by Rachel Robinson
Protests and demonstrations put pressure on authority figures or institutions to fulfill promises or act on long-standing issues such as gun control, but not all social movements are regarded equally. March for Our Lives and Black Lives Matter have received different media coverage in regards to their efforts to reduce violence in America. Surges in violence in schools and against racialized persons have led to a new generation of activists who are living the reality of shootings and violence on an endemic basis. Often, race plays a major role in determining who is subject to further suspicion, with so-called visible minorities bearing the brunt of additional attention as grassroots organizations like Black Lives Matter try to hold police officers to account.
While gun violence in the USA has been occurring for decades, it is only more recently that this violence has become more prevalent in schools. According to data from the Gun Violence Archive, there have been at least 239 school shootings in the past 6 years, with 438 people shot and 138 people killed, averaging about 5 shootings each month. These numbers speak to the violence that affects young people constantly, with regular school drills for lockdowns and active-shooter preparations.
On February 14, 2018, a mass shooting took place in Parkland, Florida, where a shooter killed 17 high school students. The teenagers affected by this shooting organized March for Our Lives protests, which took place in cities across the USA and around the world, including Toronto. The March has three main demands: pass a law to ban the assault weapons frequently used to carry out mass shootings; stop the sale of high-capacity magazines, restricting the amount of ammunition; and close loopholes in America’s background checks and implement laws that require background checks on every gun purchase, including those that occur online or at gun shows.
The March follows a number of recent political protests that have taken place since Donald Trump was elected president. March for Our Lives was organized and executed by teenagers, who do not have the legal right to vote or be swayed by the NRA, and hold relatively little immediate political power. Emma Gonzáles, one of the movement’s student leaders, led a moment of silence that was heartbreaking and ground-breaking for its significance and simplicity. The mounting public pressure for gun control, and the common-sense requests made by the March, make these calls for change harder for politicians to ignore. Whether the March for Our Lives will have real legislative impact remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the March is proof that public salience is high for gun violence, as the most vulnerable members of its society are frequent victims of preventable crimes.
However, we must be wary of hasty political decisions. New laws that are created in the name of public safety often make the public more fearful and suspicious, such as so-called anti-Sharia bills that only exacerbate Islamophobia in the USA. In turn, the culture of fear gives rise to paradoxically dismissive and lethal language. White shooters are labelled as lone wolfs or mentally ill, while people of colour are called domestic terrorists. The result has very real consequences for black and brown people.
In the United States, fear of the “other” leads to racial tensions that often result in the deaths of young black men at the hands of the police. In March 2018, Sacramento police shot 22 year old Stephon Clark in his grandparents’ backyard, when they mistakenly thought that the cellphone in his hand was a gun. Police were in the area after getting reports of someone breaking into cars. As a result of this incident, hundreds of people interrupted a Sacramento City Council meeting on March 27, 2018 to demonstrate and protest the police force and the city’s response to the event. Clark’s death is one of numerous cases where police have shot an unarmed black man, such as Tamir Rice’s death in November 2014, when police mistook the 12 year old with a toy gun for a 20 year old with a real weapon. The many cases of police shooting unarmed black men has resulted in Black Lives Matter.
Unlike March for Our Lives, Black Lives Matter has not had the same degree of public support. They are at times seen as threatening, meeting police violence with physical demonstrations of pain and anger. Furthermore, explicitly nonviolent forms of protest, such as taking a knee during the national anthem, have been met with more political response and fervor than the reason for the protest themselves. Backlash against the movement has come in the form of All Lives Matter, which aims to remove the racial component of police brutality and shootings against the black community. Nevertheless, until gun violence from police officers is dealt with, Black Lives Matter will continue to be a necessary vehicle for holding those in authority to account, if only at this time in the eyes of the public.
As political actors have been slow to take action against gun violence in America, we can expect protests to continue happening. We can hope that history will remember this period as a time when young people and racialized persons continued to raise their voices against injustice, especially when it stems from the highest levels of power.
Rachel Robinson is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. She has a master of arts degree in philosophy from Ryerson University, where her area of focus was on ethics, both normative and applied. Prior to joining SPPG, Rachel worked for Service Canada’s Employment Insurance division, where she witnessed the impact of policy decisions on Canadian citizens. Her policy interests include bioethics and labour.