The high school students from Parkland, Florida, who have lived through a devastating school shooting that claimed the lives of more than a dozen of their classmates last week do not have organizing or advocacy experience. However, their directness and credibility is changing the typical post-mass-shooting gun control debate, say experts.
The students are also showing a willingness to challenge authorities that has earned them the respect of veteran activists.
"What's working so far and what's so exciting about what they’re doing is their directness in challenging elected officials," says Ben Wyskida, CEO of Fenton. "They’re not being careful and cautious and not overly messaged, but being very direct. It’s a cliche to talk about ‘speaking truth to power,’ and I think they're genuinely doing that now."
In the week since 17 students and faculty were killed, a core of students who survived the attack have been working relentlessly, fielding interviews from media, making speeches, organizing walkouts and marches, meeting with politicians, and spreading the word on social media.
The students have organized a march on Washington and, with the help of the Women’s March youth network, scheduled a national school walkout, both set to happen in March. Other established anti-gun violence groups are also throwing their support behind the #NeverAgain movement.
"They are being courageous in showing their emotion to connect with others; they are acting with speed; and they are truly taking ownership and responsibility for this issue," says
Howard Pulchin, global creative director at APCO Worldwide. "They are speaking and acting from the heart, and they are working as a collective."
However, moving the needle on gun laws at a national level has proved to be an impossible task for activists over the past decade. Organizations such as Sandy Hook Promise and the Brady Campaign have worked for years to remember the victims of gun violence and advocate for change, only to meet well-organized resistance at the federal level.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are organizing both online and at live events to ensure their message is heard. Some traveled to Florida capital of Tallahassee to speak to state legislators about an assault weapon ban, and others challenged Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) during a CNN town hall. A few attended President Donald Trump’s listening session on Wednesday, all in the space of two days.
Even those who are not traveling to meet officials are continuing the discussion online. Tweets directed at lawmakers and leaders of the National Rifle Association are amassing thousands of retweets.
"On social media, that's where they live," says Wyskida. "Their ability to comment through that medium is a marriage of how people are communicating in 2018 with people who have gone through an incredible experience. They’re using social media as an equalizer to speak directly to elected officials."
Noticed @waynelapierrejr that when you mentioned the Declaration of Independence, you talked a lot about liberties and the pursuit of happiness - but never about Life. Do we not deserve the Right To Live anymore? Can we take this as a Protect-Guns-not-Students message?— Emma González (@Emma4Change) February 22, 2018
What the 17- and 18-year-old students lack in formal organizing experience, they are making up for in social media prowess. In a week, the March for Our Lives Twitter account racked up 122,000 followers and the @NeverAgainMSD account amassed 81,000 followers.
"In a way, they’re kind of the politicians’ worst nightmare," Wyskida says. "They’re credible, they’re smart, and they’re absolutely skilled and savvy at social media."
Even with their burgeoning movement, the #NeverAgain students are facing extremely powerful opposition: slow-moving legislation and the gun lobby. Some conservative groups and websites are already trying to discredit the students, using their age and clear message against them.
"It will be a real effort to discredit them," Wyskida says. "We’re seeing they’re being accused of being crisis actors by fringe elements, and elected officials and NRA leaders are saying they're just kids, they should pipe down and keep to themselves."
Another challenge: the politics of gun control are slow. Real legislation and change can take months as it is debated in Congress and the media moves on from a mass shooting after about two weeks. Pulchin says the challenge here is "stamina."
"How do they maintain their action orientation?" he adds. "For me, it’s what happens after the March 24 March for Our Lives. But seeing what they’ve done in a week’s time, I have great confidence in their ability to inspire us to keep acting."
The students have also inspired at least two brands to step away from the NRA. Keeping the pressure on and withstanding attacks from the gun lobby while maintaining that tone that sets them apart will be the key to extending this groundswell.
"It can be relatively easy to dismiss others’ opinions as just being a matter of political opinion but when you have people who are survivors, that can eliminate it," Wyskida says. "You feel like they're speaking more from their personal experience. That’s part of what connects to people. They didn’t begin as spokespeople for political organizations, they began as kids who went to school last Wednesday."