Can the Student Anti-Gun Movement Succeed?

The Houston Police Chief and Mayor March the Students

Yes!  And Here is How to Do It!

The massive demonstrations in Washington and around the nation over the past two weeks announces the arrival of some new and powerful voices speaking out in the debate about the role of guns in American society. High school students, whose life chances are being impacted by the recurrent incidence of mass shootings of teachers and students in their schools, are speaking out and will not be intimidated into silence by cynical talking heads in mass media, NRA fanatics, or spineless politicians.

No thoughtful observer can witness the gains this movement has already achieved – getting state lawmakers in the gun crazy state of Florida to pass restrictions on gun ownership after only a few weeks of activism, and now the Attorney General’s decision to ban gun stocks the convert semi-automatic weapons into automatic fire arms -can fail to be impressed by the intelligence, maturity and courage of the student activist, especially those from Douglass High, nor the vast potential of this movement.   Politicians will ignore it at their peril!

Few issues conjure up the intense passions which characterize the gun debate, and rightfully so; it’s a life and death matter. Many Americans believe they have a Constitutional right to own and carry military assault weapons.  But the highly intelligent and articulate students who turned out at the protest demonstrations across the nation demanding gun control legislation have called that belief “BULLSHIT!”

Unfortunately, despite their intelligence and righteous anger they have not yet recognized that there can be no solution to the gun plague so long as there is a constitutional right for citizens to “keep and bear arms.” However, they will be educated on this issue as they struggle to get effective gun legislation and are faced with the malicious machinations and amoral duplicity of the NRA and their shills in government and media.

Since I have made the case for repealing the Second Amendment elsewhere I shall not re-litigate it here.  But these students must be educated on this issue because they will soon be voters; some of them will be voting this year.  Fortunately, unlike the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which declared itself “above politics,” as the widely influential documentary filmmaker/activist Michel Moore put it, most of the student leaders like the Afro-American students in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, understand that politics is the vehicle by which they will achieve their goals; turning rhetoric into law.

Yet while good intentions and a passionate belief in the justice of your cause may appeal to a lot of people, it is not enough to affect change.  What we are witnessing is the embryonic stages of a mass movement, a spontaneous eruption orchestrated on social media.   But to bring about sweeping political changes that will finally rid us of this gun plague, the growing ranks of enraged activists must be organized around a workable plan of political action.  If this burgeoning protest movement is to become transformative, several things will have to happen.

First, the students will have to understand that this is a protracted struggle, which is not an easy point to make in the age of Twitter and Facebook when masses of people can be mobilized across the country within days. They must gain a sense of historical perspective which will enable them to understand that it was four years from the time the first Afro-American students challenged legal segregation by sitting down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, to the passage of the Omnibus Civil Rights Bill that outlawed de Jure racial separation in 1964.  To learn the lessons movement history can teach, student activists must be willing to consult with, and be instructed by, veteran organizers who know what they are doing.

An excellent instructional manual on the art and science of political organizing is the documentary film “The Organizer,” which explores the life and work of Bayard Rustin -who organized both the March on Washington and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, iconic events in the great Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.  And the recent television documentary airing on MSNBC tonight, “The Media and the Movement ” – which examines the role played by television in the success of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the southern Civil Rights Movement – will help them to better understand the advantages that social media provides them today; how it has enabled them to organize a movement capable of getting masses of people out in the streets virtually overnight.  They must also understand the down side to this enormous power when exercised by people who are politically unsophisticated.  Hence the first task of their advisers is to help these student activists understand that all motion is not progress.

For instance, running around in circles is motion but not progress.  They must understand that progress implies forward movement and to move forward you must have concrete goals and objectives. These are the beacons by which a movement can measure its progress.   But to define specific goals they must first decide what they are struggling for, the strategic objective, because that will determine what your specific demands will be. To popularize their demands they must develop power packed slogans that effectively convey this often-complex vision to masses of people.   If I were advising them I would argue for the slogans “Stop the Blood Bath!”  “Repeal the Second Amendment.”  One is a general demand, the other is specific.

