An estimated 500,000 people, largely youth, demonstrated in Washington, DC on March 24 against the continued mass shootings at schools across the country. Hundreds of thousands more mobilised in about 800 cities and towns.
The spark that lit the pent-up tinder of anger against school shootings — of which there have been 18 since January — was the response to the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida.
A famous quote by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci sketches the background: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
This is true of capitalism throughout the world today — and above all the United States. There are countless examples of this morbidity in the US to list, but these school shootings — unique among nations — is certainly one.
It was survivors of the Parkland shooting, which killed 17 and injured 15, who initiated the protests. The call was quickly picked up nationally. The first actions were national school walkouts on March 14, followed by the March for Our Lives on March 24.
The overwhelmingly young speakers in Washington included many Parkland survivors, who were universally acclaimed as determined, articulate and ready to “fight”, as one declared.
Parkland survivors were also featured at a rally of 20,000 in southern Florida, a short distance from President Donald Trump’s Palm Beach resort, where he was playing golf.
Blacks and Latinos
The Parkland survivors understood they had to reach out to Black and Latino youth, who are the victims of gun violence in their communities, including by police.
One survivor, Jaclyn Corin, told the Washington crowd: “My hometown needs the alliance of other communities to properly spread this message. We openly recognise that we are privileged individuals who would not have received as much attention if it weren’t for the affluence of our city.
“Because of that, however, we share the stage, today and forever, with those who have always stared down the barrel of a gun.”
She introduced to the stage nine-year-old Yolanda King, granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King, who said: “My grandfather had a dream that his four little children will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.
“I have a dream that enough is enough, and that this should be a gun-free world, period!”
Mya Middleton, a 16-year-old African American woman from Chicago, told the crowd of her own experiences facing down the barrel of a gun.
Also addressing the crowd was 17-year-old Edna Lizbeth Chavez from South Los Angeles, who said: “I am a youth leader. I am a survivor. I have lived in South LA my entire life and have lost many loved ones to gun violence…
“For decades, my community … has become accustomed to this violence. It is normal to see candles, it is normal to see posters, it is normal to see balloons, it is normal to see flowers honouring the lives of Black and Brown youth who have lost their lives to a bullet.
“How can we cope with it, when our school district has its own police department? Instead of making Black and Brown students feel safe, they continue to profile and criminalise us…
“We need to tackle the root causes of the issues we face, and come to an understanding of how to resolve them.”
Proposals to respond to the school shootings by police in schools — as well as Trump’s “solution” of arming teachers — were opposed by speakers. Teachers also marched with signs opposing suggestions they should be armed, as did many students.
One major theme of the march was fierce opposition to the National Rifle Association (NRA). This outfit likes to present itself as representing hunters, target shooters and others who only have guns for self-defence. In reality, it is the lobby group for gun manufacturers who oppose all restrictions on guns. It has great sway over Republican politicians and most Democrats.
The extreme right politics of NRA leaders was shown in an unhinged speech by Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s notorious executive vice-president, at a gathering of conservatives after the Parkland shootings.
LaPierre claimed the nation faces the imminent danger of a communist takeover, only tangentially taking up the issue of guns. He bemoaned the fact that universities include discussions on the Communist Manifesto and Marxist economics. He sounded the alarm that the Democratic Socialists of America have chapters in hundreds of cities and campuses.
In rhetoric not heard from a major political figure since the days of Joe McCarthy, he charged that the Democratic Party had been taken over by socialists. He said that he was not referring to Bernie Sanders, but to the Democrats as a whole.
He tied this into the question of guns by asserting that the communists want to take away the Second Amendment on the “right to arms” as a step to taking away “all our freedoms”. His speech was frequently interrupted with applause, indicating that many “conservatives” are actually the far right.
As is always true in new movements, there were many different viewpoints expressed in mobilisations. But there were several common themes.
One was the demand that assault rifles be banned. The Parkland shooter used an AR-15 assault rifle. Assault rifles have been used in other mass shootings. They are quick-firing semi-automatic weapons that can easily be transformed into fully automatic machine guns.
As the name implies, these are offensive weapons used by militaries and have nothing to do with self-defence. They are useless for hunting animals for food, because animals shot by them are blown apart. Their only use is to kill people.
Another theme was closing loopholes that allow practically anyone to buy a gun at gun shows or through second-hand sales without background checks, as well other common-sense gun control measures.
It is a fact, however, that laws passed by Congress concerning guns can and have been used to victimise Blacks and be put to use for other reactionary purposes — so any such laws should be carefully reviewed.
The background to the school shootings is the fact that the US is a very violent country. The US has been continually at war since 1941. It also has more guns per capita than any other country in the world. People in the US are 10 times more likely to die from gun shootings than in other “First World” countries. The figure jumps to 25 times for gun-related homicides.
The “war on drugs” has also created a huge capitalist industry to meet the growing demand for drugs furthered by increasing economic despair. Since this industry is illegal, they frequently involve guns.
The drug trade’s foot soldiers are often drawn from the exploited and oppressed who see no other way to survive. This is another source of gun violence in many communities.
Police killings are also a major source of gun violence — occurring at a rate far higher than in many other nations. In 2014, police in the US killed 1100 people. In the same year, police killed 14 people in Canada, one in the Britain, 12 in China and none in Germany.
This new movement should be enthusiastically supported and joined by socialists. These teenagers fighting for their own lives are starting to see the connections with racism and reactionary institutions such as the NRA. Socialists can help them see the connection between these issues and capitalist society as a whole.
Another aspect of these demonstrations was an emphasis on elections, with the message that “we will soon be able to vote”. The Democratic Party seeks to corral the energy of this movement into campaigning for them.
Democratic operatives were at the demonstrations signing up youth to register to vote. There is growing pressure on this, as with all other social movements, to get behind the Democrats as the “non-Trump” party in the November midterm Congressional elections. This is to be expected given that there is no mass workers’ party of any type in the US.
Socialists can play a role here too, not only in explaining that the Democrats are no answer to right-wing Republicans, but in fighting for the movement to keep pushing ahead with mass actions of all types. This will be important when Democrats seek to stop such actions on the claim it hurts their electoral chances.
There are indications that socialist arguments can find support among these youth. In Washington, Boston and other demonstrations, no politicians were invited to speak, although some were invited elsewhere. There is a spirit evident in all the actions that young people would not be told what to do.
One slogan speakers advanced at these actions was that there should be no support to any electoral candidate that accepts support or money from the NRA. This includes many of the Democrats. We will see how this position holds up under Democratic pressure.
Regardless, when the Democrats fail to deliver on the hopes of these determined young people, socialists need to be there, alongside them, trying to show a way forward.