Student activism in the wake of tragedy


A March 24 "March for our Lives" in Morristown

On February 14th, a gunman opened fire on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. There were sixteen students wounded, and seventeen who were killed. The weapon used in the attack was a legally purchased Smith & Wesson M&P 15 .223, which is an AR-15 style weapon. From this shooting, there has been an unprecedented response from the survivors and community of Parkland, Florida.

Unlike most of the other recent mass shootings, there has been a huge wave of activism in its aftermath. Most school shootings do not get the same press as the Parkland shootings has gained, just because they were not “mass” shootings. We often rate how bad shootings are by the body count, but in reality we need to look at the lives affected. Even though only a few students may have been killed or injured, the survivors’ lives are affected forever, and that should be enough to mobilize people before something tragic like Parkland happened. This activism after Parkland is similar to what happened after the 2016 Election. The election had two highly divisive candidates, with Trump sparking resistance from the younger generation and Clinton being seen as untrustworthy. This divisive election mobilized millennials and turned young people into activists.  

The most visible sign of this organized resistance were the walkouts across the country on March 14th. Cedar Grove and our surrounding towns are certainly not an outlier, as us, Verona, Montclair, and even Passaic Valley High School saw a protest or vigil. All of these were student-led, with permission being given by the administration so they could properly protect the students. Everything was organized by the students, and the administration took a backseat for most of the process.

Verona had one of the most organized demonstrations in the area, and was able to get their message across clearly. They communicated through social media, primarily Instagram, and held meetings at various points throughout the school. The main thing that set Verona apart from other schools was its involvement in the process, selling shirts, pins, and baked goods to raise money for different organizations. Montclair did something similar to Verona and most other schools, holding a huge rally to honor the victims, where their names were read and various people gave speeches. Passaic Valley had something similar to Cedar Grove, with a memorial service being held in the gym at PVHS and the auditorium here at CGHS.

One of the common denominators of most of the students that led this were that they are very new to political activism. “I went to Occupy Wall Street back in 2011, and I’ve seen other protests like the Women’s March and LGBT rights groups succeed,” said Andre Papasavas, the leader of the Passaic Valley High School vigil. His minor experience with politics was not uncommon, and the student leaders from Verona, Chloe Mathewson and Anna Konrad-Parisi, have been politically informed for a long time, and Chloe even volunteered with a candidate running for office. In our own school this was true too, as Hunter Romanko, the main organizer for the vigil, volunteered with the Jim Johnson campaign during the 2017 Gubernatorial primaries. Though they have all had some experience with the country and state’s political systems, many were new to activism, especially in such a public fashion.

The one problem that lies in all of these movements is in what happened after the walkouts ended. We live in an age where being a political “activist” can take only the click of a button to donate, retweet, or share something. By showing up to a walkout, it may seem like enough to change things, but in reality it is not. For these walkouts to be effective, it takes bringing the desire for change felt in the auditorium or outside the school into the “real” world. Verona is a prime example of this, with Chloe Mathewson wanting to initiate a voter registration drive to get students involved in the political system: that is what other schools should be doing. To affect real change, what was started after walkouts and vigils needs to continue, and unfortunately it has not. Students need to look for candidates that share their views, campaign for those that they believe in, and register to vote and actually go to the polls on election day. Until those things happen, nothing will change.