This could become a very effective chant with the call and response pattern that has proven so effective at mass demonstrations and rallies around the world. The chant of student demonstrators “Throw them out!” is a powerful slogan which will certainly get the attention of the legislators, but to translate this into effective legislation they must be given specific demands. And if the demand to abolish the Second Amendment gains traction, they can win many tactical concessions on gun control laws that their Republican elected officials have heretofore refused to even consider.  We are already witnessing this.

If I were advising these students I would tell them that as they debate their goals they need to form a national student organization dedicated to a protracted struggle to achieve them.  And to be effective this organization must have a means of getting its message out on a widespread basis. And I would emphasize that in social media they have the most powerful mass communications vehicle any movement has ever had in world history.

Both the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street Movement were creatures of the Internet: “Facebook Revolutions.” When the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, began its struggle to transform the American South they only had mimeograph machines – some hand powered – and leaflets.  That was true of the Southern Civil Rights Movement in general, but they destroyed the legal racial caste system and transformed the Nation.

I would point out to these students how Slogans like “FREEDOM NOW!” Effectively mobilized the black masses and “BLACK POWER” radicalized that demand and made many of the reforms white politicians had rejected suddenly look much more reasonable. Just as a demand for the repeal of the Second Amendment will make many of the demands that are being rebuffed or ignored now will suddenly become more palatable.  I would tell the students that all successful movements have some way of financing their organizations – usually through membership dues and contributions from the public, including Foundations in the US.

So they should appeal directly to wealthy Americans – such as Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates and the entertainment community. And I would show them how all successful mass movements must produce Charismatic Revivalists – fearless eloquent voices that rise up from the people and effectively speak truth to power.  Student leaders who survived the Parkland Florida shootings like David Hogg, and Emma Gonzales – whose six minutes of silence at the Washington rally was deafening – are poignant cases in point.

Emma Gonzales

David Hogg

It is these spokesmen who personally take the movement’s message to the masses and inspire them to action.  This was the role played by Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and Jesse Jackson in the Civil Rights Movement; Adolph Hitler in the Rise of the Nazi’s, Gloria Steinem in the Feminist Movement et al.  I would explain that it does not matter what the ideology of the movement is – religious or secular, right or left – all successful movements produce these spokesmen who appear to embody the aspirations of the aggrieved. Here, the new student movement enjoys an embarrassment of riches; the student orators at the rallies – of all colors and ethnicities – are marvelous representatives of their cause and will inspire their peers to take action.

They also have an abundance of the other two elements critical to the growth and development of a successful mass transformative movement: people who are willing to engage in face to face recruiting for their organization, plus real and visible enemies.  The enthusiasm of these students will make them willing and effective recruiters, because the mass shootings will continue, and the more Republican politicians and right-wing media talking heads denounce them the more effective they will become with their target audience!

The final bit of advice that I would offer these bright and eager student activist is that they should continue to broaden their ranks to include more non-white students from disadvantaged communities – who were well represented at the rally – that face the threat of death by gunfire every day on the streets of their neighborhoods. And take the long view of their struggle because, when considered in historical perspective, the time frame is amazingly short for this magnitude of change they seek.

In just three years everybody who is now attending high-school will be eligible to vote; if the movement persists and becomes more inclusive they will have the numbers to throw the rascals out who refuse to support their gun proposals and transform this nation into a civilized society where mass slaughter by firearms are no longer common fare.   In fact, it will become as rare as “White” and “Colored” at public water fountains on rail road waiting rooms.  These are the paramount lessons I have learned from over fifty years of activism and studying the history of successful mass movements.

Since my predictions about the fate of the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy Wall Street” movements proved true – see: – I am confident in the analysis I now offer the Students fighting gun runners and their apologists in the right-wing media, the White House and Congress.


Witness student Survivors from the Florida Mass Shootings Speak Out

See Davis Hogg’s speech at March for our Lives

Hear Emma Gonzalez Speak!


Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
March 25, 2018


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