Next steps

How does youth movement get change now?

Students at Sparks High gathered around the flag after walking out of classes.

Students at Sparks High gathered around the flag after walking out of classes.


Trying to keep a walkout from classes regimented wasn’t easy.

Students at Sparks High walked out onto the football field during their 17 minutes of protest. When students exiting through the front door headed for the football field by walking around the south end of the building, a Sparks High teacher with a walkie-talkie told them, “If you go that way you’ll be marked down as truant.” She directed them north. When they continued on their own way, she said, “All right, you’ll be marked down as truant.”

Once out from under the eye of authority, the students were vocal. One Sparks High student said she felt strongly about the issue but didn’t see where the youth movement was going after an upcoming March 24 march.

“This is all protest,” she said. “Will that be enough?”

It’s a good question, and not the only one. Another is, will students stay with the issue?

As students were asking such questions, it appeared that in school districts across the country, including Washoe, the concern about whether students stayed in their classrooms blinded administrators and teachers to great practical teaching opportunities that might have helped give the movement direction after the protests: How to look up elected officials’ voting records. Where to find issue organizations and political parties. How to volunteer for political campaigns. How to look up the investments in gun manufacturers and other weapons-related corporations of the state and local college pension funds. How to look up the investments of parents’ pension funds.

“I think in a few schools they did some of that but not in a lot of them,” said Sue Meuschke of the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence, a part of the coalition that backed ballot Question One in 2016, providing for background checks.

Andrew Woods of Save Lives Nevada was reluctant to fault specific policies of school districts, but did say, “Any opportunity to engage young people in democracy and have a point of view is a wonderful thing. That is a service. And, right now, this is in front of young people. They’re passionate about it.”

Washoe County Democratic Party Executive Director Denise Lopez said she monitored the movement locally but has not done anything like provide candidate contact sheets to organizers, much less recruit students. “This is more of an issue campaign than a party [matter],” she said of the youth movement.

For students who reached out on their own, there were often dead ends. The Nevada Gun Safety Coalition’s website seems to be shut down. The site for Nevadans for Background Checks is still live but appears untended—no one responded to an email to the site.

The inclination of students to get more deeply involved in political action was likely not aided by the suspension of a Washoe County School District student for calling his U.S. House member’s office during the March 14 walkout. A staff member in the office of Rep. Mark Amodei complained to the school district about the boy’s language. His parents are supporting the boy, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada questioned the suspension because the student “did not disturb or impact any aspect of the educational environment.”

Guns and money

After mass killings at a concert in Las Vegas, California Treasurer John Chiang called on state worker and teacher pension programs to drop their investments in corporations selling ammo, assault weapons and bump stocks. Those plans in California are still mulling the options. Other pension plans in California and New York City have divested themselves of Cabela’s holdings.

The Florida mass killing accelerated those kinds of changes. Florida, Massachusetts and Connecticut are now considering divestment. Fortune Magazine reports that 12 states, not including Nevada, are invested in the firearms in one form or another. Meanwhile, investment funds like Domini are advertising their “Divest From Guns” programs.

On March 12, gun manufacturer Remington Outdoor Co. said it would file for bankruptcy. Bloomberg News said the company experienced “a slump in business worsened by, of all things, a president who has steadfastly supported Americans’ right to bear arms. … The company’s fortunes took a hit after the election of Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed ’true friend’ of the gun industry, because Hillary Clinton’s defeat erased fears among gun enthusiasts about losing access to weapons. Sales plummeted, and retailers stopped re-ordering as they found themselves stuffed with unsold inventory.” But corporations are expected to ride out such momentary fluctuations.

One sign of the potential power of the new movement came from an unusual source—Todd Gitlin, president in the 1960s of Students for a Democratic Society. In the student movement of that era, Gitlin wrote in the New York Daily News, high schoolers were viewed as callow, and college students took the leadership. Now, it is the other way around, with high school students learning techniques an older, more passive group of students passed over:

“So when I walk onto the Columbia campus, where I teach, I do not see appeals for students to go to nearby swing districts, or anywhere else, to register voters, or to lobby state officials to keep the polls open. There are local Democrats on the Upper West Side who do that work, but not many college students, either at Columbia or other universities I visit. The high school activists have leapfrogged their older sisters and brothers. … High schoolers in Florida and elsewhere are acutely aware that they live in a world where their enemies hold power. With amazing speed, less than a week after Nikolas Cruz snuffed out 17 lives with his AR-15, they arranged for buses to take them to the state capital in Tallahassee, lobbying to tighten gun laws. (The Republicans who rule the Florida statehouse refused even to consider a bill to ban assault rifles.) Many of the high school leaders know they have to take political action if they are not to keep running into stone walls. They talk about the need to register voters. They know they need to keep lobbying but even more, they need to help elect congenial politicians. What the young activists will do for an encore is in their hands. Will they surmount the passivity that has retarded past gun control campaigns? Will they avoid burning out? And will the power of their example inspire those who are slightly older and not at all wiser in the ways of citizen activism? Here’s hoping.”

Woods said he is convinced the movement will go on. “Based on what I’ve seen from the march and everything, I’ve never seen a group so motivated, and I worked on Question One,” he said. “They know it matters, and it’s right in front of them now.”

There is one commonality between the ’60s youth movement and today’s youth movement. Both were trying to combat forces that could get them killed.