By Angela Lemus-Mogrovejo
Despite all the misgivings I have about the world in its current state, I have found myself consistently impressed by those younger than me. Young people are dedicating their time and energy to demand justice from an uncaring world--at an age where the most I can remember doing was getting by in my classes and life responsibilities.
I am thinking lately about the youth involved in public protests following the Florida shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School just a few weeks ago. In the aftermath of the shooting, these youth have responded with courage and conviction in the face of a political climate that continuously feigns sympathy for them while, in practice, doing nothing. By directly challenging the National Rifle Association and publicly stating the necessity for gun control laws, the youth have made more progress in drawing positive public attention to gun control than others have made in quite some time. Some folks have made comparisons between one of the youth movement’s high profile figures, Emma Gonzalez, to legendary Cuban revolutionary Jose Martí, given her Cuban roots. Media coverage has even praised the youth as showing a new potential change in Latinx politics in Florida.
Unfortunately, it is precisely this kind of positive public attention and media praise that has left me incredibly unsettled by the aftermath of the Florida shooting. When media outlets praise the Stoneman Douglas teens as acting in fear for their lives in “response to an environment that was supposed to protect their innocence and safety,” I feel compelled to respond. I stop feeling pride in these teens and get upset about the complacency that’s generated by such praise.
Because while I can acknowledge the pain and brutality the Douglas High teens have unfairly been forced to bear, I also cannot treat it as something new. More importantly, I cannot treat the swift, public, political response the teens have created as something new either. This kind of public protest, driven by youth with clear demands and prompted by deliberate violence, has been occurring for quite some time--by Black and Brown youth organizing for Black lives, most recently with the Movement for Black Lives organizations such as Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, and Black Youth Project 100.
The difference between those past protests and these protests by the Douglas High students, is that in this instance, the people facing tragedy are white (or white passing) and in turn embraced and legitimized by the public.
I bring this up not to downplay the significant pain and trauma that the shooting has caused for the Douglas High students. Nor do I bring this up in an attempt to pit one group of victims against another. Instead, I highlight the positive attention that the Douglas High students have received to ask why such attention was not given to analogous actions taken by groups working for the Movement for Black Lives, such as Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, and Black Youth Project 100? Why, in the face of repeated police violence, which has prompted the development of several electoral justice projects, the proposal of policies and equitable state and federal laws for curbing violence against Black and Brown people, and more anti-violence work led by young people, has the Movement for Black Lives not received the same praise the Parkland youth are receiving?
The answer, I would argue, is that such praise for the Movement for Black Lives would have to acknowledge that Black lives are grievable, that they are worthy of the same love and support which the Parkland youth are receiving as a result of their proximity to (white) innocence. As media outlets have demonstrated through coverage following the shooting, praise for righteous, political action is only given to those for whom engaging in public protest is legitimate. In contrast, when concerning Black and Brown lives, media coverage only highlights how ungrateful Black and Brown youth are for not learning to accept living without the dignity their white peers enjoy.
In spite of the unfairly skewed public approval for the Parkland youth and against the Movement for Black Lives, I do believe there are grounds for connecting these struggles. Rather than simply allowing the Parkland youth to establish a new acceptable range of protest for white/white-passing youth or to elevate their concerns over the concerns of and for Black youth, I believe it would be more effective to connect these struggles in the broader context of state violence. In particular, it may be helpful to consider how positive reception of demands raised by the Parkland youth not only erases the work and poor reception of Black youth organizing but also how general responses to the Parkland shooting undermine multiple marginalized groupsAbsurdly, our own Racist-in-Chief has claimed that arming school teachers would be an effective deterrent to future shootings because the right people would be trained to handle such situations. Never mind that the idea of arming teachers raises the real concern of even more violence being inflicted on Black and Brown children, given documented biases of white teachers.
Additionally, as with most school shootings, several politicians have repeatedly blamed the Parkland shooting on the gunman’s mental illness. Never mind that this response ignores the documented reality that gun violence is motivated more often by ideologies of violence than mental illness. Never mind that the primary similarities between this shooter and other school shooters are his history of intimate partner violence and extreme right-wing views.
At its core, these ableist, reactionary political recommendations demonstrate a willingness to see only those with psychiatric disabilities as agents of violence, all the while ignoring the obvious needs of survivors of intimate partner violence. As a result, the negative attention drawn by media and politicians towards mental illness and away from the shooter’s history of domestic violence has the effect of designating certain lives as grievable and others better left ignored. In much the same way that Black youth organizing is being ignored as American media simultaneously highlights the efforts of the white/white-passing Parkland youth, those with mental illness are being negatively targeted in order to negate the experiences of survivors of intimate partner violence. In essence, concerns about the proper dignity, respect, love, and support all four groups need are being ignored to create a context of inadequate care. It is this context of inadequate care in which the ableist, racist priorities of the state validate only the sane, white/white-passing Parkland youths’ concerns over all others. And it is this context of inadequate care and underlying state violence which I believe can be grounds for collective solidarity.
While the four groups (Parkland youth, survivors of domestic violence, those with mental illness, and Black youth organizers) can appear disparate in overall needs and concerns, I believe the same demands that the Parkland youth have raised can also indicate connections and points of solidarity for these groups. As mentioned before, the Parkland youth have drawn considerable attention to the need for new gun control laws and to curb gun access.
However, such demands run the dangerous risk of building on long established histories where such laws are not applied judiciously but rather with a white supremacist lens. The fact that these demands are perceived as legitimate because they come from youth robbed of their environments of safety and innocence occurs precisely because the violent, military disciplining of Black and Brown youth is seen as acceptable, as part of the normative violence which schools increasingly embrace.
Furthermore, the fact that these demands for gun control do not explicitly address how such restrictions often rely on policing those with mental illness also allows for the state to scapegoat one marginalized group-those with mental illness-while in turn ignoring social and economic ills like intimate partner violence, and, by extensions, survivors of such violence. In other words, the state, whose role underlies the involvement of all groups ignored or celebrated in the aftermath of shootings, escapes scrutiny while demands from victims like the Parkland youth become a means to further legitimize structural violence, in the form of over-policing, racial profiling, and lack of support for survivors. It is therefore the state which must be held responsible for creating the conditions that allow for shootings and resulting structural violence, by all marginalized groups.
My heart goes out to the Douglas High teens who have been fighting with all they have to prevent these tragedies from happening again. In the midst of mourning those lost and processing their own trauma, they are doing the work that so many people much older than them have failed to do time and time again. And recent meetings between the Parkland youth and Chicago students regarding gun violence show potential for future collaborative political work. For that, I have nothing but respect and admiration.
My only hope is that, in the face of the usual political amnesia that follows school shootings, their hard fought for demands will not be used as new grounds for more violence to be enacted by the state. That they will find common ground with those like Movement for Black Lives and fight not just for gun control but to also end militarization of schools and police violence which poses future threats to Black and Brown lives. That they will fight to end the scapegoating of mental illness, use their public platform to draw attention back to survivors of partner violence, and address the conditions which allow such tragedies to happen in the first place. Otherwise, I fear we will only see the continuation of a process by which those who are grievable, those who deserve love, support, and care, will equate to nothing more than those who have always been worthy of praise to begin with.