The opposite of screaming is silence. That silence can contain a multitude of meanings.
If you see something wrong, and you do not speak up, silence is complicit. If you represent the dead, whose voices have been extinguished, silence is the language of the living. If you face livid rants from politicians, threats from NRA leadership, and hatred from a president – who all say you are too young to make a difference – silence is a nonviolent weapon of protest.
Before Emma Gonzalez held the rapt attention of an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands during almost six minutes and twenty seconds of silence onstage Saturday, March 24 at March For Our Lives, she and her Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School classmates had to design the theatrics of the event.
First, they needed a stage. The structure would need to stand in close symbolic proximity to the intended actionable audience. They chose a spot in the heart of the nation’s capital where a platform with an open back permitted a direct view of the U.S. Capitol. Every speaker was blocked in the center of that stage, their faces on jumbotrons dwarfing the building behind them, the border of the stage circumscribing the Capitol like a picture frame. Each camera shot broadcast images of a crowd far greater in number than the congressional representatives inside the Capitol, and a student stage redefining the limits of the political process.
Next, the student-organizers needed an audience. So they made the event free and accessible to attend or watch remotely. They spread the word democratically through social media, allowing friends to exponentially build attendance past D.C. into other cities (830+ cities worldwide by the day of the march.) And they asked musicians from many genres to come and perform, both to make the event a celebration of potential change, and to reach young people from varied cultural and geographic backgrounds. These performance artists ranged from Broadway stars Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt, to Jennifer Hudson and the D.C. Choir, to Ariana Grande, to Demi Lovato, to Miley Cyrus, to the Stoneman Douglas Drama Club and Student Choir.
Finally, they needed players. After the survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida began raising their voices on national television, the NRA was swift to attack their credibility, calling the young people “crisis actors.” Although this craven mudslinging had no grounds in reality, it may have played a small part in the organizers’ choice to expand the March For Our Lives speaker list. However, the far stronger motivation, which the organizers have conveyed clearly and frequently, was the core desire of the growing movement to build intersectionality. These students saw early on that their faces and economic backgrounds represented only a fraction of those affected by gun violence in the United States. So they partnered with Black and Brown communities who have endured lasting pain from decades of gun violence, and offered them microphones and space on a shared platform.
During March For Our Lives, many people for the first time saw the face of the 11-year-old elementary school walk-out organizer Naomi Wadler from Alexandria, Virginia. “I am here today 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 the evening news,” she declared with steady conviction as the crowd applauded her.
Audiences met Alex King and D’Angelo McDade, who walked on stage in hooded sweatshirts with duct tape over their mouths. These 17- and 18-year-old students from the west side of Chicago quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lessons on civil disobedience and taught everyone present an African clap for unity, which the audience returned.
People heard Edna Chávez, a youth leader from southern Los Angeles, open and close her speech in Spanish. They learned the name of her brother, who was killed by a bullet. “Ricardo was his name. Can you all say it with me?” she asked, and hundreds of thousands of people responded, chanting his name as she summoned her voice amid tears.
Those affected by gun violence raised their hands with 16-year-old Zion Kelly, a student at Thurgood Marshall Academy, whose twin brother Zaire was killed on his way home from school in Washington, D.C. Before thousands of witnesses, Kelly proposed the Zaire Kelly Public Safety Zone Amendments Act to expand gun-free zones that would ensure “every student in Washington, D.C. would carry the protection of my brother’s name.”
Although some of the student organizers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School met and began working together in drama club, many members of this inclusive cast of speakers had no theatrical training. They took the stage with a world watching over the Internet and airwaves. In Washington, D.C., they faced a city that has seen its fair share of artistic performances, protests, and political speeches. It is a city that has grown weary and embittered by violent emotion and clashing intellects.
And yet, for six minutes and twenty seconds, the amount of time it took one shooter to kill 17 students in Florida, this city listened in silence. Waves of electricity traveled through the crowd as people watched tears of terror roll down teenagers’ cheeks and listened to the ideas of people who have long felt disenfranchised from their country’s future.
March For Our Lives demonstrated that this city as an audience can still be surprised, inspired, and energized to change. That is thanks to every single member of the movement to end gun violence who came together on March 24 to create something greater than the sum of our parts. This protest as art does more than tap into the screaming anguish of our time. It expands the cast of future changemakers in this country, and invites more audiences to listen.
Today, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have moved on from the march. Join them in the next phase of the movement to create permanent change: Fight For Our Lives.