Commentary Violence

Parkland Students Join Their Generation Z Peers to Change the Country, Stop Being Killed

Karen Dolan & Grace Dolan-Sandrino

"Our voices are getting louder. Our political power is expanding."

An estimated 500,000 to one million people, largely Gen Zers and young adults, will descend on the nation’s capital on March 24 for the March For Our Lives, organized by the #NeverAgain campaign. This is the anti-gun violence campaign started by the teen survivors of the mass shooting that claimed the lives of 14 students and three faculty members on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

After witnessing the massacre of their classmates and teachers, these courageous young survivors wasted no time in confronting lawmakers, the National Rifle Association (NRA), the media, and our public consciousness. Like other teens, the Parkland students have taken tragedy and turned it into action.

We desperately need action. There is an average of nine mass shootings in the United States every ten days, where the Gun Violence Archive defines “mass shootings” as those in which four or more people are killed, not counting the shooter. Nine days out of ten in this country, there is a mass shooting. It’s a shocking reality and one that is unique to the United States. Ours is the only nation that tolerates this level of gun violence by refusing to pass even common sense gun laws, such as raising the age of gun purchase to 21 (the age at which a person can legally purchase a lottery ticket), requiring waiting periods before a gun purchase, banning bump stocks, or banning weapons of war such as AR-15s.

Beyond school shootings, young people know that gun violence takes at least one life every 15 minutes in this country, whether from murder, suicide, or accidental death.

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As a mother of a mixed-race transgender teen, the headline news terrifies me nearly every day. Yet I also have seen such courageous activism from teens over the last several years, like what is now being demonstrated by the Parkland teens, that I have tremendous hope. My daughter, Grace Dolan-Sandrino, is also an activist, and I asked her to tell me her thoughts and feelings about violence against her generation and what she sees happening in Parkland, with Black Lives Matter, in her trans activism, and with other issues affecting her and her peers. Here is what she told me:

Gen-Z kids like me get scared seeing kids around us murdered, and even more, knowing that sometimes the very people who are supposed to be protecting the public are the ones targeting us. Like armed officers in schools who arrest us for minor offenses like graffiti or not putting away our cell phones, or being [in] the hallways without a bathroom pass. Police on the street are shooting young Black people playing in the park, like Tamir Rice, or for jaywalking, like Mike Brown. Immigration officials are deporting parents and separating them from us. Our climate is approaching the point of no return for sustainability. My trans and queer peers and I are being denied even the very basic human function of using the correct bathrooms in schools and public spaces. We’re at risk on so many levels. But we are also fighting back.

Teens are indeed at great risk. In 2016, a staggering number—2,665—of teens ages 15 to 19 died as a result of gun violence: more deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), than those in the same age group dying from cancer, diabetes, and heart disease combined. By comparison, the CDC shows that more than 700 teens died from the drug epidemic that has taken the headlines in this past year.

The Parkland students, led by Emma Gonzalez, a queer-identified Latina, follow in the footsteps of so many teen activists and teen movements throughout history, but especially those who have burst into public consciousness in the last five years or so. Black children are ten times more likely to die by gunshot than their white peers; Black teens, like Maxine Wint, Sophia Byrd, and Natalie Braye took to the streets following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Mike Brown. They courageously faced down militarized armed forces in riot gear at their nonviolent protests. They challenged lawmakers and presidential candidates who failed to stand against police brutality that targets young Black people. Black Youth Project 100 created a bold national platform with direct demands for structural change in the United States and brought Black, brown, immigrant, and white people into the struggle to see this radical change.

Teens are also fighting for their lives in other battles. Indigenous teens joined their communities and made history fighting the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines. Navajo Nation teen Jaime Lynn Butler joined 21 other teens in suing the Trump administration for exacerbating, denying, and ignoring the causes of climate change that threaten to rob Generation Z of its future as the planet becomes a less sustainable, more dangerous place.

Young Dreamers, like Viri, made their way into the hearts and minds of the majority of voters and even of lawmakers in the country as they demanded their right to stay in the country they know as home and to be able to work, go to school, and have access to higher education.

Transgender teens, like Sameer Jha and Mars, have led the charge for inclusivity in their schools, in bathrooms, in health care, and for their very right to exist in public spaces. They’ve brought attention to the shocking rates at which especially trans females of color suffer lack of health care, sexual violence, and homicide.

Muslim teens at home, like Hebh Jamal, and abroad, like Ahed Tamimi, have been in the forefront of combatting ugly stereotypes that stigmatize them and subject them to violence, abuse, and targeted deaths.

Generation Z is made up of those born in the 2000s. And their share of the population is increasing. Babies of color made up the majority of babies born beginning in 2013, which showed up in U.S. Census numbers in 2015. Nearly one half of all Gen Zers live at or near the poverty line. And according to one survey from a trend marketing firm, less than one-half identify as straight. They embrace queer identity and reject the idea that gender is binary. The oldest of them are coming of age to vote this year. They are diverse in their identities and are on the streets and getting ready to be in voting booths.

“Our numbers are growing,” said Grace. She continued:

Our voices are getting louder. Our political power is expanding. Generation Z activists are pledging this as our life’s work because it is about our lives. It’s about safe streets, safe schools, a safe planet, freedom from deportation, freedom from hate, freedom to exist in public spaces. Freedom to determine our own lives.

This is not about Second Amendment rights. This is about our rights, as young people, to live.

We lock arms with the Parkland teens; we raise our fists together on the streets. It’s time for a radical revolution. We are on the frontlines of that change. The NRA, policymakers who support lenient gun laws and knowingly suppress the rights of Black, immigrant, trans, Muslim and indigenous people will try to stop us. But we will fight harder than they do because we are fighting for our own liberation. They are killing us. They are killing our future and yours. Help us save it.

As a mom, I intend to do just that.

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