School Walkouts: Steps Towards Demilitarization

Young people are leading the way for demilitarization.

Last week, students from more than 3000 US schools walked out of classes, for seventeen minutes — one minute for each person killed during last month’s school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the largest high school shooting in US history. The walkouts, called for by the Parkland survivors under the hashtag #Enough, demanded gun control. Some students, however, also challenged the militarization of public schools, institutions that increasingly resemble TSA checkpoints with metal detectors and armed security, places where poor racialized children have come under increased state surveillance. While student demands seemed clear about gun control and, in some cases, getting cops out of schools, US lawmakers have done little to nothing about gun control and have moved instead to increase police presence in schools.

As thousands of student protesters crowded outside the capitol building in Washington last Wednesday saying enough to gun violence, House Democrats and Republicans passed the STOP School Violence Act, committing $50 million a year to fund training, anonymous reporting systems, threat assessments, interventions teams, and school and police coordination. In other words, what students got was not less guns but more guns in the form of more cops in their schools.

But “good guys” with guns don’t stop “bad guys” with guns. Cops in schools seem to be only good at policing and arresting children, not saving their lives. Sheriff’s deputies stationed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas — to prevent exactly this kind of catastrophe — waited outside as the accused shooter, nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz, went room by room executing teenagers and teachers with an AR-15, a military-grade assault rifle.

Cruz, a former student of the school, learned to fire such weapons while a cadet in JROTC (the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps), a high school program that targets and trains children for the military and as future soldiers of the forever “war on terror.” When he was arrested, Cruz was wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the JROTC’s crest. Cruz obtained his firearms legally under Second Amendment rights, rights the National Rifle Association (NRA) has recently encouraged settler citizens to defend, with vigilante violence if necessary, any threat to those gun rights, a call that George Zimmerman obliged when he murdered Black teen Trayvon Martin or when white millionaire Mormon ranchers, the Bundys, carried out armed occupations in Shosone and Pauite lands in Nevada and Oregon and were acquitted of any crime. Meanwhile, three Water Protectors — Red Fawn Fallis, Little Feather (Michael Giron), and Dion Ortiz — face decades of prison time for their part in a nonviolent protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The history of the Second Amendment, as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz documents in her recent book, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, was the arming of a white male settler population to carry out the will of the colonial state: to facilitate Indigenous genocide and land theft and maintain the crushing system of African slavery. In the absence of a standing military — which was wiped out by Shawnees in the Ohio River Valley in 1791 — the Second Amendment armed everyday settlers to carryout catching runaway property — African human beings — and to keep stolen property — Indigenous lands. In other words, in the absence of an organized military, settlers were encouraged to self-organize into “well regulated militias” to kill Indians and catch runaway slaves.

The pervasiveness of gun violence, while normalized in white supremacy, has inflicted its own toll on Indigenous communities. Students at the Red Lake High School walked out in solidarity with the Parkland students, holding a gathering at a spot where thirteen years earlier a student shot and killed seven students. The militarization of Indian education stems from the boarding school system, which was engineered to violently indoctrinate USA patriotism and flag worship and military discipline into kidnapped Indigenous children. Today, Indigenous children join the USA military at the highest rates.

Just days after the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, high school senior and survivor Emma Gonzalez made an impassioned speech that went viral. She debunked the fascile arguments about how increased militarization prevents mass shootings, when all the evidence suggests otherwise. “We call BS,” Gonzalez stated accusing the National Rifle Association, politicians, and the police as being part of the problem. This accusation comes from those barred from voting, the future of this world — the youth.

In the wake of the shooting it is perhaps no coincidence that those charged with caretaking young people in schools led wildcat strikes in West Virginia against poverty wages and rising health-care costs. While trillions of dollars are shelled out each year for military, police, prisons, and arms manufacturing, public education remains consistenly underfunded and its teachers underpaid compared to their gun-toting public servant counterparts, the police and military. The same lawmakers who demonize and criminalize these educators demand blind patriotism and worship of the armed forces. Despite Trump’s calls to arm teachers with guns, teachers have instead chosen to arm themselves not with weapons but collective bargaining power, a movement that is spreading.

This is all to say that this particular moment of mass dissent — where the sacrosanct institutions of the security state such as airports, schools, police, gun rights, and the military have become sites of protest — has the potential, if developed properly, to challenge the deep-seated structures of homicidal white supremacy endemic to this settler society. Who would have thought young people would be leading the way?

But we don’t have to look far in our recent history to see the origins of this particular uprising. When the optimistic young people who voted this settler nation’s first Black president into power met a recalcitrant system, they became #BlackLivesMatter and Water Protectors. These youth faced down tanks, private militias, and the National Guard in Missouri and North Dakota. For what? An end to police brutality, the right to clean drinking water, and Indigenous sovereignty. But their collective vision for freedom wasn’t merely the absence of state violence in the form of prisons, police, and military. Freedom, as Ruthie Gilmore reminds us, is a place. That place, our young people are reminding us, is a place without armed occupation, whether its cops, armies, or armed settlers. It is a place that values and centers relations to each other and the land.