On a recent Tuesday morning, 16-year-old Jennie Li skipped class at Nashville’s Hume-Fogg High School to attend a rally in the Capitol demanding action on gun violence. As she explained, the murder of three children and three adults at the neighboring Covenant School had left her scared and heartbroken, but also resolute that she wanted her voice to be heard.
Belying the caricature of disillusioned and disengaged loafers, over the last few years, teenagers have been at the center of activism on gun regulation, climate change, economic inequality, racial justice, and LGBTQIA+ rights. That progressive energy may feel fresh, but it’s part of a proud tradition of adolescents pushing for social change. As Mary Beth Tinker — whose arm-band protest of the Vietnam War, at age thirteen, prompted a landmark decision by the Supreme Court protecting student speech — reflected, “The Parkland kids are standing on the shoulders of Black Lives Matter in the way we stood on the shoulders of the civil rights youth who came before us.”
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The image has stuck with me because it perfectly captures the nature of youth activism: brave and amazing, but also fragile and precarious — not only in apartheid South Africa in 1976, Tiananmen Square in 1989, and Iran today, but here in contemporary America.
In many ways, Tinker v. Des Moines was the high point of teen constitutional rights, and in the decades that followed, the Supreme Court has repeatedly knocked the foundations. Today, with the Court’s blessing, school administrators and parents enjoy incredible powers to silence young people’s voices whenever they don’t like what’s being said.
I recently talked with a seventeen-year-old from Arkansas who was hit with a paddle by a public high school administrator as punishment for walking out of class to participate in a moment of silence at the flagpole to protest gun violence. And, around the country, every day, student journalists, valedictorian speakers, student council representatives, and sons and daughters who dare to speak up learn exactly how little their opinion matters to those calling the shots.
Even when young people have managed to compel adults to embrace reforms, they have always been contingent—ready to be wiped away, as soon as public attention shifted. Against the odds, the Parkland activists got the state of Florida to enact its first major gun safety measures in decades, but, five years later, Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida House Speaker Paul Renner are championing a bill to overturn permit and training requirements for carrying concealed weapons.
The same pattern has played out in Tennessee. Back in 2018, students at Hume-Fogg High School protested for gun control just like Jennie. “We want change!” they chanted. Their pictures appeared in the paper. But three years later, the state passed a law allowing most adults 21 and over to carry handguns without a background check, permit, or training. And as 152 shots rang out in the halls of the Covenant School last week, a bill sat in the Tennessee House to lower the age to 18 and apply permitless carry to rifles and shotguns. The minute you put down your sign and the news vans leave, the pressure is gone.
That points to the biggest source of weakness for young activists seeking to build change movements: you are nothing to those in power unless you have power yourself. There was a brutal honesty to octogenarian senator Dianne Feinstein’s explanation for why she wouldn’t be listening to the young teen climate activists who’d come to meet with her in 2019: “Well, you didn’t vote for me.”
So, what should Jennie and the other teenagers of America do?
Stop organizing and marching to persuade adults to save your world and start marching for the vote. Your best chance to accomplish your substantive goals on gun control and everything else is to refocus your efforts on gaining power in government, at school, and at home.
The arguments in favor of teen enfranchisement are strong. Recent research suggests that when it comes to voting-relevant cognition, there is no notable difference between an average sixteen-year-old and an average adult. And, of course, millions of voting adults are well below average. We have rightfully decided that there should be no capacity test or diploma to vote, and we need to hold ourselves to our principles. If we are comfortable with ninety-year-olds going behind the curtain, we should be comfortable with adolescents doing the same.
Moreover, kids are not naïve when it comes to many of the most pressing issues in society. They know what a lockdown drill feels like. They have trans friends. They understand what social media can do. They have experienced racism and sexism. We can benefit from their perspectives and experience. As Mary Beth points out, “When kids have a voice, it’s better for everyone. When they don’t get to weigh in, adults are cheated.”
The seeds of change are already planted. Sixteen-year-olds can now vote in a growing number of countries, including Argentina, Austria, and Ecuador, and in municipal elections in a handful of U.S. cities. Now is the time to grow a mass movement.
On February 13th, college freshman Emma Riddle tweeted out, “(Fourteen) months ago I had to evacuate from Oxford High School when a fifteen year old opened fire and killed four of my classmates and injured seven more. Tonight, I am sitting under my desk at Michigan State University, once again texting everyone ‘I love you.’” “When will this end?” she asked.
The answer is that it will not until the young people of America are empowered. Kids, demand what is rightfully yours: a say in your government, a seat at the decision-making table, a right to determine your present and your future.
Adam Benforado is a law professor and the author of the new book, A Minor Revolution: How Prioritizing Kids Benefits Us All.
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