There are many ways to protest the horrors happening to our country right now. You can scream. You can squirm. Or you can listen to your children.
My daughters, Lea and Sara, asked me to take them to the March For Our Lives in Washington last month.
Lea already had walked out of her class on March 14 in support of the students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and Sara’s class had marked the moment too. Both of my daughters clearly viewed the issue of Gun Control personally.
That they wanted to go to Washington filled me with hope.
By random luck, I chose a hotel that proved to be a locus and launch point for the event. Thus, on the morning-of, we three found ourselves eating our breakfast in a cavernous, corporate DC hotel lobby teeming with children, may of them on their hands and knees drawing final touches on their posters and banners. The tints of skin tone could not have been more diverse. The accents ricocheted from every corner of this country. The adults, everywhere, seemed utterly secondary.
Then, as if by some silent signal, the kids rose up and gathered themselves. Their leaders shared final warnings and directives. One particularly large group, enclosed in a prayer circle, unlinked their arms and put on their coats. Slowly, inexorably, the whole giggling, chattering, mass began to move toward the lobby’s two escalators, which quickly filled from end to end, sweeping the children with their signs in wave upon wave upwards and out — the Normandy invasion deploying in a glass-walled mall.
We joined the horde snaking down D Street. The going was tight, with impassable sidewalks as far as I could see, but there were encouragers in March For Our Lives t-shirts applauding and steering us along the way, lots of cops in marginally merry moods and passerby in cars who hit their horns in solidarity.
The girls were warily delighted. I think they sensed, as I did, the fragility of our numbers, how exposed we all were in the street, how contained by our hugeness as a crowd. I’d been fighting back thoughts of irresponsibility since I’d booked our tickets here. These thoughts poured in on me now; visions of counter-protesters with weapons and my kids ambling at my side. I mean, we were here to protest guns.
It took a half hour or so to reach Pennsylvania Avenue, where we were wrangled into the even larger crowd that waited with even more signs and banners. And kids. Lea and Sara found us a slot of space with a distant view of the faraway stage and an excellent vantage on one of the Jumbotron screens. A young married couple directly in front of me had two children with them under the age of four. They were a handful. I’m not sure I would have had their parents’ guts had mine been that age.
The weather was crisp and sunny and clear. My face would wind up sunburned across one side of my nose, one cheekbone and an ear, like a slashing shadow. The parade of extraordinary young speechmakers was eerily captivating. My personal favorite was Samantha Fuentes, 18, from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, who, overcome by emotion, in the throes of her oration, stepped back to heave her guts out, then returned to the mike to proclaim: “I just threw up on international television and I feel great!” Only later would I learn that Samantha Fuentes had, in fact been shot in both legs during the attack on her school. Samantha never mentioned it.
We stayed to the very end. Not that we had much choice, there was no turning back, but the kids onstage were riveting, every one of them, in the particularity and personality of their youthful fury and unpolished speaking prowess. The decision not to have a single adult, let alone any politician, take the podium proved pure and perfect. The litany of first-hand gun violence horror stories in the mouths of these children was unsurpassably devastating.
I couldn’t help thinking of the children on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, pummelled by Bull Connor’s water cannons on national television. In Carry Me Home, her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the Birmingham movement, New York Times reporter Diane McWhorter delineated how Dr. Martin Luther King and Birmingham’s leading activist, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, made the terrifying but inescapable calculation that putting Birmingham’s kids in the front lines before Bull Connor’s terror just might carry the day in the seemingly unwinnable war agains Birmingham’s racism. Events and the network news proved them right but only after the children had been splayed across the streets and then spent nights in the Birmingham jail.
We are there again. In the intractable war against guns and Trumpism, the children must now lead. We, as adults, have been compromised by our own failure to protect our kids from both. We follow.