Fighting for their right not to be shot

On June 16, 1976, a group of high school students in Johannesburg, South Africa, began a historic revolt against an unjust system that denied them freedom and safety in their own land.

For generations, courageous adults like Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela had led the struggle against colonialism and apartheid in South Africa. For generations, they had been subdued by the arms of a racist minority government in power. For 12 long years, Mandela and other leaders of the ANC had languished in prison on Robben Island, where the government hoped their cause would die a silent death.

Then came the turning point. Incensed by the government’s policy of “gutter” education for Africans, and exasperated by the inability of their elders to bring about change, thousands of students including Sindiso’s aunts and uncles took to the streets in Johannesburg’s Soweto township.

Their protest breathed new life into the anti-apartheid movement, both at home and abroad, and set their country on a path that would culminate in the election of Nelson Mandela as president of a democratic South Africa in 1994. It would also enable future members of our family, like Sindiso, to leave the township behind and attend good (white) schools in safety.

Listening to the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL declare on national TV last week that “we are going to be the last mass shooting,” and watching as they and countless others nationwide take to the streets to protest gun violence in America, brings to mind the Soweto uprising of 1976. Although the struggles are not the same, violence and minority rule are also on display today with 37,000 US gun deaths a year and a minority of wealthy contributors at the NRA effectively controlling Congress.

Take Cameron Kasky, a 17 year old survivor of last week’s Florida shooting, who is working with fellow students to plan a “March for Our Lives” on March 24th in Washington, DC and in state capitals around the country. Speaking to NPR last Friday, he declared “it’s over” for politicians like the Republican leaders in Congress who take money from the NRA while “fostering and promoting this gun culture that’s allowing … mentally troubled teenagers to buy weapons of war.”

Or take Lane Murdock, a 15 year old student in Connecticut who lives not far from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six adults were shot to death in 2012. Her petition in the aftermath of last week’s tragedy has drawn more than 50,000 signatures of students pledging to walk out of their high schools on April 20th, the anniversary of Columbine.

Or take the students from McLean High School in Virginia who staged a “die-in” in front of the White House shortly after the Florida shooting to demand President Donald Trump support comprehensive gun safety legislation. The list of spontaneous student actions in the last week alone, like the more than 1,600 mass shootings that have occurred since Sandy Hook, goes on and on.

This student movement, like the Soweto uprising some 40 years ago, is grounded in a fundamental human awareness of right and wrong.

It is wrong that 37,000 Americans were killed or took their lives with a gun in 2017, a steady increase over prior years, according to the nonpartisan Gun Violence Archive. It is wrong that black kids are ten times as likely as white kids in America to die from guns, according to the CDC, thanks to the disproportionate number of homicides (as well as shootings by increasingly militarized police) that occur in poor and minority communities. And it is wrong that a small minority of gun manufacturers and their sympathizers in the NRA exert a corrupting influence over state and federal governments, thanks to tens of millions of dollars spent funding political campaigns in 2016.

Indeed, the righteous indignation expressed by American students in recent days at the loss of far too many innocent lives, like that of Sindiso’s forbears in South Africa, is a signifier of the systemic oppressions that straddle time and space. More hopefully, it is also a compelling reminder of the importance of youth activism in advancing social change. Although the voices at the forefront of this present uprising are mostly white, they are preceded in their protest by young African Americans, who continue to advocate for freedom and safety under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter.

Overcoming these injustices is a matter of life and death – for children and our democracy. It will require a force more powerful than politicians or the NRA. It will require ordinary people standing up and speaking out for something even more essential than the Second Amendment: our first “inalienable” right to life itself, as enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence.

Here’s hoping that a new generation of “freedom fighters,” from Florida and beyond, will show us grown-ups the way.

Dan Weeks is the author of Democracy in Poverty: A View from Below. Dr. Sindiso Mnisi Weeks is Assistant Professor of Public Policy of Excluded Populations at UMass Boston. They live in Nashua, NH with their children and keep a blog at www.SindisoAndDan.org.