Validated Anger: What Parkland Means for Student Protesters

Photo by Nancy Lane, Boston Herald

When I watched Emma Gonzalez give her heart-wrenching speech after the Parkland school shooting, I was moved to tears. I was in awe of her strength and courage, her firm resolve, the way she held herself up in the wake of such trauma. And I couldn’t help but repeat to myself, She’s only eighteen.

The way youth have taken charge of the gun control movement is incredible, but not at all surprising. Young people have always been at the forefront of social change, from the civil rights movement to anti-war protests to immigration reform. When students nationwide walked out of their classrooms on March 14 to show their support for gun control, they sent a powerful message that students, even those under voting age, have a stake in politics and are not afraid to assert themselves.

Over two hundred Emerson students were among those who participated in the walkout. The demonstration was a show of solidarity with the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and others across the country, demanding the right to feel safe in their schools.

To protest as a high school student is to take a huge risk; to defy the status quo put in place by adults is a brave and dangerous act. These are kids with their entire lives ahead of them, kids with college and job applications in their future, who know that their choices now will impact their lives down the line.

Seeking to assuage the concerns of protesting students and their parents, many colleges have released statements assuring applicants that their choice to protest will not affect their chances of acceptance. Emerson College was among these institutions.

It’s wonderful that Emerson is supportive of high school students who are using their voices and rallying for a cause. But it also raises questions about the extent to which the college enacts this kind of support, and for which movements. I don’t recall similar statements being made during demonstrations in communities of color like Ferguson, Baltimore, or Standing Rock, all of which included protesters of high school age or even younger. In fact, protests on this very campus have been met with criticism from faculty and administration. When President Pelton emailed the student body the night before the walkout, his message expressed support for those choosing to protest, but it also stated that faculty maintain the right to enforce their own attendance policies, meaning that students could potentially be penalized for choosing to participate in the walkout instead of attending class. One alumna, responding to Emerson’s statement on Facebook, recalled being told that her grades would suffer because of her participation in protests organized by EBONI, POWER, and Black Lives Matter. Emerson’s track record when it comes to the right to protest is frustratingly inconsistent.

The question of when protest is “acceptable” is complex and controversial. What does it mean when athletes like Colin Kaepernick are heavily criticized for small acts of dissent like kneeling during the anthem, while white sports fans’ destructive rioting after their team’s loss (or win) is seen as normal? What does it mean when the Women’s March draws millions worldwide with no arrests, while protests in Standing Rock and Ferguson are met with violence from a heavily militarized police force?

The young activists at the forefront of the March for Our Lives campaign have created an admirably intersectional movement. They’ve made an effort to include people of all races, genders, and backgrounds. They’ve made it clear that gun control is needed just as badly in inner cities as it is in the suburbs, and that black and brown children deserve protection from gun violence, too. They are using their platform to uplift the voices of all who have been affected by gun violence; it’s just disappointing that this same platform had not previously been given to others who have worked equally hard to make their voices heard.

For Emerson, affirming the rights of applicants to protest is one step in the right direction. But the college needs to go further by extending these same rights to its current students. Our campus can feel like a bubble, but we aren’t isolated from the outside world. What we learn in class should be applied to what’s happening in the rest of the world – it should motivate us to participate in politics and social action. Our education is most valuable when it’s put into practice – and sometimes that can be accomplished more effectively in the streets or in the state house than in the classroom.

Lucie Pereira