When two students went on a rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, killing 13 before taking their own lives, Anam Hussain was not yet born.
But the Douglas County High School junior, 16, has read headlines about too many other shootings in school hallways and classrooms across the nation.
Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 left 26 dead. Virginia Tech in 2007 — 32 killed 17 wounded. In January in Marshall County, Kentucky, 16 were shot. Many other shootings in between were less deadly but all have been highly publicized.
The latest, in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., left 17 dead and 16 wounded.
For Anam, it was the breaking point.
At 10 a.m. Wednesday, she plans to walk out of her class. She helped organize the walkout, one segment of a quickly organized national movement, and says 180 of her fellow classmates plan to join in.
“We’re marching for our lives,” said Anam, who is passionate about gun reform. She wants to see the age raised for people buying guns and a ban on bump stocks and assault weapons.
“Since we are the future, I think it’s important for all us us to be taken seriously when it comes to our movements on civil rights and gun reform. People underestimate teenagers.”
Thousands of students across metro Atlanta, some with administration support and others facing possible punishment, plan to walk out of class and stand in silence for 17 minutes — one minute for each life lost in Parkland, Fla., nearly 650 miles away. Others will register older students to vote.
The movement they hope for was born with the anger and frustration of survivors of the Florida school shooting, who wrote letters and called and sat outside the politicians’ offices, demanding gun reform and demanding to be heard.
Their actions galvanized thousands of students from around the nation. What started with kids sharing “what if” posts on social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat morphed into something bigger. Minutes after a junior at the Florida school, Sarah Chadwick, tweeted that schoolchildren ought to make adults accountable for their safety, kids all over the country used the power of technology to jump on the bandwagon. Twitter, SnapChat, Instagram, Facebook, hashtags and texts have been added to the arsenal alongside protest signs and fliers.
“It’s amazing to be part of this movement,” said Joelle Friedman, a 17-year-old junior at North Springs High School. “We have students from all over Georgia who are communicating with each other to make this happen.”
She said the kids have formed several committees to handle everything from coordinating the Wednesday walkout to mapping out the route for a march on March 24 to letting the public know what’s going on.
What’s unusual about this organization is the age of these activists. They’re mostly high school students, some too young to drive, most too young to vote.
They say this isn’t just a passing fancy.
“When I first heard about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School I felt really confused,” said Anam. “Our schools share part of the same name. I felt like it was my school. I saw small biographies of each student. They were the same ages as my friends. I felt like I could have known any of them. It became very personal.”
Lily Lefter, a student at Walton High School in Cobb County, said in an email that she and others “want to see change and we hope our voices are heard so that lawmakers do the right thing.
“Peaceful assemblies that challenge the current laws are an important part of a healthy democracy, and we want to take part in that; this is what we’re taught in social studies.”
Lessons from past
Student activism is nothing new, particularly among college students. It helped propel movements across the world. The U.S. civil rights movement in the South. Opposition to the Vietnam War. The end of apartheid in South Africa and human rights in China.
Anam, who hopes to become a United Nations ambassador or U.S. senator, said, “I’ve never seen anything that was completely youth led.”
She also took part in last year’s March for Science and rallies protesting the Trump administration’s proposed Muslim ban.
John McMillian, a history professor at Georgia State University, said today’s young activists want to do things differently than their parents and grandparents.
“I’m often impressed at how articulate and poised many of the young activists are,” he said. “Sure, they show their youth a bit, but when think about how I was at that age, they are definitely impressive.”
Some of today’s younger protesters, though, aren’t entirely tossing out the playbook used by older movements.
The Center for Civil and Human Rights has been showing these young activists that there is a right and wrong way to protest.
Going through the exhibits is a lesson in itself, said Kristie Raymer, a spokeswoman for the Center for Civil and Human Rights as she pointed out displays such as the 10 demands set forth by the civil rights activists and the preparedness of the students at the lunch counter sit-ins.
“They’re the future but they’re also the present,” said Vera Eidelman, a Brennan fellow for the Speech, Privacy & Technology Project in New York.
She feels inspired by the student activism. “They have voices and they’re using their voices,” she said. “And when they do, it’s impactful.”
