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Rhetorical Recap: At the March for Our Lives Rally, What Was Said and What Was Not

In what seems like an unprecedented event, a score of teenagers took to an historic American pulpit to call for voter and government action against gun violence. Adults remained offstage as the teens spoke to an assembly who had marched to the Capitol end of the National Mall, just beneath (and in camera view of) the spot where presidents are inaugurated. The event occurred in coordination with marches in 832 cities around the world, in every US state and all but 45 of the 435 Congressional districts. It was timed to coincide with the start of Spring Break for many school districts. Estimates vary, but it seemed that as many people attended as at Trump’s 2017 inauguration, but fewer than the Women’s March the following day.

As a Washington Post preview article put it, the live audience consisted notably of “students, teachers, parents and survivors of mass shootings.” Ten of the twenty speakers hailed from Parkland Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School. We normally hear speeches from high schoolers at commencements, debate club competitions, student council races, and theatrical productions. But this cohort has gone beyond staged walkouts and television interviews and already leveraged its suffering, fame, and social media chops to get the Florida state legislature and governor, redoubts of gun rights, to cede at least symbolic ground to them in new policies. Large corporations have responded as well by relinquishing gun sale revenues.

A photo series in the current (March 26) issue of The New Yorker supplied an invaluable additive to the spectacle. It showed young men and women (including Cheyenne Dalton, above) posing proudly, not menacingly, with their guns. The guns are pointed up, down or away, not at the camera. This gallery complicates the March For Our Lives tableau. It depicts young people of apparent high character holding weapons they have been trained to use for sport and self-defense. The accompanying essay by Dana Goodyear describes them in a respectful account of their predominantly rural culture.

The mark of a great speech at the rally would speak to these other students, teachers, parents, and survivors of gun violence. It would ascend to a rhetorical promontory from which both sides, gun victims and gun bearers, would be in the word-picture and feel motivated to join together in abating the national trauma. Everyone today dreams of safe streets and schools; no one as yet has bestrode the opposing sides in a rhetorically compelling way.

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Cameron Kasky of MSD welcomed everyone to the “revolution.” “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ve got this.” He read the names of the dead at his school and said “We were forced to become adults.” Although “the world betrayed us...the future is looking very bright for this country.” These were confident aspirational claims of a sort commonly associated with young idealism.

Then a switch. Trevon Bosley, brother of a deceased Chicago shooting victim in 2006, spoke next. He said that more than five thousand lives had been lost to gun violence in Chicago since his personal loss. Bosley criticized Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and President Trump. As the program continued it became evident that the braided speaker list embodied an alliance between suburban and inner-city youths.

Kasky and Bosley rushed their words, perhaps out of nervousness. Delaney Tarr from MSD was more measured. “This is a movement not a publicity stunt,” she said, “relying on the passion and persistence of its people. We cannot move on or NRA will win.” She called on people to sign a circulating petition. “We are not here for bread crumbs [bump stocks] we are here for real change….The politicians know that without it we will vote them out.”

After a split-screen video in which a teen talked back to NRA provocateur and crisis actor Dana Loesch, Sarah Chadwick of MSD went after Florida Senator Marco Rubio for his acceptance of NRA money. “When you take 3,140,167, the number of students enrolled in Florida schools, and divide it by $3,303,355, the amount of money Marco Rubio has received from the National Rifle Association, it comes out to $1.05,” she said. She displayed a red price tag with $1.05. “One life is worth more than all the guns in America….We will never stop fighting.” Rubio issued a statement within the hour and without insult. Unlike Loesch, he seemed engaged in conversation with the other side instead of stoking his own.

The assertions, demands, and pleas continued, often in insistent tones. Several slogans were offered, including “Enough is enough” and “Never again.” The one that caught on with the crowd was “Vote them out.” It hit the same three-note cadence as “Lock her up,” but with a democratic instead of authoritarian vibe.

