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Echoes of 1968 - What Price Are We Willing to Pay?

When a killer massacres 17 people, as happened last week in Florida, there is a cost that goes beyond the horrific loss of individual life. Each murdered student and teacher represents a cluster of family and friends, whose loss to them can never be fully measured and forgotten.

Even further, we are left with 17 holes in our own future, 17 what-might-have-beens. After all, if the dignity and eloquence of the surviving students is any indication, the murdered children of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were destined to pursue fruitful and productive lives. This is a profound cost to all of us. This is the price we have decided to pay as a society so that an advantaged minority can continue its possession and use of deadly weapons.

To the young people of Parkland, FL and beyond, who have seized this moment for a call to action, I say that your actions are both an inspiration and a lesson in citizen democracy. I also say this:

Your job is incredibly difficult. You may not win. As a single-issue group that is incredibly focused and disciplined, the NRA gives no ground. You will encounter roadblocks and resentment. People will ridicule you and tell you that you are over your heads or emotionally fragile. Don’t listen, because these tactics have been tried before. This is the sign of an entrenched system digging in to protect its long-standing privileges and political base.

For a party that currently controls Congress and Florida state government, business goes on as usual. Just days after the Parkland shooting, House Speaker Paul Ryan went to Florida—but not to lend his support to the community. Instead, his objective was to raise money for his political organization. No surprise. Despite the reputation he has somehow forged as a serious policy maker, Ryan has always remained a corporatist shill and apologist for the gun lobby.

Then, Tuesday evening brought news that the Florida legislature will not consider a ban on AR-15s, the very gun the Parkland shooter used. Of course they did. Further evidence of the system holding sound policy hostage to its narrow agenda.

While we have some examples of states, such as Connecticut and New York, that have cracked down on guns (and who have benefited from lower gun homicide rates as a result), the push-back on the federal level, and in states such as Florida, leaves serious gaps overall and keeps the door wide open for the next mass shooting, which we all know will happen.

Students of Parkland and of America: How do you combat this? Your earnest efforts will not be enough. You will need fight harder than you can imagine. I say that you should battle like it’s 1968.

As my wife Valerie recently noted, that year in Paris, France, students rose up against a society that favored a small elite class. The took to the streets, sometimes violently, and caused President DeGaulle to leave the country for a time, then to call for new elections. While the system pushed back hard, and DeGaulle’s party won big in the next elections, much of France started to see the President as detached and overly authoritarian. Eventually, the French system was liberalized, including the educational sector, which became more open and egalitarian.

At the same time, American students were protesting on the streets and in college campuses, against the Vietnam War. They took on a power structure that seemed impossible to topple; support for the War, from the President, down through Congress, and throughout American society, was strong. But over time, public opinion started to waver. Despite his resentment and condescension toward the students, LBJ found himself so weakened by these protest movements that he decided against seeking reelection. American troops began withdrawing from Vietnam. This story doesn’t proceed perfectly; Nixon’s Vietnamization campaign involved fewer American soldiers but also bombing of North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos on an unprecedented scale. However, the overall result of the student protest movement was the end of our deep military involvement on the ground in Vietnam. With fewer troops on the ground in Vietnam, it appears clear that the student efforts ended up saving American lives.

Sometimes, “the way things are” seems impossible to change. Vietnam policy was maintained by a significant power structure. Slavery existed as an institution for over 200 years. Jim Crow went on for another century after that. The number of years American women were unable to vote (131) remains larger than the number of years in which they can (98). The gun lobby, and the politicians they bankroll, is among the most powerful force in US politics.

So what will it take? In the spirit of 1968, here are some pieces of guidance:

Be demanding. Declare what you stand for (such as background checks, assault weapons ban, allowing the CDC to study gun violence, gun safety measures) and don’t waver. As groups form around the country, leaders should seek to coalesce around these clear messages.

Make them uncomfortable. The student protesters of 1968 made life profoundly difficult for President Johnson, national politicians, and college presidents. Eventually, the cost of resisting the students grew, and more of society began to support the cause for which the students were fighting. As Thomas Friedman notes, congressional representatives today are comfortable supporting the NRA because it helps them keep their cushy jobs. Make them feel pain as long as they maintain this support.

You have the moral high ground. Keep it. You have seized upon an issue that resonates with the majority of Americans. Moreover, unlike the 1968 protesters, who were, rightly or wrongly, perceived as hippies and druggies, what you are asking for is simple and unassailable—the right to a safe and secure education. Your protests should stay focused on this issue, and you should resist the temptation to anger and violence. History proves that, over time, civil disobedience works.

It will be a long road. Don’t let this dissuade you. As some of you get older and move on to other endeavors, groom new kids to follow your path and maintain the resistance.

Your cause is compelling. Much of the country is behind you. Yet the challenges are daunting. What price will you pay to achieve your objective? Can you maintain your focus, like the students of 1968?

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