Thousands of young people have protested against gun control over the past weeks, sparking, for some, memories of youngsters protesting against the Vietnam war and contributing to the civil rights movement.
The difference is that the 2018 movement is stemming from high schools, rather than colleges.
“It’s really unusual,” said Doug McAdam, the author of Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in America.
“Young people are typically overrepresented among the ranks of activists, but those are almost always university students or young adults.”
In the 1960s, demonstrations and protests swept across college campuses throughout the US. Student activists were at the forefront of the free speech and anti-Vietnam war movements, and many campuses were heavily involved in the civil rights movement.
Thousands of students occupied the Sheraton Palace hotel in Berkeley in 1964, protesting discriminatory hiring practices, while the anti-war protests that saw 100,000 people march on Washington DC in 1967 were fueled by campus unrest – which had already seen students burn draft cards and attack Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) buildings at campuses.
Dana R Fischer, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, said a parallel could be drawn between young people taking action against something that could directly affect them.
“The Vietnam war and all of the protests around that, many of them focusing on university campuses, were because of the students’ direct sense of risk – they were at risk of being drafted and having to serve in the military,” she said.
“And I think there is a really good parallel there to what we see with the kids who are mobilizing about gun violence, because there’s been so many school shootings.”
While students from Parkland have led gun protests in terms of the publicity and energy generated – “sending an amazing message”, Fischer said, to school children and young adults around the country, she pointed out that the crowd at the main March for Our Lives rally in Washington DC skewed older.
Fischer, who is working on a book, American Resistance, charting how activists have challenged the Trump administration, conducted hundreds of interviews at the DC demonstration, and found that one in 10 attendees were under 18. Of those who were over 18, the median age was 49.
But even if the March for Our Lives rallies attracted an older crowd, the energy generated by high school students is a major part of what spurred not just those demonstrations, but even the recent strikes and demonstrations by high school teachers.
Noah Karvelis, an elementary school teacher who is one of the founders of the “Red for Ed” campaign that is pushing for a pay raise for teachers in Arizona, said he believes teachers have been inspired by students.
“I see a ton of parallels there,” he said of students who have walked out and marched for gun control reforms.
“We have people who have just been neglected and not listened to and forgotten about for so long and now they’re rising up and taking matters into their own hands,” Karvelis said.
Karvelis said: “Seeing what those students have been able to do, particularly people like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, that’s so inspirational to us. And again it just shows you don’t have to just sit there and take it. Enough’s enough. So I see a lot of connections between this movement and that movement.”
The legacy of the college protests of the 1960s and early 70s has given high school students a lot to live up to.
McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford university, said the key would be whether young people invigorated by this wave of demonstrations stayed engaged in politics. In 1994, McAdam tracked down hundreds of people who had travelled to Mississippi for the Freedom Summer campaign, a drive to register black people to vote.
He found that the majority of those activists had stayed active politically, many in left-of-center campaigns.
But the sort of movement that swept through the US 50 years ago, McAdam said, was hard to sustain if “people think they’re having no effect”. With the possibility of substantial gun reform, at federal level at least, being small, high schoolers, and other activists, could become disillusioned.
One of the obstacles to the current movement having an effect, McAdam said, is the polarization in the US at the moment – particularly in the media – compared with the 1960s. Back then, images of confrontations between non-violent civil rights demonstrators and aggressive white segregationists, McAdam said, would be broadcast around the US “by a sympathetic media”.
“Most Americans at that period got their information from three mainstream networks and a host of metropolitan daily newspapers, all of which generally adhered to the same journalistic standards,” McAdam said.
“We’re in a very different media environment. So the students go out, and those who are sympathetic to them get those images and are moved by them and inspired by them.
“But there’s many, many media out there not covering this movement at all – and if they are, they’re critical of it.
“So I don’t get a sense that the movement is changing the distribution of views or opinions on this issue very much at all, and that’s very different from what happened in the 1960s.”
The key for students and those active in the larger resistance against Trump is success in the 2018 mid-term elections, both McAdam and Fischer said.
At the March for Our Lives rallies, people were encouraged to register to vote.
While it seems young people are facing an uphill battle, if incumbent politicians can be toppled and anti-gun legislation passed, those who have marched and walked out of their schools could be emboldened, and politically engaged, for a long time to come.