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The Children’s Crusade (Against Early Death by School-Shootings)

Watching local Boston TV. Gosh, students from Somerville High School are much present in the anti-gun violence demo. (My daughter went there and organized at least one demo as a 17-year-old, against hate-crimes. There are some very politically sophisticated kids at that school. I feel so strangely proud.)

Everyone except the NRA and Donald Jr. thinks these demonstrations are a beautiful sight. These high school students, so many of them (have you noticed?) extraordinarily articulate, marching to demand changes in gun laws and mental health care so that they don’t have to fear for their lives in math class.

It’s natural to refer to this movement poetically as a Children’s Crusade (although that episode in the thirteen century did not end well). I think of random Bible verses. “And a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6) and Jesus’s comment that you have to become like a child to enter heaven (Matthew 18:3). There’s lots of poetry in this moment.

I’ve been a college professor for over thirty years. I have been surrounded weekly by 18 to 22-year-olds. I see how they change. Used to be that half the guys in my classes had earrings. This is rare now. Used to be one or two nerds would bring a laptop to class. Now they all have them. Used to be they were much less tense about their futures and more prone to take courses for intellectual pleasure than job market concerns. I am more than the average 62-year-old man aware of the conditions faced by modern youth, even if my students comprise a highly privileged sampling. And I fear for their futures, for many reasons.

To see so many high school students who could be my students soon throwing their hearts into this movement moves me. Like Occupy Wall Street did. Like the Sanders campaign did. Like Black Lives Matter does. Like #MeToo does. The excruciating element is this: these kids are not demanding some concept of economic justice, or engaging in “identity politics” other than the identity politics of wanting to survive puberty and become adults eventually. This would seem to be the very minimal human demand from a decent society.

Children are saying, very eloquently and indignantly: it should not be legal for psychos to buy assault guns to kill us. But legislators cling to the Second Amendment, the Constitution, rights, freedom. (You know how free high schools feel today?)

One of my favorite journalistic pieces by Marx involves a Hyde Park demonstration in 1855 in which about 200,000 of London’s proletariat turned out to protest new laws about pub hours. This issue involved the power of the Anglican church over public morals, and wasn’t directly connected to the struggle between worker and employer. But Marx suggested that even something so seemingly marginal could be the spark to provoke a revolution. You never know. There is no linear inevitable pattern. High school students’ outrage could spark Mao’s proverbial prairie fire. Oh god may it be so.

Full of blood and energy, these teens rage against the stupidity of the gun culture that’s been at the center of U.S. life since the first Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth with their muskets and shot their first Wampanoags, praising God. The movement’s  identity is life itself, the right to grow up. It’s beautiful in that.

When I was in college, a member of a New Left communist group, we opposed gun control on the grounds that the people will need to be armed to confront the state, eventually. At that time the idea that a youth-driven movement towards some form of gun control was inconceivable. The insanity of gun culture already clear in the early ’70 has much deepened since, and now the freedom not to be shot is coming to supersede the freedom to shoot.

So fitting that high school students are fired up on this cause and that many seem to understand the corporate causes of mass shootings. May their raging hormones drive ongoing activism in all causes for peace and justice.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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