For as long as I can remember, children have been fixtures in protest photos. In the news stream, there is nothing novel about a kid marching or lofting a sign. In most of those cases, thought, the cause — be it abortion, healthcare, the environment, one candidate or another — is largely concerning to the grownups. What is typical is that children acting as proxies of their parents and their politics. That’s what makes so many “March for our Lives” protest pictures so curious. In image after image of the budding student gun reform movement, including those of quite young children with their parents, the children seem far from ancillary. If anything, in fact, it feels like the reverse.
With grade school students, starting in pre-school and kindergarten, subjected to active shooter drills, children as young as five and six across America are viscerally aware of gun violence and the threat to their existence. Of course, depending on what town or neighborhood children live in, as the young organizers of this nascent movement have emphasized, being mowed down at school is the least of the threat.
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Tomorrow, the 10- and 11-year-olds in Craig Sampsell’s class at Case Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, will walk out of school. Following the deadly shooting last month in Parkland, Florida, they’ll join thousands of other students in a nationwide protest against #gunviolence. “My 5th-grade students were very aware of the details of the events and wanted to have their own peaceful protest,” said the school’s principal, Danjile Henderson. Here, @dustin_franz photographed one of them: Joseph Reed, 11.
Of course, we can’t really know, but in so many photos from the gun protests, it seems like children not only grasp the problem, but have quite formed opinions about it. In fact, any skepticism about it has also been a theme, with many of the students addressing it head on. Naomi Wadler’s words were representative as she addressed race and gun violence at the main national event on Saturday. From The Hill:
In a speech in Washington, Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old elementary school student from Virginia, rejected criticism that she and her peers were too young to understand the nuances of gun policy. “My friends and I might still be 11, and we might still be in elementary school but we know. We know that life isn’t equal for everyone and we know what is right and wrong.”
The photo of Akron’s Craig Sampsell above seems to go way beyond awareness. Striking chords of wariness, sadness and conscience, the photo suggest a complex relationship with the issue. Like so many other photos from the weekend, I also get a sense of autonomy and nuance beyond the parent from Lucian Perkins’s photo below.
Catalyzed by the massacre in Parkland, the protest pictures no longer seem gestural. Instead, it feels like a unique moment in political history, with meaning and determination actually rising from the youngest among us. It feels like what we are witnessing in these photos is the surest emergence of social and political awareness. You sense the children are the most awake.
(Photo: Drew Angerer/Instagram. Caption: Scenes from the March For Our Lives rally in New York City, where thousands of activists, students and parents marched against gun violence March 24, 2018.)