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Posts Tagged ‘March for our Lives’

Part IV of “Passions of a March–and of Gun Culture

The student-initiated “March for Our Lives”, two months old to this day, has already been characterized as a novelty in the annals of American political action.  History is, of course, always being ‘made’ in the United States: in a metrics-obsessed culture, this or that phenomenon—ten dunks in a single game by LeBron James, or the single-season rushing record in a NFL game, ad infinitum—becomes ‘one for the history books’.  The “March for our Lives” has doubtless made it to the history books as the expression of a certain sentiment involving a larger number of school students than any previously recorded movement of dissent—and perhaps this is all the more ‘historical’, if one is accepting of such a worldview, in that the present age is often described as one characterized by student apathy.  It may be that the noxious and equally nauseous politics of the Trump regime and its supporters has energized student bodies into political action.

NandlalBoseGAndhiWalking

It is well to remember, however, that “the march” is not a singular thing.  The “Long March” was itself comprised of several marches; most famously, it entailed the movement by Mao and fellow comrades from Jiangxi Province to Shanxi, a distance of some 4,000 miles across mountain ranges and two dozen rivers, over a period of 370 days from October 1934 to October 1935.  The stranglehold that Chiang Kai-shek had attempted to place around the communists was broken; the march would help to seal Mao’s ascent to power.  Gandhi’s march to the sea likewise may have done more than anything else to transform him into a world-historical figure, just as Nandlal Bose’s rendition of the Gandhi of the strident walk would yield one of the most iconic images of the Mahatma.  In its wake, came the Round Table Conferences:  whatever their place in the narrative of independence, and some have critiqued the conferences as clever stratagems on the part of the colonial power that deferred Independence for another fifteen years, the British for the first time sat down to negotiate with Indians.  Numerous marches have sought to reconfigure the American landscape, none more so than the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, which itself demonstrably took a page out of Gandhi’s march to Dandi.  A quarter of a million were gathered to hear some of the stalwarts of the Civil Rights movement; none present there had any anticipation of the soaring speech that King was about to deliver.  Less than a year later, the Civil Rights Act, inarguably the most transformative piece of legislation in modern American history, was passed.

MarchOnWAshington1963

The March on Washington, 28 August 1963:  civil rights supportres carrying placards seeking equal rights, equal employment opportunities for black people, and an end to discrimination.  Photograph:  Warren Leffler.  Source:  Library of Congress.

US civil rights leader Martin Luther King,Jr. (C)

Martin Luther King, Jr. waving to supporters from the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington, 28 August 1963.  Source:  AFP/Getty Images.

The most recent “March for Our Lives” cannot be likened to any of these marches, and yet it has earned the moniker of a “march”.  Will it, in time, be similarly transformative and thus be deemed historic?  Few remember today the Million Mom March, held on Mother’s Day in 2000, when an estimated 750,000 women and men converged in Washington in support of gun-control legislation following a shooting at a Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California.  Another 250,000 people then took part in sister marches held simultaneously around the country.  The legislation that may legitimately be described as having in part emerged from this activism, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (November, 1993), mandated federal background checks on firearm purchasers and imposed a five-day waiting period for purchases, though the latter provision was rendered obsolete by the introduction in 1998 of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  The NRA, expectedly, offered stiff resistance to the Brady bill; its defeat, at that moment, was roundly celebrated as a demonstration of the fact that dents can be made in the NRA armor.

The Brady Act, however, did nothing whatsoever to put into question “the gun culture” that occupies an immense space in the American imaginary.  The long-standing and militant Executive Vice President of the NRA, Wayne La Pierre, is scarcely the only exponent of American exceptionalism, and believes with many of his countrymen and women “in America as the greatest nation on earth”; but he is also certain that America’s greatness owes everything to the Second Amendment, and that gun owners were critically important in handing Hilary Clinton an unexpected defeat.  Clinton is far from being an enemy of the Second Amendment; much like the students who marched on Washington, she believes only in sensible gun control—though, it is necessary to state, gun control laws in most nations are far more stringent than anything that could be contemplated under the rubric of “sensible gun control” in the United States.

The NRA has absolute mastery over this domain: it defines, names, and maims its enemies, except that its enemies are merely somewhat more reasonable more human beings, and nothing like the radicals who, as the NRA claims, are determined to take America down and strip its citizens of their cherished freedoms.  Apart from all this, it should not be forgotten that the provisions of the Brady Act continued to be whittled down, and the NRA successfully and relentlessly waged battles to augment the rights of gun owners in other respects.  As the events of the last twenty-five years have amply shown, the Brady Act has been rendered toothless; one study, based on an exhaustive study of data from 1985 to 1997 at the National Center for Health Statistics, concludes that the Brady Act may have done something to reduce suicide rates among those who are 55 years or older, but that it had no impact nationally on homicide rates or even suicide rates for those under 55 (see Jens Ludwig and Philip Cook, “Homicide and Suicide Rates Associated with Implementation of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act”, Journal of the American Medical Association 284, no. 5 (2000), 585-91.

(to be continued)

See also:

Part III, The March for Our Lives:  A New Generation of Activists?

