Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. New voices within a community speak out against the violence and injustice that surrounds them. They use the media to spread their message of peaceful political change. They tell the world they intend to be powerless no more and that they will vote, when they can vote, to force the change they seek. They are authentic, articulate, and fearless as they seek to change a deadly and disgraceful status quo.
They speak to the better angels of our nature and so, naturally, they and their message is embraced by a broad swath of Americans, from sea to shining sea, who see in them hope and inspiration. They become symbols, celebrities of a sort, because on their slender shoulders, and their nascent political campaign, rest a political breakthrough some have waited and wished their whole lives to see. Everyone wants to see a happy ending to a story that began in such heartbreak.
But the more popular they become the more dangerous they become to those seeking to defend the status quo. And so, in some quarters of the country, the new advocates and activists are mocked and derided and accused of being tools of some dark conspiracy. Their stories are disbelieved. Their truths are scorned. They are victimized again. Surely they cannot be what they appear to be—honest Americans who simply have had enough pain and suffering, citizens with a righteous cause—so they must be something else, something cynical and foreign and dangerous. A scandal. Unworthy. And then come the death threats.
Ask folks in communities of color if this narrative is a familiar one. Ask folks in the LGBT community or any Native American. The speed of technology today guarantees that the counter-revolution comes before the revolution is even finished; that the message of change is barely heard before the message seeking to silence it is reverberating. And so we add this month to the litany of political movements in America a new one comprised of earnest teenagers wondering why their civil rights, their human rights, their constitutional rights don’t include the right not to be blasted into oblivion by someone carrying a weapon of war.
Everything about the latest high school massacre is a tragedy except for these brave students, the survivors of the Parkland massacre, who now are speaking out against the gun violence that surrounds them even amid their grief and trauma. Their parents and grandparents failed them by not pushing back more strongly against Florida’s absurdly lax gun laws. Their politicians failed them by giving the gun lobby everything it paid for and more. Even the police failed these kids, not just by the way they acted during the shooting but the score of warnings they missed about the shooter. And so these teenagers grieve, and have nightmares, and then a new day dawns and they press ahead with their political message.
That message is necessarily going to be defused now in the run-up to the big rally planned for March 24th. It has to be. Gradually the television cameras will move on to the next story, perhaps even the next mass gun massacre, and the student activists will be challenged to keep alive the passion and anger and frustration that has fueled their remarkable rise amid the ashes. For it to have any lasting impact this bridled fury cannot just last until the march in March. It must last through and beyond the mid-term election in November. It has to last until every single teenager who wants to make a difference, who wants to save the life of another high school kid, is registered to vote in every county in the country.
Which brings me, at last, to a prediction. Having covered the voting rights beat a few years ago, and having followed it closely ever since, I can say without a shred of doubt that we will begin to see Republican lawmakers across the country now ramp up their efforts to suppress the votes of young people, of students, of teenagers like the ones making life difficult today for the gun lobby. These efforts already were underway in some jurisdictions before Parkland—New Hampshire Republicans want to impose what essentially is a poll tax on students there— but I believe those efforts will intensify now that GOP legislators understand the potency of this potential new voting block.
Voter suppression is the tactic of choice these days for Republicans when they know they cannot compete for votes based on their policy choices alone. And on gun control the latest polls, issued Sunday afternoon, show sweeping support for new gun legislation, support that even extends, narrowly, to those who say they are Republicans. The fight for voting rights for these students must be fought and won first to help ensure that the fight against gun violence is fought fairly at the ballot box. That’s another thing these remarkable teenagers have in common with the heroes of the great political movements that preceded them.
“Give us the ballot,” Martin Luther King, Jr. preached 60 years ago. The mantra now should be: “Give them the ballot.” And then those among us who want the story to end well should make sure these brave young men and women really do get to make their first votes—and to make them count as well.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.