Disruptive, adaptive, and fun: The teens behind March For Our Lives are cracking the protest code

We spoke to journalist and author Sarah Jaffe about how the Parkland-driven protest movement fits within the recent history of Americans in revolt.

Student activists at Pennridge High School in Pennsylvania used their walkout detention to stage another anti-gun violence protest this weekend. (CREDIT: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Student activists at Pennridge High School in Pennsylvania used their walkout detention to stage another anti-gun violence protest this weekend. (CREDIT: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could have expected this Saturday’s upcoming March For Our Lives. When Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was visited upon by the same gun violence that had wrecked so many other lives, in so many different places, you wouldn’t have been thought a fool to imagine that these tragic events would eventually fade away into an apathetic haze of thoughts and prayers and shrugs. But something else happened: The tragedy birthed something genuinely new and unexpected in American politics — a national protest movement centered on gun violence, spearheaded by teenagers.

This time was different. And yet, in some important ways, it isn’t. What has started in Parkland bears a close kinship with many protest movements of recent vintage. The Women’s March is an obvious close cousin — and in fact, the youth offshoot of the Women’s March movement have lent the March For Our Lives their organizational support — but it’s not hard to discern echoes of other movements such as Black Lives Matter or Occupy.

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To get some insight on how the ever-expanding Parkland protests fits within our recent protest traditions — and what lessons this weekend’s marchers might learn from those who came before them — we spoke to journalist Sarah Jaffe, whose book, Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revolt, undertakes a deep dive into the recent history of protest movements in America to find out what transforms “ordinary Americans into activists.”

THINKPROGRESS: I wanted to talk about this Parkland-driven protest movement that’s about to blow up all over the country this weekend, and to try to pick your scholarly brain, and put this within the larger context of the recent history of protest movements. I imagine that if you had the opportunity right now to add a chapter to your book, this might be something you’d add.

SARAH JAFFE: Oh, yeah. I was just joking that in the last year and a half, I could write a whole other book. These movements all sort of iterate on each other. So, you get a march, and then you get another march, and you get an occupation, and then you get another occupation, and you see these tactics rolling through — one to the next, one to the next, one to the next. They get discarded when they’re no longer useful, they get revived after a while when you haven’t seen them for a minute. I wrote about this around the time Standing Rock was starting, it had been a couple of years but people were returning back to the occupation of public space. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of marches.

There seem to be these latent ideas that fade and then pop back up out of the background when they become useful again. How well do these Parkland-driven protests fit within the larger continuum of protest movements that you’ve written about — from the Tea Party, to Occupy, to Black Lives Matter?

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Now there is actually a grassroots-driven movement on gun control that is taking up space on the national level. Before this, it was a very localized phenomenon. I still think the most important part of the story are the community-based struggles that have been going on for many, many years that don’t get national coverage — they are in many ways still the real focus for the gun control struggle. What’s interesting here is that the Parkland kids have picked up on that, and learned from it, and have gone to Chicago and sat down with Chicago organizers, and they’re working with the Dream Defenders and other folks in Florida. They’re really connecting those dots and saying, “We don’t want our schools to feel like prison.”

“If it’s just constant, hard-grinding, miserable work all the time, then it’s going to die.”

And they’re aware of things that came before. So when they marched to the Florida capital they’re aware that the Dream Defenders did that before them, around Trayvon [Martin]. They’re aware that they are consciously echoing things, not just from the ’60s — because everyone’s obsessed with echoing the ’60s — but they’re echoing things from just a couple of years ago. And because they are young and are “extremely online,” as people like to say, they can get in touch with people and they can have these conversations really quickly. It’s really interesting to go to the Twitter feeds of some of the Parkland kids who’ve been the most vocal and watch them pick up ideas, retweet things, and see who they’re engaging with. They’re used to doing this stuff in public.

It’s disruptive and it’s…fun? Even though this is a really depressing subject one of the things about these movements is that people tend to find ways to take pleasure in them. You look at the [Parkland kids] and they’re pausing to go cry because they’re really traumatized, but they’re also able to take pleasure in strength in each other, and go forward in a way that all movements have to do, or else they’ll die out. If it’s just constant, hard-grinding, miserable work all the time, then it’s going to die.

I think the media’s basically covered the Parkland movement as if it’s some sort of sui generis event. But one of the things you talk about in your recent piece for the New Republic is that the interests of this big, new, newsmaking protest movement overlap with the interests of any number of movements that preceded it. And a lot of those, let’s face it, were not spearheaded by a bunch of affluent, suburban kids. Do you think the Parkland kids are doing a good job leveraging their privilege and celebrity to find common cause with those who have been out there doing this work — maybe not around school shootings specifically, but gun violence more generally?

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I’ve been kind of impressed with them, really. And yes, it’s important to note that on the one hand we’re talking about an affluent suburban school that has things like arts education — that has a theater department for there to be theater kids. On the other hand, we’re not necessarily talking about a bunch of white, heterosexual, normative kids. Emma Gonzalez is a Cuban, bisexual girl with a shaved head and makes no bones about any of those things, and can still go on television and be herself. And that, itself, is a victory for a movement, that somebody like her is as comfortable being herself as she is. It was not a thing when we were in high school — we got gay-bashed for having a Gay-Straight Alliance.

“Those are the options: the way things are now, or actively horrifying. And you see masses of teenagers saying, ‘No, these two options are terrible and we refuse them both.'”

