The February 14, 2018 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. mobilized students there to launch #NeverAgain, what Time magazine called the “most powerful grassroots gun reform movement in nearly two decades.” Spurred by tragedy, the young activists were, in some ways, reminiscent of the college-student Vietnam War protest movement that followed the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970.
Former Vietnam Protesters Can Relate
Despite the fact that nearly two generations have passed since four students were killed and nine others injured when National Guard opened fire during a Vietnam protest on the Northeast Ohio campus, there are similarities between boomers and what are often called “post-Millennials” or “Generation Z” — anyone born after 1997.
The #NeverAgain activists “come from more privileged classes, similar to the college students during Vietnam,” notes journalist Myra McPherson, whose books include the Vietnam War classic Long Time Passing. “In both instances, they were criticizing the status quo.”
During the 1960s and ‘70s it was an unpopular war and the mandatory draft, among other issues. Today, it’s the slipshod gun laws and the untrammeled lobbying power of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
And while “self-interest was paramount,” McPherson says (it took bloodshed among age mates to activate both generations), #NeverAgain has proved equally, if not more, persistent and vocal.
“They kept at it until the government began to take notice,” McPherson continues, as the students shamed both the NRA and the leaders whom they felt were responsible for the gun control laws at the time.
Painfully Slow Progress
And, as during the Vietnam years, progress seems painfully slow.
Although the March 14 National School Walkout drew nearly a million youth across the U.S. and some state and local leaders have made noises about stricter gun control, so far “neither Trump nor Congress has really done anything to ban guns or bump stocks,” McPherson says.
In fact, the first five months of 2018 saw 23 school shootings in which someone was either hurt or killed, an average of about one a week.
Disparities Between the 2 Movements
Yet there are disparities between the two movements, too.
“Students today are more sophisticated and enlightened,” observes lifelong activist Alan Canfora, who was injured during the Kent State shootings and also runs the grassroots Kent State May 4 Center.
Along with the obvious — having the immediate world at their fingertips via the Internet and social and other media which also enables them to mobilize almost instantaneously — “today it’s more about power. The kids see that they need political influence and recognize the importance of the vote,” Canfora says. [In 1971, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.]
Both Chuck Hagel, the former Republican Senator from Nebraska and Secretary of Defense under President Obama, and his left-leaning brother Tom, fought during the Vietnam War and regard the #NeverAgain youth’s savvy as touched with cynicism.
“Back in the 1960s and ’70s, people were protesting a large arc of issues: draft, the war, women’s rights, civil rights, Watergate,” says Chuck Hagel. “Frankly, young people aren’t motivated to save the world, although they are interested in doing good.”
But they’re hardly to blame, he continues. “This country is more divided than any time since the Civil War,” says the former Senator.
Down With the Establishment
With both generations, there was a suspicion of so-called Establishment. “Although during the 1960s, we had a sense of innocence and confidence in leadership,” says Tom Hagel, a retired law professor and part-time judge who volunteered for the draft so he could join older brother Chuck’s platoon. “I figured if someone was older and in a position of authority, they knew what they were talking about.”
For Tom Hagel, that feeling quickly went by the wayside in Vietnam “and has eroded ever since, to the point that today — and I never thought this would happen in our country — people blatantly say and do things that are financially and morally wrong without any shame whatsoever. We’ve lost our way,” he says.
Some Vietnam activists cite the NRA as a reason the #NeverAgain movement began.
Says Laurel Krause, younger sister of Allison Krause who was killed at Kent State, whose organizations include the Kent State Truth Tribunal and the Allison Center for Peace, “Students today are being victimized by the NRA and their alt-right supporters, who are driving gun violence and hate speech and targeting the most exposed — the young, disadvantaged, elderly and poor.”
The media have helped spawn the new gun reform movement, too, say some long-time activists. With increasingly graphic images on television, in film and other media, starting with the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, “owning a gun can become a sick, cult social media thing for the mentally ill or deeply disenfranchised,” adds Tom Hagel.
The Pendulum of Change
Yet the #NeverAgain generation has one significant advantage that its Vietnam era counterparts did not: Ethnic diversity.
According to William Frey of the Brookings Institution, whites make up only about 51 percent of the post-Millennials, with the remaining being led by Hispanics (about 25 percent) and African-Americans (roughly 15 percent) as well as Asian-Americans and mixed-race (the remaining 10 percent).
And this trend is increasing as young America matures: Along with a recent, unprecedented decline in the white, non-Hispanic population, the Brookings Institution also estimates that by 2045, whites will be in the minority.
So gun control, along with issues like climate change, fewer tax breaks for the wealthy and immigration rights will be on this upcoming generation’s radar, similar to the abolishment of the draft and greater acceptance of gay, civil and women’s rights during the 1960s and ‘70s.
According to author Sara Davidson, who chronicled her 1960s youth in the bestseller Loose Change, this country is due “for “a resurgence of a movement towards progressive change.” She sees universal background checks for guns and clear, specific legislation as starting more at the state level, where politics is more grass roots and personalized.
“The pendulum swings one way, then the other and then always seeks the middle. It’s just a matter of when,” notes Davidson.
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