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Minority Students Saw Massive School Walkouts As a Chance to Add Their Voice

6 minute read

Minority students say the massive school walkouts for gun reform Wednesday gave them an opportunity to add their voices to a national movement that had predominantly been led by white students.

Since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school sparked the #NeverAgain movement, many of the students featured in rallies and TV interviews were from a mostly white, affluent area. But the national scope of the walkouts added a much more diverse mix, which students said helped broaden the focus of the effort.

“Gun control for someone who is white is different than gun control for someone who is black,” says Alexis McDowall, a 10th-grader at Brooklyn Tech who participated in the walkout with several of her friends from the school step team.

Many of the students argued that the fight against gun violence also ties into other issues raised by movements like Black Lives Matter and groups calling for criminal justice reform, noting that for minorities a fatal gunshot wound could just as likely come from a police officer as a school shooter

“Some people’s fears are just going to school, other people’s concerns are making it home safely,” said Lauryn Formey, an 11th grader who was with McDowall at the New York City rally.

“We’re very aware that this is only happening because it’s a white-led movement,” says 11th grader Jasmine Johnson. “But we’re definitely getting to take advantage of the platform, because we don’t get many opportunities.” Her friend Daphny Belmont, also a junior, chimes in. “I just feel that if it were led by black students, it wouldn’t have had the same impact,” Belmont says. “Our voices aren’t heard when it’s just us alone.”

The Parkland students are the first to acknowledge how their background enabled them to capture the national attention, and they mentioned it over and over again in several interviews last week.

“We come from an affluent area, and we’re mostly white, and we have to use that privilege and acknowledge it,” says Delaney Tarr, 17, one of the main organizers of the #NeverAgain movement. Several other #NeverAgain leaders in Parkland say they’re skeptical of the Republican proposals to arm teachers mostly because an increased police presence could increase risks to minority students and end up fueling what is sometimes referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Parkland teens have worked with racial justice organization the Dream Defenders in order to make the gun safety movement more inclusive, and invited a group fighting violence in Chicago, the Peace Warriors, down to Florida to meet with them. “We found our voice in Parkland,” says Arieyanna Williams, a 17-year old senior at a Chicago high school and member of the Peace Warriors who visited the Parkland teens last weekend. “We felt like we weren’t alone in this situation and we finally can use our voices on a bigger scale.”

Still, black students and white students often experience gun violence differently. Black students say they are concerned about everyday gun violence and police shootings, while some of the more devastating school massacres have happened in largely white schools like Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

That’s partly because of differences in the way schools are policed: schools with more nonwhite students are more likely to require kids to walk through a metal detector, while most suburban white high schools don’t. A 2015 investigation by WNYC found that almost half of black high school students in New York City go through a metal detector when they go to school, while only 14% of white students do.

Black students who walked out of class on Wednesday said they supported the goals of the student-led gun reform movement and had no qualms with the teenage leaders in Parkland, but wished that teachers, media and elected officials had reacted the same way to black-led movements to prevent gun violence.

“I had three class lessons about this in English,” says Johnson, “but back when innocent black people were being killed by cops, we didn’t learn about it in class.”

Thousands of students left class Wednesday to protest gun violence on the one-month anniversary of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, in a nationwide demonstration led entirely by and for young people.The National Walkout Day was organized by the Women’s March Youth Empower to demand meaningful legislation to curb gun laws and show solidarity with the Stoneman Douglas students. The national walkout, which may have involved significantly more schools than the 3,000 who registered on the Women’s March website, is the first evidence that the student movement to end gun violence is making gains around the country.

“Students will not stop demanding action until action is taken,” says Madison Thomas, 20, a junior at Georgetown University and a college coordinator with Women’s March Youth Empower. “We will be voting come Nov. 6, 2018, and we will vote out any legislator that puts the NRA’s blood money as a priority over students.”

Thomas says the movement is encouraging text-based voter registration at the walkouts, and one volunteer registering voters at a Brooklyn walkout said she had personally registered 30 new voters in less than two hours.

Students staged walkouts everywhere from Florida to Michigan, and from Billings, Montana, to Janesville, Wisconsin. Elementary schoolers in Alexandria, Virginia, organized an entirely silent protest, led by 11-year olds. At a student rally in Brooklyn after the walkout, New York City Public Advocate Tish James said that student-led movements can lead to meaningful change.

“Nothing has happened in the history of this country that has not been led by young people,” she said, to cheers from the crowd. Students held signs that said “We call B.S.” and “Since our leaders are acting like children, children have to act like leaders.”

Organizers say the walkout is the first of three student-led demonstrations for gun safety, followed by the March for Our Lives on March 24 (organized by the #NeverAgain movement and led by Parkland students) and another school walkout on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

Students of all races who walked out of school on Wednesday said they felt a new sense of shared anger at a political establishment dominated by adults they see as defeated at best and evil at worst. “We’ve spent too many years watching adults who can vote just letting the chance go by,” says Tiara Thomas, an 11th grader who isn’t yet eligible to vote. “That’s why we’re out here making them hear us.”

“They’ve left us a rough world to inhabit, and that’s why we’re starting social movements,” says Hannah Ravenell, 16, who is on her school’s debate team. “Teenagers are sick of waiting to be able to vote.”

“Adults don’t think of children as people,” adds Johnson. “Our view of what happens now is more important than theirs, because we are the future.”

Melissa Chan contributed reporting

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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com