And last week, when they had the school walk-out, if you look at the schools that had the walk-outs, they’re all over the country. They’re in affluent suburban districts but they’re also in the city — they’re in Baltimore and Miami and New York and Chicago. People from radically different backgrounds are connecting to what’s going on here — they’re saying, “I should not have to worry about this shit as a teenager.” And “this shit” can be a lot of things: they’re protesting a lack of gun control, but in doing that, they’re protesting a non-functional democracy where the adults in the room — big old air quotes around “adults in the room” — are not doing what they should do. They’re not doing much of anything. They’re sitting on their asses or they’re trying to arm teachers. They’re either doing nothing or they’re doing things that are actively horrifying and harmful.

Those are the options: the way things are now, or actively horrifying. And you see masses of teenagers saying, “No, these two options are terrible and we refuse them both.”

They do seem awake to that.

To get back to the privilege question, my friend Jane McAlevey is a labor organizer whose first book is called Raising Expectations, and she talks about how the thing you need to do to get people to protest is to get them to believe and/or expect that things could be better. And that dovetails to another of my favorite people, British journalist Paul Mason, who talks about “the graduates with no future,” who are a core part of all of these uprisings from Egypt to the student protests in the U.K., to Occupy. These are people who did have the expectation that things would be better. When you have people who are super-ground down, they tend to get used to things. But when you have people with some expectation that things could be other than they are, or that were told things would be better, they are the ones who are more likely to do something about it.

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One thing that has been remarked upon a lot is that the Parkland kids are digital natives, with real social media dexterity. There’s a lot of commentary about how they can’t be out-memed, and how it’s hard to “savagely own” them on Twitter. Are we overstating that?

I think that the internet — the way things spread on the internet, the way conversations happen there — is shaping the way these protest movements happen. When things go viral, you don’t need to call the Parkland students to ask their permission to say, “Well, we’re going to have a walk-out at our school, too.” They just put the call out there in this open-source fashion, and everyone is suddenly, “We’re going to do this thing, we’re all going to do this thing, and in each place, we’re going to make it about what matters here.” So the demands in Chicago are much more explicitly centered around racial justice than they are in the suburbs.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of social media. You see the news this week, and learn that social media is also trying to ruin our lives. But there is something about the fact that you have teenagers who are comfortable with all of this stuff and who have learned from the people who came before, to put that to work in their own favor.

Having studied so many protest movements up close, is there something that stands out as crucial to maintaining the longevity of a protest movement? Is there, for the lack of a better word, a “best practices” that can be applied?

That is the question. I wish we had a theory of best practices, “If you do X, Y, and Z, your movement will succeed!” I would have sold so many more books if that were true. But I think one of the things you need to do to succeed is try new things. Mike Konczal wrote a blog post way back during Occupy, where he grasped that tactical innovations were important to the Civil Rights movement — the spikes of activity based on tactical changes. There was the bus boycott and there were sit-ins and there were the major marches. Every time there was a new tactic, there would be a spike in the use of it, and then people would get used to seeing it.

My best example of this is early on, during Occupy, people would use the mic-check as a sort of disruption. I remember I was watching a livestream of people who had gone to a panel on education policy in New York, and it was a bunch of teachers, and Occupiers, and students who were using the mic-check to completely shut down this meeting because nobody knew what to do about it. A year and a half, two years later, I went with a group of protesters to the Morgan Stanley shareholders’ meeting, and they were not baffled by the mic-check at all, they just calmly waited for it to be done. And that’s what happens when you’re thinking, “We just have to keep doing this one tactic, and we’ll succeed.” That’s not necessarily true.

“You need something more than a demonstration that there are people who agree with each other.”

This can be particularly true of marches — not to criticize the march that’s happening — but marches on their own are not recessarily disruptive and they don’t necessarily do anything besides demonstrate numbers. A lot of the time, the value of that sort of thing is more for the people who participate in it than it is for much else. The Women’s March, in its second year, was bigger than anyone expected it to be, but it didn’t have a set of demands, it just attempted to demonstrate that there were a lot of us. And that’s good. But what happened right after that? The Democrats caved on the Dream Act. So the question of what you’re doing with your march, what kind of pressure you’re putting on, these are the things that are important to ask about your tactics: “How is this actually changing things?”

You see, in West Virginia, the teachers’ strike, they screwed up everybody’s lives for nine days and they won. You need something more than a demonstration that there are people who agree with each other. This is why I’m more interested in the student walk-out as a big moment than I am about the march.

Obviously, one of the things that’s unique about this particular movement is that it’s being driven by teenagers. I remember being a teenager, and I recall this time in my life as one of big decisions about my own future, and the pressure of moving into adulthood — you’re also supposed to take the time to enjoy life, as well. And I also think about how the world is arranged in such a way to just wear kids down. What advice can you offer these kids about how to maintain that ragtag spirit that’s taken them this far?

As the somewhat cynical grown-ups that we can all be at times, you have to sort of let go of your need to give advice and tell them what to do, and instead I just want to see what they come up with, because the things they’ve come up with so far have been great. They’re talking to all of the people they need to be talking to, and they are making connections in ways that are impressive.

I have advice for us, for boring olds like me, to remember what it felt like to be that person, who says, “I can change the world, dammit!” I think most of us had a moment in our lives where someone said, “No you can’t.” We have to not be that person. We have to not tell them they can’t. We have to say, yes you can change things. Yes, choice between the status quo and “everything is horrifying” are two terrible options and we should get rid of them both. Please, young people, tell me more about how the system is not working, because it is not, and it’s okay to say that.

Sarah Jaffe’s book is titled Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revoltand is available wherever fine books are sold or downloaded to devices. She is the co-host, with Michelle Chen, of the Belabored podcast at Dissent Magazine. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.