, so that we reclaim the freedom and democracy from those large corporations which use those words to cover up their own bloodied hands?