The Kids Who Played Host -- and Became Political Activists in the Process

The Kids Who Played Host -- and Became Political Activists in the Process

How high schoolers in the Washington, D.C., area arranged housing, food, and programs for the weekend’s marchers, and transformed themselves into political organizers

March 26, 2018

Downtown Washington, D.C., was still rather empty by 8 a.m. when DC-Area Teens Action marchers arrive. The sun had barely risen, the temperature was in the thirties, and many of the members hadn’t slept much in the past few days, but the teens’ excitement was palpable as they walked down Connecticut Avenue toward the White House.  

The group included teens from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, a few of their parents, an older couple from Massachusetts, two high schoolers from Florida, and middle schoolers from Madison, Wisconsin, among others. Green hats with DCTA written in marker on the front punctuated the group, worn by DC-Area Teens Action youth organizers.

Sixteen-year-old Mai Canning, dressed in a green sweater and green coat, was one of those organizers. It had been a long week for Canning, who had slept only five hours each night for the past two nights. She and the other DCTA organizers found housing for 300 people coming from out of town to march, fed them in a potluck Friday night, coordinated with other youth organizations, and gathered and handed out donated Metro cards and bag lunches for the day of the march. They also went to school, took classes, and participated in their regular extracurricular activities. And on the morning of the march, they met at the mostly deserted Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station at 7 a.m., even though the event didn’t start until noon.

“You got to keep that promo going,” Canning said as she opened Twitter and tweeted, “We’re here and ready to #MarchForOurLives,” with a photo of the group walking toward the White House. A car driving by honked and the students waved their posters and let out a cheer.

(Kristen Doerer)

DCTA youth organizers Mai Canning (left) and Kate Lebrun (right)

Since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 14 students and three educators, “common-sense gun control” has been the rallying call of Generation Z. As videos of kids cowering in classrooms, barricaded behind filing cabinets and desks, dominated the internet, high schoolers across the country watched in horror. When the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas didn’t retreat from the cameras and took to cable news and social media, criticizing politicians like Senator Marco Rubio, the National Rifle Association, the president, and Congress, they received an outpouring of support from their peers beyond mere thoughts and prayers. The students at Walter Johnson High School, many of whom had never been involved in activism for gun control before, are among those now organizing for change.

Walter Johnson High School is not unlike Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Its students are well-off, well-educated, and near a major metropolitan center—Washington, D.C. The students there don’t face gun violence on a regular basis, like some students in D.C. do. It took the Parkland shooting and a bomb threat at their own school to make the fear of gun violence very real.

Walter Johnson was one of several high schools involved in a walkout a week after the shooting, on February 21, the same day that three Maryland high schools received a bomb threat. At the news of a bomb threat, those remaining at school were shepherded out onto the football field.

“It’s an enclosed area, and there are a few exits, and there are buildings all around,” Canning said, who was among those on the football field. “We were all kind of looking around like—” Her friend, Haley Karp interjected: “This is the perfect scenario.” A perfect scenario for a shooter.  

“I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be worried that I’m not going to come home,” Canning told her friend Michaela Hoenig on the football field. Later that day, Hoenig, 17, and Canning came together with 18-year-old Kate Lebrun and 17-year-old Gabrielle Zwi (who had participated in the walkout and had already created social media pages to spread the word about walkouts and marches) to start an activist group, DC-Area Teens Action.

“I think everyone who is involved in this has a picture in their head of [a Parkland video] someone posted, or something someone [from Parkland] said,” Canning said. “There’s a video where the SWAT team walks into the room and they all have their hands up, and I remember that video running through my head for days and days and days.”

“I wasn’t politically active, I wasn’t advocating for anything at all. I was just kind of surrounding myself in this Bethesda bubble and just said everything was fine,” 18-year-old DCTA youth organizer Haley Karp said. But the videos, and the realization that everything wasn’t fine, pushed Karp to join DCTA.

Deciding to focus on the March 24 March for Our Lives, the group then looked at how they could make a difference. “We were looking at reasons why students wouldn’t be coming to the march, and that really just came down to transportation and lodging,” Zwi said. Not only is lodging expensive, but as most high schoolers are under 18, they couldn’t book a hotel room or an Airbnb. Their call for hosts on February 27 exploded on social media, and hundreds of locals offered to open their homes.