Part II, School Shootings, the Lockdown, and an Aside on Masculinity

Part I, High School Shootings:  Fragments of Americana

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Part III of The Passions of a March–and of Gun Culture

Seventeen students’ lives were taken at the Parkland school shooting and they could have, after the customary eulogies and testimonies to their lives, ended up as only as statistics.  However, the aftermath of the massacre has made the story of the Parkland school shooting somewhat unusual in contemporary American experience.  Rather than turning the gun upon himself in one final act of desperation as most shooters have done, Cruz allowed himself to be taken captive; perhaps, “his story” will be heard, though it is doubtful that anything particularly striking will emerge beyond the by-now familiar narrative of a white boy in his late teens or early twenties who routinely engaged in slurs against Muslims, black people, and Jews, sported swastikas and was drawn to neo-Nazi videos on the internet, and appears to have thought of white women who had entered into inter-racial relationships as traitors to their race.  The shooters, whether at school or elsewhere, have been, as I have pointed out previously, predominantly white; their admirers, drawn from the ranks of those who harbor a fascination for guns and are evidently advocates of racial purity, are also overwhelmingly white.  In another piece of Americana, as Cruz remains confined in prison while awaiting trial, he is being inundated with fan mail from across the country, with a few stray pieces from Europe, mostly from girls, women, and grown men.  His interlocutors include mature women who have sent Cruz photos of themselves in lingerie, as well as young women who have written him love letters or are solicitous of his welfare [Flores 2018].

More significantly, however, it is the resolve of the students of the Parkland school to bring the subject of gun control to the attention of the nation that has differentiated this shooting from many others.  Just days into the shooting, some of the school’s students had already become emissaries for a cause, appearing as spokespersons for gun control at other schools, on news channels, in town hall meetings, and at community forums.  Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas who was raised in Parkland, emerged three days after the shooting as the face of the student-led gun control movement.  At a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, she ended her speech with the rallying call, “We call B.S.”  Emma, like the other students, had had enough of politicians informing families of victims and traumatized students that their “thoughts and prayers” were with them.  She had heard far too many politicians piously vowing, time after time, to make the country’s schools safe from gun violence, and then unabashedly proceeding to collect donations from the NRA for their re-election campaigns.  She now knew what it meant to have to cower in fear:  on the day of the shooting, she was in the school auditorium when the alarm sounded; though she sought to make good her exit, she and other students were held in the auditorium for two hours before the police arrived and unlocked the doors.  On February 20th, Emma and other students met with state legislators in Florida at Tallahassee and watched them vote down debate on a gun control bill.  The day after, Emma let the NRA and the politicians who stand by it have an earful: “You’re either funding the killers, or you’re standing for the children.”

On March 14th, one month to the day the massacre of the innocents took place, students from across the country staged a school walkout termed “Enough!”  They would be assisted in this endeavor by some of the organizations and activists in the “Women’s March” that had descended upon Washington the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as President on 20 January 2017.  Timed at 10 AM, students in perhaps as many as 3,000 schools quit their classrooms, while staying within the school grounds, for 17 minutes in memory of their 17 peers who were killed in Parkland and to signal their impatience with prevarication by legislators in initiating gun control measures.   But all this served as a prelude to the far more ambitious and purposeful “March for Our Lives” on March 24th, when a million students gathered in Washington, and several hundred cities across the country, to demand legislative action in Congress, and state legislative assemblies, that would put into place more stringent measures to regulate the sale of guns; some, taking a more complex political view of the matter, called attention to the gun violence that has blighted urban communities around the country and taken an especially heavy toll of African Americans, Chicanos, and even bystanders. There, again, was Emma Gonzalez, this time standing forth, mostly in heavy silence, for 6 minutes 20 seconds—as long as it took for Cruz to snuff out many lives and maim as many—before concluding her speech with a call for action before “someone else is shot.”

The day belonged not to Emma Gonzalez alone.  Seventeen-year old Edna Chavez recalled how, one evening three years ago, she heard what sounded like fireworks outside her South Los Angeles home, not realizing that her older brother had been gunned down in gang violence.  “I lost more than my brother that day,” she told the Washington crowd, “I lost my hero.”  At eleven years, fifth-grader Naomi Wadler took the podium and spoke forcefully for nearly four minutes on the disproportionate impact of gun violence upon black women.  Let us pause over her remarks: “I am here to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news. I represent the African American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential.”

Wadler displayed, for someone her age, remarkable poise; and she evidently has more political awareness and acuity than one encounters among most politicians.  Much more so than school shootings, it is the violence on American streets that has destroyed families, decimated entire neighborhoods, and condemned generations of black men to prison terms and lives of destitution.  Once the gunfire has died down, it is largely women—mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends—who are left to mourn, pick up the pieces of their lives, and—as they say—carry on.  America has little interest in resolving addressing gun violence:  it makes some streets unsafe, but the rigid segregation that is pervasive around the country ensures that, for the most part, this violence does not spill over into white neighborhoods.  In any case, much of white America has long been reconciled to the idea that a slight degree of discomfort can be tolerated, so long as gun violence does not begin to tear apart their own communities.  School shootings have, we may say, broken that barrier.

(to be continued)

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