As I walked down Central Park West in the midst of Saturday’s New York City March for Our Lives, I couldn’t take my eyes off the homemade protest signs. Neither could the mainstream media. By Sunday virtually every news outlet featured a picture portfolio of signs from the nationwide Marches for Our Lives.
The signs should not surprise us. We are dealing with the Meme Generation. Thanks to the internet, they have grown up with a verbal and visual acuity the rest of us have had to learn.
But what was best about the New York March for Our Lives—as well as the nationally televised March for Our Lives in Washington—was that its organizers made sure that it wasn’t just a march about the killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida or even about school shootings more broadly. It was a march about gun violence everywhere in America, especially in poor neighborhoods, where all too often shootings are not treated as newsworthy.
New York’s March for Our Lives did not have the open-ended tone of the 2011 protests of Occupy Wall Street. Instead, the march harkened back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s with its emphasis on needed legislation. The New York March showed a broad reach and tight discipline. March organizers, dressed in orange shirts and jackets, went through the crowd with voter-registration forms. “I’ll walk with you if you fill this out,” the organizers promised anyone who took an interest in filling out a registration form.
At the New York March for Our Lives, there were plenty of celebrities on hand. Lady Gaga showed up, and so did Paul McCartney, who told reporters, “One of my best friends was killed in gun violence right around here, so it’s important to me.” But in the speeches, which were made next to the Dakota Apartments on 72nd Street and Central Park West where John Lennon was shot in December 1980, celebrities did not set the tone. Nor did they try to.
In her survey of who took part in the Washington March for Our Lives, University of Maryland sociologist Dana R. Fisher noted that while the young set the tone, they did not constitute the majority of the 800,000 participants. More than 90 percent of the crowd was over 18. Most revealing of all, 27 percent of the crowd was new to protest.
Fisher’s figures correspond to the makeup of the crowd I saw in New York, which for the first half of the march followed the route of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. They were plenty of high school students on their own, but there were plenty of tweens with their parents, and plenty of parents who brought their children in strollers.
Those who led the civil-rights movement, as a number of commentators have reminded us recently, were often in their twenties. But they also got help from older organizers. Veteran civil-rights organizer Ella Baker was in her fifties when she helped found the militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. A parallel, cross-generational link is part of the March for Our Lives movement. Parents, aware that no school can guarantee safety for their children from a madman with an assault rifle, are a natural constituency of March for Our Lives.
The sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 were all part of a civil-rights movement that focused on the Jim Crow South of the early sixties. The March for Our Lives is taking place everywhere and is inseparable from a series of broader social movements that have sprung up since Donald Trump’s presidential victory.
At the New York march, a sign declaring “My Uterus is More Regulated than a Gun” that I saw being carried by a young high school student didn’t seem out of place or hyperbole. It was just another common-sense view expressed with a daring that would scare most politicians.
Nicolaus Mills is author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America. He chairs the literature department of Sarah Lawrence College.