(Kristen Doerer)

DCTA youth organizers and visiting students (including middle schoolers from Madison, Wisconsin, who raised over $3,000 to make the trip) pose for a photo at DCTA's potluck the night before the march.

On the Friday evening before the march, DCTA put together a potluck in their high school cafeteria to feed about 300 people coming from across the country to participate in the march and to connect students from disparate parts of the country who were passionate about these issues.

At 5:30 p.m. that night, DCTA students were setting up in a bustle of activity, with students in green hats and green sweatshirts (Walter Johnson’s school colors) running back and forth between the cafeteria and cars outside, unloading donated catered food and snacks, and lining it up in rows along the walls. Inside, media had already arrived, with HBO among the outlets filming students.

Most of the students I spoke with said that this was the first time they got involved in the activism. “These issues are hitting way to close to home, that’s why I got involved,” said Justin Hughes, 17, of Walter Johnson High School. Fourteen-year-old student Chelsea, who asked that her last name not be included, said that seeing the fiery speech by Emma González—the Parkland survivor turned teen activist leading the Never Again movement—after the shooting led her to believe that “we can make a difference and change legislation, even as children.”

They voiced their frustration with older generations who hadn’t done anything to change gun laws in this country or had doubted that they could. Chelsea noted the hypocrisy of baby boomers who fought against the Vietnam War and did not recognize the will of another student-led movement, while Hughes suggested that they felt apathetic. The students were confident that they would see gun reform in their lifetime, and they already have another walkout on their calendars: April 20, the 19th anniversary of Columbine.

“It’s not a fad. Activism isn’t trendy,” Chelsea said.

(Kristen Doerer)

DCTA youth organizers pose for a photo as they walk toward the March for Our Lives stage on Saturday.

Anna Lebrun, 16, Kate's sister, put the conversation in stark moral terms: “We’re not limiting your Second Amendment rights. We’re looking to protect our right to live.”

Students coming from out of state echoed those sentiments, while adding other reasons for making the trek to D.C. as well.

“Ever since 45 has been elected, I’ve been politically motivated in activism,” said 25-year-old Mylia Saa, a senior at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. After the Parkland shooting and after having read too many stories about small children getting access to guns, Saa, who had participated in the 2017 Women’s March, decided to make a second trip to Washington. “I don’t just want gun reform for school shootings,” she added, pointing to the gun violence in Chicago, Baltimore, and D.C., “I want to see a decrease in gun violence.”

While Saa doesn’t believe in a full repeal of guns—“People like to hunt, especially in Michigan,” she noted—she does support a partial one. “People just want common-sense reform, where these AR-15 guns are not in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them in the first place,” Saa said.

Abby Haynes, 17, drove with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend from Charleston, South Carolina, where the gun debate is “extremely partisan.” “This week there was a gun found in the car of someone of our high school. It’s our reality,” she said.

Around 7 p.m., students and guests began trickling in. Within minutes, the place was packed.

(Kristen Doerer)

Tawanda Thomas and her son Torrey Thomas, 17, drove from York, Pennsylvania. Tawanda, who is a concealed weapon holder, wants gun legislation that includes "stronger background checks, mental health checks, and a longer process." She's been inspired by students' activism: "These [kids] are going to be our new governors, House of Representatives, senators, and mayors." Torrey, a high school student, said, "I'm marching because thoughts and prayers don't work."

Public health professionals Kate Bond, 53, and Myat Htoo Razak, 53, parents of Koko Bond-Razak, were “incredibly supportive and inspired” by the students’ activism, with Bond noting that because the students “live close to Washington, they are clued into the system.” When asked what she thinks parents’ roles are in the movement, she responds: “I can’t speak for others. My ideal is that we support their leadership, allow them to continue to grow and have a safe space to organize.”

Razak, who was a student organizer himself and treated many bullet wounds as a doctor during the 1988 Burma uprising, said, “We want to let them lead us.”

Their son, 15-year-old Koko, who was inspired by Parkland students Emma González and David Hogg, echoed those statements. “Listen to the kids. We’re your future. Change is going to happen whether you like it or not,” he said, adding that people “might as well go along.” Bond-Razak, who considers himself a young documentary filmmaker, has recorded film of the walkout from a student’s perspective, is planning on participating in the April 20 walkout, and has attended a workshop on how to amplify their voices with Ashwani Jain, Montgomery County Council at-large candidate.

