But many of the loudest voices weren’t from adults — they were the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas themselves and the thousands of other teenagers like them who are beyond terrified of the gun violence that has brought community after community to its knees.
These teenagers have been to hell and back since Wednesday. They took on ghouls like Tomi Lahren on Twitter. They gave interviews and talked about gun violence minutes after evacuation from their school and in the days that followed. They organized an upcoming nationwide school walkout. And as student Emma Gonzalez said over the weekend at a rally, they called BS on the legislators who failed to protect them and the gun advocates who don’t care if they live or die.
Soon after, the responses started flooding in complimenting the students on their words and actions:
“The kids will save us after all!”
“These teens will change the world!”
“These young people are more articulate than adults!”
Of course, we need to address what’s right and wrong with this rhetoric. Most importantly, these teenagers shouldn’t have been put in a position where they felt like they needed to clean up the mess of adults; they were violently thrust there by the lack of inaction by grown ass people who failed to protect them and their friends.
As of late, our nation has loved this idea of different groups of people marginalized and/or ignored in some way or another “saving” us from ourselves. That way of thinking needs to end. These young people are rightfully terrified, and as I tweeted this weekend, legislators have essentially told them that they’ll need to take a gamble on their lives every day they decide to get an education. Students want to save themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
And on top of this, for all the ways young people under 18 can help us in driving a message forward, these teenagers still can’t vote right now. That’s on us, the people over 18, to make that difference.
But of course, when I say teens can’t vote, I mean they can’t vote yet. That three-letter word is exciting and empowering. At least, it is for us Democrats, especially because it could pay off dividends for decades to come. On the flip side, it’s beyond terrifying for the GOP, who seem to think teens are like Peter Pan and the boys of Neverland, unable to ever grow older.
When you think back to your coming of age, you can probably remember a few key historical events that shaped your worldview. For my generation, it was the Great Recession and the election of Barack Obama, filling us simultaneously with both hope for our future and the cynical understanding that big business is ruining our lives on so many levels. For other generations, it was events like September 11th or the Vietnam War or World War II.
For this generation of teenagers, it’s the election of Donald Trump. As I pointed out on Twitter, no one has talked about how truly demoralizing and traumatizing the election was for people under 18 who didn’t have an option to vote. It’s also been hard for parents who’ve had to explain to their children — particularly their teenage children who are fully cognizant of this era — why so many older people let the country down. Plenty of adults have talked about how the election opened their eyes, but could you imagine making all of those realizations at age 13 or 15 or 17? That’s a difficult world to come into. But if you think back to your own adolescence, it was a critical time when you saw that you could change the way things were.
So yes, we shouldn’t count on teenagers to save us. It isn’t their job, and the circumstances that have led them to be in this position are utterly horrific and senseless. But here’s what Republicans — and quite frankly, many adults in general — seem to be missing: These teenagers don’t stay young forever. Today’s middle school and high school students are tomorrow’s young adults. And becoming tomorrow’s young adults means becoming tomorrow’s voters. These teenagers understand that in anywhere from a few months to a few years, they can head to the polls and directly tell the Republicans who’ve put their lives in jeopardy to go to hell. That’s empowering to know, and one thing we can do as adults is make sure young people are fully equipped to take advantage of that power when it comes.
Another reason the GOP should be frozen in terror by a generation of angry teenagers is that all of this organizing, protesting, speaking, and lobbying — particularly the tactics that are happening online — are all skills that these students will use for decades to come.
Think about it: How many adults do we hear nowadays talking about how they’re calling their congresspeople or protesting outside their representative’s office for the first time at age 40 or 50? These teenagers have a serious head start. And while the causes may change over the years, they can lean on these very real and practical skill sets of political and civic engagement to help them create the world they want to see. Republicans have inadvertently created a generation that’ll give them much-deserved trouble for decades, because as we all know, the lessons you learn in your youth don’t go away. One of the big takeaways these kids are absorbing? The GOP doesn’t care if they live or die, and they’ll treat your death with insulting levels of apathy.
In other words, the Republicans haven’t just ignited a fire amongst liberals over the past 15 months; they’re setting a blaze amongst the young people in this country who’ll be around for a very long time.
So yes, don’t confuse teenagers not wanting to die with “saving” us. But on the other hand, support their passion, nurture their work, and follow their lead. They’re going to outlast you and me in the long run. And I fully and whole-heartedly believe that they will be a large part of the reason we really do change the world.
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.