Had it been any other Friday afternoon, they all would have fled the classroom, headed in multiple directions as one does on a Friday afternoon. They’d have been bound for their homes, their after-school jobs, their extracurricular activities, their social engagements.
Indeed, as classes at Blake High School wrapped up for the day, they got up and walked out. Yet they did so together, and for the same reason: They’re sick of coming to school every morning wondering if it would be their last because some nut was able to purchase a gun capable of mass murder. And they want to do something about it.
In the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a roughly four-hour drive from the Tampa Bay area, the Blake High walkout, which included students from other schools in the region, was one of many to take place across the country in the last two weeks. The intention, of course, is to draw attention to gun violence and a lack of action among policymakers to prevent it. While the debate itself is nothing new (it’s far from the first time gun safety advocates have called for reform in the wake of a deadly mass shooting), observers say the youth-driven activism has helped keep the issue on the front page longer than ever before. While it started with students at Douglas High, the movement quickly spread to schools throughout the state and nation.
And unlike in the days following past shootings, elected officials in Republican-led Tallahassee and Washington have a choice between doing something on guns or dealing with the consequences of their inaction when they’re seeking reelection.
The kids, in other words, are fired up.
“Before, when things like this have happened, people haven’t taken action,” said 14-year-old Safiyyah Ameer, who organized the Blake walkout. “But when I found out this [shooting] happened, I knew I was ready to take action and start something. I was old enough, I was prepared. I knew that I had to do something; something had to happen. Because this time was different. This time it hit close to home, close to my heart. And we need change.”
The daughter of SEIU organizer Maria Jose Chapa, Ameer clearly has change-making in her blood, and wants to use it to stop the slaughter.
At around 3:40 p.m. that Friday afternoon, hundreds of students and activists flooded the northern edge of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in downtown Tampa shouting popular protest refrains suited to their cause.
“Hey hey, ho ho, the NRA has got to go!” they shouted as they streamed past the Tampa Museum of Art.
Once they stopped at a swath of park abutting Ashley Drive, the chants continued. Some shouted “Fuck the NRA!” That quickly stopped, though, when a girl with a bullhorn instructed the young activists not to curse — it’s not going to help them earn respect from the policymakers whose attention they’re after.
The following Monday, students from across the state packed buses bound for Tallahassee, where the state legislature is now in session, to once again confront lawmakers.
They’d like to see their state senators and representatives hold a serious conversation about banning AR-15-style firearms and other guns capable of killing dozens in a matter of seconds. They’d like more investment in mental health care. They’d like stronger background checks for prospective gun buyers.
What they don’t want: to die violently for no good reason, or to be told they’re too young to know anything about the intricacies of policymaking.
As they waited for throngs of Blake students to pass, four women stood near Doyle Carlton Drive talking about guns.
Three were mothers of students taking part in the walkout. One of the women didn’t have a child at Blake, but she stood near her friends holding a handwritten placard calling for a ban on assault weapons. None wished to be identified.
“We’re here to support our kids and I think that it’s very good that they’re using their voice, because we’re not going to be around and it’s going to be their world,” said one. “They’re going to have to speak for themselves, and this is a good learning experience.”
One thing they may have learned in recent weeks?
That it’s hard to get someone — even a decision-maker who’s supposed to legislate on your behalf — to modify his or her views when presented with arguments that challenge them.
There are some signs that this fresh wave of youth activism may be starting to cause even some of the most NRA-friendly lawmakers to budge on guns — though not many. President Trump has voiced support of expanded background checks and a potential ban on so-called bump stocks (which were a factor in the mass shooting that killed 58 in Las Vegas last October, but not in the Douglas High shooting).
And Republican legislators in Florida are working on what they consider to be a comprehensive measure that aims to prevent more mass shootings — even if, as critics complain, there is little focus on actual guns. And less than a week following the massacre in Parkland, Republicans in the state house rejected a measure that would have merely started a conversation about banning assault-style weapons.
Lawmakers might not get anything done on guns this session, which is winding down despite an already bloated agenda. But the young activists, wary that yet another year will go by with no action to prevent their classmates from being shot at random, will soon be able to call for change at the ballot box.
“I am very excited because I’ve worked on campaigns since 2000 and this is the most energy I’ve seen from the under-30 group since I started volunteering,” said Martha Stem, regional director of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, who was registering and pre-registering teens to vote at the rally that followed the Blake walkout. “It’s exciting. It reminds me of the ’60s when we got the Vietnam War stopped.”