At 8 p.m., the organizers of DCTA addressed the crowd with some logistical information on food, transportation, and communication for the next day, but not before handing the mic over to MoCo (Montgomery County) Students for Gun Control. The student-led organization had organized the March 14 walkout and protest in Washington, D.C., with over 25 local high schools.

“The pundits, the NRA, and their politicians have said over and over again that our goals are impossible, that we’ve set our sights too high and are bound to fail,” said Matt Post, a senior at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Maryland. “But if we maintain the same level of organization, I am more optimistic than ever that we will take our righteous fury out on the ballot box on November 6, 2018.” The speeches in the cafeteria would be a sneak peek of the organization’s appearance the following day on the main stage at March for Our Lives. 

I followed up with the other members of MoCo Students for Gun Control, Brenna Levitan, 17, of Montgomery Blair High School; Michael Solomon, 15, and Simon Debesai, 16, of Springbrook High School; and Nate Tinbite, 15, of John F. Kennedy High School, all in Silver Spring.

“We’re not here just about school safety, or preventing school shootings,” Solomon told me. “We’re here attacking gun violence as a whole. It’s a broad issue and it affects everyone across the country. Guns don’t discriminate.”

Indeed, a criticism of the movement has been that gun control didn’t get much traction when it was brown and black kids facing gun violence every day. And while mass shootings make up a tiny sliver of gun deaths every year, African Americans make up more than half of overall gun murder victims, despite being only 13 percent of the population.

“I think it’s super-important that, since we are representing a very diverse issue, we have to include a diverse group of students,” Levitan said.

“Our organization has a heavy emphasis on the fact that we’re the next group of voters,” said Simon Debesai. “You can register to vote at 16 in Maryland. The 18-to-24 voter-turnout rate is extremely low, and we can change that because we have the voice now.”

The conversation would foreshadow the movement the following day, where the focus was on voting out anyone who took money from the NRA and on including diverse voices.

On Saturday morning, as the DCTA students walked by the White House and toward the stage on Pennsylvania Avenue, music started to travel down the street. They passed large TV monitors mounted at every intersection, army trucks and snow plows blocking roads off, and a heavy police presence. The crowd grew thicker, the signs more concentrated, the vendors louder, voter-registration volunteers in more numbers. Eventually the students came to a standstill close to the front, on Constitution and 4th Street NW, by the modern wing of the National Gallery of Art.

A voice rang out over the speakers: “Tell me what democracy looks like!” “This is what democracy looks like!” the crowd chanted in response.

By the time the official event began, the DCTA group had dispersed in different directions to help people from out of town.

The event began at 12:10 with Andra Day and the Baltimore choir, and later the rapper-musician Common. But while the event was star-studded, with Vic Mensa, Ariana Grande, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Miley Cyrus, the focus was on the students, the teens who had stood on the stage because they had been scarred by gun violence. And while the event could have easily just focused on school shootings, many of the speakers were teenagers from Chicago, D.C., and Los Angeles who face gun violence on a daily basis.

“I learned to duck from bullets before I learned to read,” said 17-year-old Edna Chavez from South Los Angeles, who gave a powerful speech in which she called on people to chant “Ricardo,” the name of her brother she lost to gun violence.

Before the march, Zwi of DCTA had been concerned about how the issue of gun control would be portrayed, and whether it would only focus on school shootings. “I think they did a really good job of highlighting viewpoints from different people who experience many different types of gun violence,” Zwi said.

Zwi was also happy with opportunities for voter registration at the march, an issue DCTA plans on working on next. “I think that you can’t measure the impact of a march in and of itself, but what a march does is get people excited about tangible [things like] voting and writing to representatives. They were doing that on the spot,” she said.

HeadCount, the march’s official voter-registration partner in D.C., told The American Prospect that they registered 1,552 people in person in Washington, D.C., and 4,800 around the country. “I think it’s safe to say,” said Aaron Ghitelman, director of communications at HeadCount, that “in a nonpresidential year, you’re not registering this many people in March.”

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