For more than a week, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have held the country’s attention as they join with peers across the country to demand a change in America’s gun laws.
Their acts of protest — and their cutting statements to politicians— have made them a powerful force, drawing considerable media coverage and the backing of multiple celebrities. And their organizing is just beginning: Students have planned two national events in March, the National School Walkout and the March for Our Lives.
Several celebrities have donated cash toward the students’ goals, including Steven Spielberg and George Clooney. When announcing her $500,000 donation to the March for Our Lives, Oprah Winfrey tweeted that “these inspiring young people remind me of the Freedom Riders of the ’60s who also said we’ve had ENOUGH and our voices will be heard.”
Over at Slate, Dahlia Lithwick also noted the power of the students’ activism, writing that “with each spin of the news cycle, these students are offering a lesson for all of us about what protests can look like, and how we can reimagine social justice, in the Trump era.”
But for some black racial justice activists, organizers, and public figures, the reaction to the students of Stoneman Douglas has also led to another truth: Organizing around Black Lives Matter and the larger Movement for Black Lives, another youth-led movement demanding policy change in the wake of trauma, was not and has not been as readily embraced.
The difference was noticeable as student anger began bubbling to the surface in the aftermath of the Florida school shooting. In Parkland, “while the students and parents speaking up were no more passionate than the young people of, say, the Black Lives Matter movement, it was clear that the political establishment was going to receive them a different way,” New Yorker contributor Emily Witt noted last week.
It opens up a complicated discussion about who gets empathy in America, what issues are deemed important, and the types of activism and activists that the public responds to. And while there are no easy answers, that doesn’t make the conversation any less necessary.
Parkland, Trayvon Martin, and how America responds to black communities versus white ones
When highlighting the disparity in public reaction, activists and organizers have noted that their words should not be taken as an attack on the students, but rather as a challenge to how the trauma of certain groups is perceived.
“White people get to be everything. They get to victims, they get to be heroes. And black people, unfortunately, continue to be criminalized for our moments of courage, for our moments of mourning and grieving,” Black Lives Matter Network co-founder Patrisse Cullors said when asked about the differing reactions to Parkland and black racial justice organizing during a HuffPost Black History Month panel earlier this week. “And that often looks like when we go out into the streets, when we protest, when we demand for our lives to matter, we’re given heavy police repression.”
“Why don’t black people get to be victims? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves,” she added.
This isn’t to say that the Parkland students haven’t received criticism. Conspiracy theorists have claimed they’re “crisis actors” and that the students are being manipulated by liberal groups and Democratic billionaire George Soros. But it’s hard to imagine students from the largely white, solidly middle-class Florida suburb being painted as “thugs” or “extremists” for their actions.
And the speed with which the students have forced a conversation — and the changes that conversation has already brought about — are considerably different.
As writer Janaya Khan explains at the Root:
And it saddens me to say that this moment serves to remind black youths that the world cares less about them than it does other children. The rush of support for the Parkland youths from mainstream-media spots, to sizable financial contributions from celebrities, to high-powered activists helping to organize their march and amplify their work, is exactly what young people deserve—and it’s why the drastic difference in how Black Lives Matter was received is all the more apparent.
“The way people are responding to predominantly white communities is notable: Whose movement is more valuable to support?” Dante Barry, co-founder of the racial justice group Million Hoodies, tells the Huffington Post. “Other communities that have been devastated by gun violence are still fighting for crumbs.”
“Young black people have been fighting to save lives through gun reform laws for years without the support and energy given to the Stoneman Douglas students,” Lincoln Anthony Blades writes for Teen Vogue. “In fact, black youth, who’ve been passionately advocating for gun control measures, have been demonized, obfuscated, and overlooked.“
There’s a counterargument that this difference is less about race and class and more about the demands of the groups. Some make the case that unlike the Parkland students, Black Lives Matter and its affiliates don’t have a specific policy ask that could be easily achieved. But given that several individual racial justice groups, as well as larger collectives like the Movement for Black Lives and the police-reform oriented Campaign Zero initiative, have all come out with various policy agendas targeting specific issues, this doesn’t really hold up.
Those calling attention to the disparity in reactions have also highlighted the work of the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based group founded after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, arguing that it helped pave the way for the current student movement for gun control. The Dream Defenders have several policy objectives aimed at helping marginalized people, but one of its larger efforts revolves around gun violence and ending Florida’s “stand your ground” law. The youth-led group took a number of actions in an effort to force a debate on the law, even occupying the state capitol for several weeks in 2013, only to be rebuffed. In the following years, state legislators would actually push to expand the law.
Similar efforts around various policy initiatives have taken place in recent years only for black activists to be ignored or become the targets of new laws outlining how and where protests should occur.
When Black Lives Matter started in 2012, the oldest students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High were just about to hit their teenage years. With Sanford, Florida, the site of Martin’s killing, just three hours away from their town and Jacksonville, where a black teenager named Jordan Davis was shot and killed in 2012, just six hours away, it is likely that discussions of Black Lives Matter have been a part of their formative years.
“Without the young black protesters who put their bodies on the line for justice and equality, we may not have heard from the women who said #MeToo, and we wouldn’t be hearing from the students who are emphatically saying #NeverAgain,” Khanya Khondlo Mtshali writes in the Guardian.
If recent reports are any indication, the Parkland students are eager to build coalitions. The Stoneman Douglas survivors recently met with the survivors of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. And groups like the Dream Defenders are also looking to connect.
But in a country that still struggles to confront its racial demons, addressing the larger rift in who gets attention and who doesn’t will require much more.