Edna Chavez from Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles alternated between Spanish and English, eliciting whoops. “I am a youth leader. I am a survivor [of South-Central gun violence].” She mentioned her dead brother and hero Ricardo and the crowd chanted his name. She said her school district has its own police department. “Remember my name. Remember these faces.”

Alex Wind of MSD demanded to hear from 250 members of Congress who have not taken a position on gun restriction bills.

Zion Kelly from Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington DC eulogized his brother/identical twin.

David Hogg of MSD held a $1.05 price tag and performed as though he were on the campaign trail: “Who here is going to vote in the 2018 election? If you listen real close you can hear the people in power shaking.” He pointed to the Capitol dome and said “This...is not cutting it.” “Today is the beginning of spring [?] and tomorrow is the beginning of democracy,” he continued. “Let’s put the USA over the NRA.” 

Naomi Wadler of Alexandria VA, 11 years old, displayed a professional’s timing and a wicked side-eye glance. She was “here to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news….We know life is not equal for everyone.” She quoted Toni Morrison. Her precociousness came off as winsome, not rehearsed.

Christopher Underwood, an 11-year-old from New York City, answered a video montage of NRA gun rights brandishers and the late Charleton Heston in particular: “I want those people to understand that it is not their blood but ours” which flows in the actual shootings they locate inside heroic defender narratives.

Jaclyn Corin of MSD made the event’s alliance plain: we got the attention because we were privileged, she said, but we share the stage with those who aren’t. She instructed listeners to visit their members of Congress when they are in the district in the next two weeks. She stopped, announced a surprise, and brought out Martin Luther King Jr.’s granddaughter. “I have a dream that enough is enough,” she said. She led a chant three times.

Samantha Fuentes of MSD fell mid-speech and vomited. She had been seriously wounded in the Parkland attack. A colleague rushed to the stage, helped her to her feet, and rubbed her back so she could finish.

Mathew Soto, the teenage brother of a young girl who perished at Sandy Hook Elementary School, joined by two of his classmates at Newtown High School in Connecticut, presented a banner to MSD students, as emissaries from Columbine High School in Colorado had done for them six years ago.

A big cheer of recognition greeted MSD’s Emma González. In a brilliant move, she stopped her speech after two minutes for a period of silence timed to end at the six minute and twenty second mark of her appearance, the amount of time the gunfire lasted at her school. She held a countenance in which determination triumphed over anguish, with both emotions evident. During her vigil people in the crowd raised their fists and made peace sign “Vs.” Chants of “never again” and “Emma” could be heard.

A chant of “This is what democracy looks like” soon arose.  For the finale the pop star Jennifer Hudson and a gospel choir sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The entire cast of speakers and celebrity singers joined them on stage. “We want change” was the parting chant.

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We heard from victims and celebrities at this event; indeed many of the victim-speakers have become celebrities. Although their point of debarkation was eulogistic grief and the end point soaring hope, the route went through nuts and bolts politicking. The speakers seemed as interested in effectiveness as eloquence. They went after the NRA as the quintessence of evil, Senator Rubio as their local personification of the sell-out, and every “politician,” especially those in the legislature behind them, for being all talk and no action on their issue.

The rally ended on time and there were no reported injuries or skirmishes.

A politically smart follow-up to the March would enlist and publicize the voices of children of the powerful, and ally with leaders of PTAs across the nation. As organizations, PTAs must and should stay politically neutral, but they could be urged to sponsor debates on the issue. It seems that in the coming months gun registration and safety activists will compete more vigorously with gun rights advocates for 2018 voters. Such election-framing parity may be a big achievement of the March.

Meanwhile, as the ranks swell on both sides of the gun issue and the elections near, we await the voice of someone (González?) who can address not just the fallen and the traumatized but the ready and the responsible. Dr. King spoke to the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners. He envisioned little black boys and girls joining hands with little white boys and girls as sisters and brothers.

He spoke to, and of, all of God’s children.