“If us students have learned anything it’s that if you don’t study you will fail. And if in this case you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead. So, it’s time to start doing something.”
On February 17 of this year 19-year-old Emma Gonzalez spoke these inspiring words in Fort Lauderdale, Florida during a rally for stricter gun control. Gonzalez was one of the thousands of students who became victims of the shooting that took place on February 14, 2018 at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The horrifying incident resulted in 17 deaths and many more injuries. Although the majority of the students were luckily not hurt physically, their minds and hearts will be scarred forever. In the first seven weeks of 2018 there were seven other school shootings in the US which led to physical and mental scarring. Believing that things should not go on like this any longer, students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas have set up rallies, protests and boycotts to establish stricter gun control. Tomorrow, March 24, one of their initiatives called “March for our Lives” will take place in different cities across the globe with the aim of bringing a bill in front of US Congress that will minimize gun violence.
In this article I aim to show why it is important to support these students by highlighting how throughout history young people’s voices have always been the source of great change. These Florida school shooting victims are following in the footsteps of immensely powerful and inspiring student protesters. They are part of a legacy.
On February 1, 1960 four black students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro decided to sit at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter. They had been inspired by activists, such as Martin Luther King Jr. to protest against segregation and racism. When the four young men, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil, were denied service, they refused to give up their seats. It had been brought to the media’s attention that this sit-in was taking place and within minutes the event was being covered on television. The Greensboro Four remained seated until the store closed. The next day they picked up where they left off with more students from other colleges joining them. Each day the number of “sit-inners” grew and by February 5 the number of students was believed to be around 300. The movement had spread to 55 cities in 13 different states towards the end of March. The sit-ins brought a significant amount of attention to the civil rights movement and by the summer of 1960 restaurants across the South were being integrated. Greensboro Woolworth’s quietly followed their example during the students’ summer vacation at the end of July.
The Soweto Uprising
On June 16, 1976, members of the South African Student Organization took to the streets of Soweto to peacefully protest the implementation by the government of the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in half of the subjects in middle and high school. At that time Afrikaans was spoken by the ruling National Party and thus was seen as the language of the oppressor by mainly black students. Furthermore, many black teachers lacked proficiency in the language and therefore could not provide their students with proper lessons as a result of this decree. Thousands of students came to Soweto, a township outside of Johannesburg, holding up signs with phrases like, “To hell with Afrikaans” and “Afrikaans must be abolished”, while singing songs of freedom. They had planned a peaceful rally at the Orlando Soccer Stadium and were marching towards it when policemen stopped them. The officers first used teargas and warning shots to try turn the students back and eventually started shooting directly at the crowd. The fight escalated and eventually led to two deaths and many more injuries.
Because of the uprising the South African government backed out on its Afrikaans language policy in that same year. Unfortunately, the violence continued to spread throughout the country and eventually caused many young people their lives. Today June 16 is seen as National Youth Day in South Africa and commemorates the bravery of the marchers. It also highlights that the Soweto Uprising sparked the revolution which eventually led to the downfall of the Apartheid government.
Tiananmen Square Protests
Hu Yaobang was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1980 to 1987. He was a progressive thinker who advocated among other things social and economic reform for China. He was eventually pushed out of the party due to his liberal ideas, which included his encouragements of student protests in late 1986. When he died on April 15, 1989, the Chinese government was initially not willing to provide him with a state funeral. This angered many university students in Beijing who decided to march on Tiananmen Square. As a result of this, the government gave in to the will of the students and held the funeral for Yaobang. What the government did not do, however, was allow a group of students to present their petition, which called for a more democratic political system, to officials. This sparked a string of protests and strikes throughout the following months.
On the morning of June 3, 1989, students and other people who had joined the movement were protesting in Tiananmen Square when the army approached them on foot and in tanks while firing tear gas. The situation escalated when protesters threw bricks at the soldiers and the army men fired bullets into the masses. The fight continued throughout the night and did not cease until 6 a.m. the next morning.
At the time of the protests, China had not allowed any of the press to cover any of it. The only statements about the incident were made by the government. However, recently released documents written by the then-British ambassador to China reveals shocking details, including that the death toll was more than 10,000 instead of 3,000.
Even though the Chinese government still to this day refuses to acknowledge the occurrence of the Tiananmen Square protests, let alone their significance, the bravery and strength of the students of Beijing has not gone unnoticed and continues to inspire many young people around the world.
1999: Iran Student Protests
In Iran, Mohammad Khatami was elected to be president on 23 May, 1997. Many students voted for Khatami because of his liberal views on political, social and economic reform. However, when the Iranian press court decided to close the reformist paper, Salaam, and implement a new law limiting freedom of the press, students from the Tehran University started protesting against their government. The peaceful protests began on July 8 in 1999 without any police interference. The following night, however, riot police in plain-clothing stormed a dormitory of the Tehran University and started attacking students and destroying their rooms. Several students were killed and hundreds were arrested. Afterwards the news of the raid spread like wildfire and sparked another series protests which occurred on and off the university campus. Khatami’s reaction to the incident was not what the students had hoped for. Even though he condemned the actions of the police, he also asked the students to stop protesting. Furthermore, he only offered tokens of official remorse and sympathy. His lack of personal engagement with his most loyal followers stirred up a lot of anger and frustration amongst the students. They started to question the effectiveness of Khatami’s reform of the country’s absolutist and theocratic system. These questions ultimately led to a political divide which still exists in Iran today. In fact, towards the end of last year and the beginning of this many students from the University of Tehran were arrested for protesting against the government and its economic dealings. These protests have spread throughout the country and resulted in many deaths. They pose a real threat to Iran’s regime.
By highlighting and further exploring these student protests, I have only shown you the tip of the iceberg. This legacy is a lot more vast and intricate than any single website article could properly illustrate. However, I hope this article does give you an indication of how the voices of younger generations truly have the ability to change the world. The students of Stoneman Douglas in Florida demonstrate how this is not something from the past. Because of their efforts Florida governor, Rick Scott, signed a bill on March 7 which raises the minimum age to buy a firearm from 18 to 21. It also bans bump stocks which turn regular guns into semi-automatic weapons. Furthermore, the new legislation now includes long guns in the three-day waiting period for handgun purchases and creates a “guardian” program that makes it possible for school staff to carry handguns. The impact of this movement can also be felt outside of government, as many corporations have cut ties with the National Rifle Association since students started calling them out over it. These companies include Hertz and Delta Airlines.
Tomorrow, March 24, the March for Our Lives is set to take place both in- and outside of the States. Thousands will be marching for gun control and school safety systems. With the previously discussed youth activism to look up to, I believe the Stoneman Douglas students hold the torch that illuminates the path to a brighter future.
I will link the “March for Our Lives” website below, as it shows you multiple ways in which you can get involved, including signing their petition and donating to their cause. There is also a map on which you can look up March for Our Lives events near you, should you want to join in tomorrow. Please show your support so that schools everywhere can be the safe havens that they were always meant to be. Be a part of the legacy.