clock menu more-arrow no yes

“Teenagers don’t really take no for an answer”: young activists see a turning point on guns

High school students helping to organize the national walkout on March 14 believe America is finally ready for change.

Students participate in a protest against gun violence February 21, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC
Students participate in a protest against gun violence February 21, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

When Cate Whitman saw the news of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, she immediately called the youth initiative coordinator of the Women’s March to see how she could get involved in the response.

Now Whitman, a 17-year-old high school junior in New York City, is one of thousands of students around the country who plan to participate in a walkout on March 14, the one-month anniversary of the shooting. The walkout, organized by Women’s March Youth EMPOWER, the youth affiliate of Women’s March, is one of several demonstrations planned by a variety of groups to call for action on gun control — another is the March For Our Lives on March 24.

To get a sense of what the walkout will look like, and what it’s like to be a teenager organizing against gun violence today, I spoke to Whitman and Winter Minisee, a 17-year-old high school senior from Riverside, California, who got involved with the Women’s March after meeting the co-chairs at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference last year.

Both are helping organize the March 14 demonstrations at their schools and around the country, and both talked to me about why this could be a turning point for gun violence in America, why it’s important to talk about shootings that don’t happen at schools, and why critics of teenage activists need to pick up a history book.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and style.

Anna North

Tell me about the March 14 walkout. What can we expect?

Winter Minisee

We are doing a walkout through schools throughout the nation. Actually, some are international — we do have some in Canada already planned. Because it’s youth-led we’re able to really galvanize other people our age to make sure that their voice is being heard, and so far we have more than 100,000 RSVPs for the action on Facebook.

Cate Whitman

It’s going to last for 17 minutes to commemorate the 17 lives lost on February 14, and we are asking people to wear orange in solidarity. We want each school to spend those 17 minutes doing whatever they feel comfortable with and whatever they think is going help them heal most and whatever they think is going to make the most impact.

You can preregister or register to vote online now in a few simple steps, so during those 17 minutes, some schools are taking a few minutes out to do that for their students who are of voting age. I know some schools are doing lie-ins, some schools are doing chants, some schools are doing songs.

It’s great because you get to see how each student in each school wants to spend those 17 minutes remembering those lost and showing that our voices will be heard, even though we are students.

Anna North

Why orange?

Winter Minisee

Orange is the national color for awareness for gun violence.

Anna North

What was it like for you as a high school student when you saw the news of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida?

Cate Whitman

Before giving myself a chance to really dwell on it, I immediately called Tabitha [St. Bernard-Jacobs, youth initiative coordinator for the Women’s March] and asked how I could be involved. Just really putting our grief into action — that’s how we’ve been responding to it.

I’ve been trying to keep reminding myself why I’m involved rather than just going through the motions of the logistics, keeping focused on why we’re doing this and lives that have been lost, and watching videos and keeping track of the Parkland students to see how they’ve been doing since.

It’s really heartbreaking. It could’ve been any of us.

Anna North

What has it been like to watch the Florida students who have been advocates around this issue?

Cate Whitman

I’m so glad that they’re getting a platform and being able to have their voices heard on such a large scale. It’s pretty heartbreaking to see people who are maybe nonbelievers of the shooting or people who are internet trolls attacking them online. But I also think that those students are so strong and have responded so gracefully to all of the comments.

Winter Minisee

It’s very empowering just to see people our age taking an active role in changing history.

The support they have been getting has been amazing and they deserve every bit of it. A lot of people have been raising the question, where’s the support when it comes to other victims of gun violence? Where’s that support for example maybe with the Black Lives Matter movement, for other people who are working to end gun violence in other places?

Although yes, this is very important that they are getting that attention, we also have to make sure that we’re amplifying and bringing awareness to the other forms of gun violence. Gun violence in Chicago — it’s not unheard of, it’s not an anomaly for a kid to be shot.

And so its very important that while we uplift school shootings and mass shootings, we’re also lifting up the work that has been happening for years and years. A good place to start would be Erica Ford.

Erica Ford is the founder of LIFE Camp, which is a grassroots organization based in New York that focuses on gun violence and intervention programs. They’re very adamant about making sure that gun violence is addressed as a public health issue.

Anna North

What’s your response to conservative critics of teenage gun-control activists, like Bill O’Reilly, who recently asked, “Should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases?”

Winter Minisee

It’s crazy! Literally some of the greatest movements in America have been run by youth. In historical context, it doesn’t make sense when people say youth can’t lead. Honestly, they can just read a book or read an article. It’s not even educated.

Cate Whitman

Also, when Bill O’Reilly’s talking about, “They’re not in an emotional state to be making decisions for our country” — when has anybody ever wanted to pass a law or write a law or change anything in our country without it being somewhat emotionally driven?

People aren’t changing laws because they just kind of feel like it. They’re changing laws because they feel impassioned, and that’s what’s happening right now. Seventeen or 65, that’s how things get changed.

Whether these people like it or not, they can harp on our age, they can harp on where we are, they can harp on how we’re doing it, but it’s happening, and we’re in charge of it.

Winter Minisee

They just need to follow the youth.

Anna North

Talk to me about the Women’s March’s involvement in this issue. How does it fit into the larger Women’s March platform, and how is gun violence a women’s issue?

Winter Minisee

The Women’s March is very intentional about our messaging and making sure that we have a very intersectional lens when we look at different problems. We do have the Power to the Polls campaign, which is going be a national tour — we hit states and register 1 million new voters.

In terms of the walkout, we are definitely encouraging students to register to vote, because a lot of the problem is the people who are in office. They aren’t listening. We don’t have time to wait and keep talking to them. At this point, we’re going to take their jobs, and we’re going put someone else in place who has the intention to listen to us and to get done the work that needs to get done.

Cate Whitman

There are certain parts of gun violence that have been primarily female victims and a lot of victims who have been part of marginalized groups in general. It’s a human issue, which means it’s a female issue.

Gun violence is intersectional, so we have to take that same approach.

Anna North

Past school shootings haven’t led to major policy change but a lot of people are asking whether this time is different. What do you think?

Winter Minisee

People are tired — we’ve had enough. And so because of that, I think something good is going to come out of it.

Cate Whitman

I think the approach is a bit more organized this time. We’re not focused on just one action, we’re focused on sustained and combined action. It’s completely, completely inspiring seeing people our age, people younger, people older, all coming together. Teenagers don’t really take no for an answer.

Winter Minisee

And most of us are going to be of age to vote.

Anna North

Do you think the fact that teenage survivors are speaking out in this moment is having an effect on public opinion?

Winter Minisee

Because the survivors are speaking out it makes it hard to make it necessarily a partisan thing. It’s a lot harder to look them in the face and tell them no or not listen to them.

Anna North

Anything else you want to say about the walkout or the issue of gun violence more generally?

Winter Minisee

The intersectional lens is so, so important when we’re talking about gun violence. I think it’s important to note that America was literally founded on gun violence. It was founded on the genocide of Natives; it was founded on the backs of slaves.

We can’t just address the guns, we really have to address the culture around guns and gun violence in general in America, and to do that we have to be very introspective.

Cate Whitman

Our age is not the focus of this issue. The focus of this issue is what’s going to be done and what we’re going to make happen. So if people wanna talk about our age, if people want to put us down for that, if people don’t actually want to engage in real conversation and argument, they have no place at the table.

Winter Minisee

They just need to listen to us at this point. We’ve been telling them!

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.