The Legacy of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and the Kids Who Would Make Her Proud

They are gay, straight and transgender. They are Jewish, Christian and Muslim. They are black, white and Latino. They are middle-class, affluent, and poor. And together they are doing something we’ve never seen before.  They are connecting the dots – recognizing something we now call “intersectionality,” defined by Merriam Webster as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”

They are the teens of Parkland, Florida, the kids in DC and Chicago schools, the 11-year old children who spoke so eloquently to the crowds in Washington at the March for Our Lives on March 24th.  Their words were heard around the country and the world by multitudes of people who flowed into the streets of their hometowns to plead in unison that, “Enough is enough.” Together, the voices of millions formed a chorus speaking truth to power as they awakened to the connections being made in the name of universal human rights.

Now, I’m not one for quoting the Bible but I can’t refrain from paraphrasing the Book of Isiah: “And [the children] shall lead them.”

  And not just away from gun violence in schools, movie theaters, malls, clubs, or the horrific violence of police shooting innocent black people and getting away with it.  These future leaders were speaking about the much larger issues that America has failed to address, like poverty, class, race, gender, disability and institutionalized discrimination. They were pleading for the survival of all of us, and for a future defined by unity and not division, love and not hate, compassion and not greed, dignity and not death, whether by commission or omission.  They were demanding that we place values above violence, and they did it with such respect, force, energy, and eloquence that there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd.

They taught us a life lesson and they gave us a reason to hope.

They went beyond “Mi casa es su casa,” because they know that what happens in their casa, their community, their houses of worship, their schools could happen in any one of our houses, neighborhoods, or common spaces, no matter what color we are, how much wealth we have, or how mainstream we may have become.

The root of the youth movement today, so tragically launched by the events of February 14, 2018 in a school in Florida, is what empowers students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and the others now joining them. Its foundation is what they understand about the “realpolitik.” They are defining and now representing a new generation that is not only unique but vital, because these “kids” truly get it that together we stand, divided we fall. 

Additionally, they know how to bring their vision and their message to voters, to so-called leaders, and to those whose political futures are at stake. Strategically, these emerging adults are nothing short of brilliant. They understand how to use social media and they have a natural proclivity for using the methods of media advocacy, which means they put a human face on their issue, they tell stories to humanize statistics, they include action steps in their message – Register, Educate, Vote! – and they repeat tag lines that are pithy, powerful, and easily repeated.

The woman for whom the now well-known school was named, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, would be so proud of these students. A journalist and author, women's suffrage advocate, and conservation activist, she was every bit as feisty and politically astute as the students who attend the school that bears her name.  Her influential book The Everglades: River of Grass, published in 1947, redefined the popular conception that the Everglades were nothing more than a worthless swamp. It has been compared to Rachel Carson's important book Silent Spring.

According to her Wikipedia profile, Douglas was “outspoken and politically conscious, defending the women's suffrage and civil rights movements.” She undertook her work to protect the Everglades when she was nearly 80 years old and she lived nearly 30 years beyond that, working to the end.

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’s spirit and legacy are now being felt not only by students who went to school one day as youngsters and came out (if they were lucky) as young adults creating a new kind of leadership. It is being realized by Americans and others who may never have thought of themselves as “political” but who will be forever changed by what happened that fateful day, and the movement it spawned.

For that, we can all be grateful.

Getting Real About Guns

Post Orlando, let’s get real. The latest massacre in America, and its worst to date, was not about ISIS. It was not about Muslims or Islam. It was not about mental illness.

It was about guns and how easy they are to obtain in this country. It was about our incredible inability to effect legislation that would do something about what is now recognized as a national embarrassment as well as a continuing national tragedy, one that is finally acknowledged to be a major public health issue.

The shocking numbers support that claim. Last year 469 people died as a result of 371 mass shootings. So far this year at least 288 people have died in 182 mass shootings. Since Orlando, more than 125 people have been killed by guns, 269 were injured, and five mass shootings have occurred. We don’t even hear about most of these events, or the fact that nearly 10,000 American children are killed or hurt by guns every year.  Nationally, guns kill twice as many children and young people as cancer and 15 times more than infection according to the New England Journal of Medicine. Let that sink in.

Here’s another startling statistic. In 2010 there were 3.6 gun murders per 100,000 Americans.  In Canada and Portugal there were 0.5. Many other countries ranked even lower than that, including Australia at 0.2.  (Does anyone seriously think they have fewer mentally ill people per capita than we do?)

Lat month a story in Seven Days revealed that a reporter bought an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in South Burlington, Vt. for $500 cash with “no paperwork and no background check. [The seller] had no idea who I was or what my intentions were,” Paul Heintz wrote. “Nine minutes after I met the man, I drove away with the sort of weapon used 39 hours earlier to slaughter 49 people in Orlando.” A woman in Philadelphia reported a similar experience, beating Heintz’s time by two minutes.

Sadly, my home state of Vermont has the nation’s most permissive gun laws, so what took place when Heintz bought his gun, the same kind that killed all those children and their teachers in Newtown, Ct., was legal. The same kind of gun, by the way, also killed the people in Aurora and the people in San Bernardino.

What will it take to end the madness? One answer comes from a grassroots movement in Vermont, where gun laws have been nearly nonexistent and its politicians have waffled over the issue for years.

Gun Sense Vermont (GSV), an example for others, has been effectively moving reluctant politicians and prospective candidates toward action. Since startup three years ago, GSV’s track record is impressive. It first began a conversation about guns in the Statehouse. Then last year state senators received 1400 letters from constituents along with 12,000 petition signatures calling for action, all from Vermonters. Two Senate committees seriously considered gun-related issues and gun-owning groups announced a plan to lead a Vermont version of the suicide-prevention New Hampshire Gun Shop Project. The Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to send a bill to the full Senate making it a state-level violation for felons to have guns, and to require court records of dangerous individuals be submitted to the National Instant Background Check System. And the governor signed into law a bill to prevent gun violence.

“Gun Sense Vermont is a growing, bipartisan, grassroots organization that focuses on closing gaps in Vermont’s gun laws that make it too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands,” says Ann Braden, founder of GSV. “We come from all walks of life and 160 Vermont towns and every voting district. We are united in our call for common sense action that protects the rights of individuals as well as those of our communities.”

After Orlando, Vice President Joe Biden sent a letter to people who signed a petition calling on the government to ban AR-15-type assault weapons from civilian ownership. In it he addressed the thriving gun culture in this country that allows gun violence to continue.  “The President and I agree with you,” he wrote. “Assault weapons and high-capacity magazines should be banned from civilian ownership. … These weapons have been used to commit horrific acts. They’ve been called ‘the perfect killing machines.’”

Then he explained that the 1994 bill that banned assault weapons expired two years ago and was never renewed. How can that be, we might ask. The answer, in two words, is Republican Congress.

The vice president discussed other legal measures that could be taken which were debated and defeated in the Senate last month, a shameful event that resulted in a sit-in by House Democrats demanding action.

Faith leaders, law enforcement officials, businesses, public health experts, the majority of gun owners, and some legislators are calling for legislation that will help put an end to death by gun violence in this country. All over America millions of people are marching, pleading, praying, weeping for gun control. But pleading and prayers won’t do it. Neither will stigmatizing the mentally ill or spewing rampant Islamophobia or fear-mongering about ISIS.

Voting will help do it. That’s why this year is so important.  If we want to confront the gun culture that is ripping our nation apart, now is the time, once and for all, to get real about guns.