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US teens explain why they’re walking out of school to protest gun violence

‘We, the next generation, have taken matters into our own hands’

There’s a really annoying saying that some parents say to their children once they become teenagers who have grown weary of living under their house rules: “vote with your feet.” If you’re fed up with something, then leave.

Fittingly, at 12pm yesterday, thousands of teens walked out of America’s high schools. Their aim was to show solidarity with the victims and survivors of the Parkland, Florida massacre, but it was also to prove that they won’t stop protesting until the government shows that they’re listening. As the afternoon continued, tweets of students marching with placards, making impassioned speeches, and chanting “we want change” appeared online.

More than 100 survivors from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School held signs and chanted slogans as they marched into Florida's state house. But the shock of the attack has touched a nerve with teens nationwide, who now feel like it’s not safe to go to school. Organisers planned the protest ahead of President Trump’s much-anticipated meeting with survivors of the fatal mass shooting to show their support.

“We have been waiting for change for so long. When I heard of the shooting in Parkland, Florida the first thing I thought was: ‘another one?’” says Anya Melecio, a 17-year-old from Bremerton, Washington. “It shouldn't be a normal occurrence.” Speaking to Dazed, Melecio explains that this is why she and her peers walked out of school yesterday along with many others.

At least one school district in Houston, Texas, threatened to suspend students who walked out or "caused disruption" by protesting. The Houston Chronicle reported that Needville Superintendent Curtis Rhodes sent a letter to parents threatening students with three days of suspension for taking part.

However, the staff at Melecio’s high school were behind the strike action. “During the morning announcements, our principal said that we deserve to be heard and that the staff and faculty of Olympic High School would support us fully. We were allowed to leave our classrooms without any difficulty!”

A local report estimates that more than 300 students congregated for speeches at Melicio’s school alone. A number of students made impassioned arguments about stopping gun violence at school, the need for more mental health services, and standing up for those who are bullied.

Melicio believes that actions like this ensure that her generation can have a say in politics, even if they’re too young to vote. “It angers me that us students have little say in elections, but are the ones living in fear of being killed,” she says. “After seeing students come together nationwide, I am speechless. It's amazing to see so many teenagers come together to demand that we are heard by adults. It reaffirmed that we can make a change, that our voices matter, that we matter.”

Seeing the action online is inspiring more budding activists like California-based Sonya Walker, 16. She says even though her school is currently on a break, she and her classmates are already planning their next move. “The moment we get back to school we’re going to talk to the administration. I’m also working on organising a march and protest in my area.”

“It feels like my country has betrayed my entire generation. Kids are dying, and they are willing to ignore that for the right price. After I heard about the Florida shooting, I had a list of people running through my mind. A list of people that I was worried could do this to me. Nobody should think about that. I should be worried about college and APs, not bullets and AR-15s.”

“We, the next generation, have taken matters into our own hands. Change isn’t coming, it is here” – Spokesperson for Students Walkout Against Gun Violence

Word of the nationwide protests quickly spread with the help of facilitator accounts like Student Walkout Against Gun Violence, an anonymously run account that now has 23.7k followers. The admin is a 19-year-old Californian student who became emboldened when they saw the gruesome videos circulated of the murder scene online. They’ve asked to remain anonymous. “I couldn’t sleep that night – I created the account the next day. I see that there is a movement forming, and I want to help it become as strong as it can, in any way I can, so I’m just helping coordinate reporters with students.”

After the account tweeted instructions in the week leading up to yesterday’s mass protest, hundreds of students and teachers got in contact with live action updates. “I want everyone to see the hundreds of pictures, videos, and stories I am getting from students across the nation,” the Californian student explains. “Students from Iowa are sending me the speeches they are reading at their walkouts. Michigan students are drafting essays and meeting with state representatives. High schoolers in Georgia are releasing 17 balloons, one for each victim of the Florida shooting. Some had 17 minutes of silence. If you don’t have hope, it’s because you aren’t paying attention.”

Amid the collective action, there have also been examples of brave individuals that protested without the support of their school and peers. “One of my favorite stories comes from a small town in Ohio. It was five students standing in front of their school. It was a six-person walkout – the sixth one being the photographer. It is easy to walk out of a class when thousands of other students are doing so, but it takes strength to stand up when so few people are willing to stand with you,” they explain.

Activists told Dazed that there will be multiple strike days in the months to follow in order to make gun control an urgent priority, and given Trump’s suggestion to increase the amount of guns on school grounds, the number of participants could well increase. Further protests will include the March for Our Lives, in Washington on March 24, the #Enough school walkout, and another walkout on April 20 to mark the anniversary of the Columbine shooting. 

“That level of passion and dedication reassures me that this movement will create change in the United States”, the Californian student told us. “We, the next generation, have taken matters into our own hands. Change isn’t coming. It is here.”