Former President Barack Obama recently praised the students’ activism. “How inspiring to see it again in so many smart, fearless students standing up for their right to be safe; marching and organizing to remake the world as it should be,” he tweeted. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Children being used?
Messages like that from Obama may be one reason not everyone is convinced this is purely a youth movement.
“This is being funded by the left. It’s an opportunity to have children further a liberal agenda,” said Jerry Henry, executive director of GeorgiaCarry.org, a gun-rights advocacy group. “We’re paying public money to teach children in public schools — not to have them protest a civil right. Would the schools allow a demonstration for the Second Amendment?”
Henry said he’s had parents urge him to get actively involved to counter the protests.
“They don’t want to speak out because their kids are involved,” he said. “Their kids don’t want to be the only ones left in class when the whole school heads out to the flagpole. There are plenty of kids who believe in 2nd Amendment rights but they are succumbing to peer pressure and remaining silent.”
Brett Tanner’s son is freshman at Sequoia High School in Cherokee County. He’s concerned that there’s no room in this movement for other opinions.
“The kids are being duped into thinking that they’re protesting what happened in Florida, that they are rallying to support those students who lost friends and teachers,” he said. “This isn’t student-led as some believe. The Women’s March is involved and they were looking for a way to protest gun laws.”
Tanner said he has no problem with protests, but would rather see class time use for learning.
Some school officials have offered alternatives to the 10 a.m. demonstrations.
Walton is offering an alternative to the walkout, at 7:50 a.m. before school starts: Students are invited to express condolences for the lives lost and express any concerns and ideas for change. There will be a moment of silence and reflection for the victims and their families and a reading of the names of victims.
Principal Judy McNeill recently sent an email to parents saying, “The Cobb County School District does not support or endorse walkout/protests that cause interruption to normal school operations” and students who walk out could face disciplinary action. “This is an unexcused absence and will count against incentive,” she said in the email.
She said the school will have additional police officers on campus and no visitors will be allowed
Some parents glad
Many parents, including Anam’s, approve of what their teens are doing.
“We’re very proud of her,,” said her mother, Uzma Hussain. “She feels very strongly about social justice. What happened was sad and parents should be involved with their kids.”
Martina Grant’s daughter is a junior at North Springs High School and she’s also OK with her daughter participating in the walkout and the march.
“It’s important to let kids do what they believe is right,” she said.
Jen Cox, a Marietta Realtor, told daughter, Lily Lefter, a 17-year-old junior at Walton High School in Cobb County that ” I would take it all the way to the Supreme Court if we needed to.
“For many this is their first time as activists and exercising their rights to participate in democracy through civil disobedience. These kids feel like they could be next and they’ve had enough. My generation couldn’t get it done. Perhaps they can get lawmakers to finally listen.”
Perhaps the strongest obstacle to youngsters organizing a protest is their lack of power, said McMillian, the Georgia State professor. Not being old enough to vote takes away from the threat, agreed Raymer or the civil rights center. Although history has shown that many of the young activists have kept their momentum going (perhaps one of the most notable is John Lewis who went on to become one of the longest-serving congressmen in the country), today’s youth have much to distract them from the mission.
Although kids are the face of the walkouts, The Women’s March’s Youth EMPOWER group is also a force behind them, according to the group’s website.
The teenagers involved in organizing the events insist the movement is theirs.
Kailen Kim, a sophomore at Etowah High School in Cherokee County said other students have brought guns and other weapons to her school. Last semester, she said there was a bomb threat. “We want to talk to the Georgia Legislature,” said Kim. “When we work together as youth a change will happen.”
Joelle Friedman, the North Springs organizer, said that s a co-leader for the March For Our Lives Press and Communications Committee, she’s had to hone leadership skills and help keep the message on point. She has friends who attend the Parkland, Fla., school and said she doesn’t ever want worry about the safety of friends like that again.
“I’ve been personally involved in social justice issues for a while,” she said. “This is a natural progression and after the walkout and the march, I will keep fighting. It’s my goal to make Georgia schools — all schools safe.”
Jonah Ruffin, an APS middle school student, talking to a group of journalists at a recent press conference for March For Our Lives Atlanta, gave this explanation of his and other teens’ motivation:
“I question the safety at school,” he said. “It could’ve been me.”