By Hamzat Sani, Special to the AFRO
About 200 youth and administrators from area schools made up a diverse audience who attended the “Town Hall for Our Lives,” in Washington, D.C. April 11. It was organized just weeks after the national March for Our Lives rallies, structured as conversation to keep the momentum going.
Panelists included —survivors and students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a mass shooting left 17 dead in February and student activists from the District and nation. Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis anchored the conversation.
MSNBC’s Michelle Bernard (left) and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (next to Bernard) led a discussion about gun control and civil rights at Friendship Public Charter School’s Armstrong Campus at the Town Hall for Our Lives on April 10. (Courtesy photo)
Lewis’ deep affection for youth activism was on display as he encouraged the audience to make “good trouble.” In conversation with event moderator MSNBC’s Michelle Bernard, Lewis noted being the youngest of 10 speakers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in 1963, at the age of 23. “Some people thought I was too young but I thought I was the right age.” The young Lewis would later go on to lead 600 mostly youth activists in Selma, Alabama in March of 1965; five months later, President Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act into law.
After a one-on-one with Lewis and Bernard, they called youth panelists to the stage. Seated next to Lewis were brothers Alec and Jake Zaslav who survived the Parkland shooting. They talked about their experience mobilizing students around gun control legislation. Jennia Taylor, a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and current Spelman College senior spoke of her battles organizing the March of Our Lives rally in Atlanta. The panel was rounded out by students Kiani Bell, Makayla Hayes, Jerell King, and Alexis Slewing from local Friendship Public Charter School campuses.
Alec said Stoneman Douglas’ example of getting into “good trouble” included galvanizing students from Parkland to travel to Tallahassee to demand meetings with legislators. This activism resulted in increasing the age to 21 to buy a gun, increased help for mental health patients and more budgeting for school security.
Taylor explained that “organizing is not easy, at all” recalling having to sue the State of Georgia after lawmakers attempted to violate their 1st amendment rights by limiting their right to protest in a freedom of speech area. During visits to their legislators to build relationships Taylor remembers, “some of them literally called us stupid…one representative even told us she is the NRA.” Despite the legislative naysayers, Taylor and Atlanta organizers turned out one of the largest rallies in the nation and coupled the movement for gun control with a sizeable voter registration drive focused on youth.
Bell added her perspective on the dichotomy of being a youth organizer in the nation’s capital. “We’re so close to political power, but at the same time we are not a state, so we don’t necessarily have those representatives or people to call and advocate for that change.”
King, a sophomore at Friendship Tech Prep High, who shortly after the Parkland shooting attended a listening session with President Donald Trump and high level members of his cabinet. He did not leave that session convinced that Trump grasped what students, parents, educators and victims were really asking for. “I don’t think that he’s really going to put forth the effective change that we need. So that is why it’s important for us to actually stand up to pretty much be more forceful and more impatient.”
When Lewis, known as the “Conscience of the U.S. Congress”, was asked for advice he could give to young activists, he left the audience with this, “You tell us to wait, you tell us to be patient. We cannot wait, we cannot be patient. We want our freedom and we want it now… when it comes to the issue of gun violence we want to stop it, we want to stop it now. We want to save America—not just for this generation but for the generation yet unborn.”