The Powerful Silence of the March for Our Lives

Three of the young women who spoke on Saturday made silence awkward. And shameful. And, in all that, striking.

Emma González, a student and shooting survivor from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, addressing the conclusion of the "March for Our Lives” event in Washington, D.C.
Emma González, a student and shooting survivor from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, addressing the conclusion of the "March for Our Lives” event in Washington, D.C. (Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters)

Political marches are typically meant to make noise: voices raised, anger articulated, struggles for justice made loud and unavoidable. The March for Our Lives, held on Saturday in Washington, D.C., and in satellite events across the United States, followed, in that sense, activist tradition: It included speeches, rousing and passionate. Its participants carried signs, their messages clever and biting. Yolanda Renee King, the 9-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, made a surprise appearance on the march’s main stage: a symbolic passing of the torch of political activism to the next generation of American leaders. “Spread the word,” King said, inviting the crowd to speak along with her, “have you heard? / All across the nation / we / are going to be / a great generation.”

People have heard that—at least, they are starting to hear it. And they are hearing it in part because the rising generation in question—Generation Z, a cohort of Americans who came of age in the era of cable news and social media and an omnipresent internet—is extremely savvy about the workings of the American media. The March for Our Lives was, in the best ways, a testament to that. It offered, in its official programming, a series of set pieces: moments serving not only as political activism, but also as tailor-made sound bites for CNN, as snippets of video perfect for sharing online. Moments that, through the alchemy of the internet, become transformed into sharable speech. Moments that, in a sentiment repeated by many of the marchers on Saturday, help to make a movement.

What the March for Our Lives presented at the same time, however, was … the opposite of all that. The event served up, as part of its speech, silence—simple silence. Striking silence. Solemn silence. Participants in the march took the convened attention of an international audience and used it not only to advocate for gun control, but also to advocate, more broadly, for people who had been deprived of speech. And to offer a solemn reminder that, for some things—even in this most classic of First Amendment contexts—words will never, can never, be enough.

During her time on the March for Our Lives stage, Emma González, 18, who has been one of the most prominent of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivor-activists, allotted herself six minutes and 20 seconds for her speech: the amount of time, she noted, that it had taken for Nikolas Cruz to slaughter 17 of her schoolmates and injure many more. “No one could comprehend the devastating aftermath or how far this would reach or where this would go,” González said. “For those who still can’t comprehend because they refuse to, I’ll tell you where it went: right into the ground, six feet deep.”

González then listed her slain classmates by name: a tragic poem, read to and for America, each line representing a life cut short. “Six minutes and 20 seconds with an AR-15,” González said, “and my friend Carmen would never complain to me again about piano practice.” There were many more no-mores: “Gina Montalto would never wave to her friend Liam at lunch,” González said. “Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan. Alaina Petty would never. Cara Loughran would never. Chris Hixon would never. Luke Hoyer would never. Martin Duque Anguiano would never. Peter Wang would never. Alyssa Alhadeff would never. Jamie Guttenberg would never. Meadow Pollack would never.”

And then: González stopped talking. For a moment, and then another one. And another. She breathed. She cried. She stared at the crowd—and at the cable-news camera, transmitting it all to the world—her face marked with both sadness and defiance. She was giving them dead air, in every sense. She knew it. She knew, too, that the cameras would not turn away. González kept the silence—continuous, insistent—until six minutes and 20 seconds were up.

Silence, politicized. Silence, made meaningful. It was an approach that was evoked, as well, in another of the most striking moments of the March for Our Lives: the speech given by Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old fifth-grader from Alexandria, Virginia, who had led a walk-out at her elementary school on March 14. Wadler, too, was on that stage to give voice to those who had been silenced. “I represent the African American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential,” Wadler said. “For far too long … these black girls and women have been just numbers. I am here to say, ‘Never again’”—a reference to the march’s #neveragain hashtag—“for those girls, too. I’m here to say that everyone should value those girls, too.”

The crowd, at this, went wild. Wadler’s words were, like King’s appearance on the March for Our Lives stage, and like González’s moments of meaningful muteness, a declaration of a quiet revolution. (“My friends and I might still be 11, and we might still be in elementary school,” Wadler said; but “we also know that we stand in the shadow of the Capitol, and we know that we have seven short years until we too have the right to vote.”) Saturday’s march presented itself not only as a mass demand for gun control, but also as an activist event for the young, by the young. Adults, by design, followed the young people in the march’s path down Pennsylvania Avenue. “Today, adults have literally been pushed to the side,” CNN’s Alex Marquardt noted of the symbolism.

The march was also a recognition of all those who weren’t there: the people who have been slain by gun violence. The people who have been ignored—silenced, literally and figuratively. The March for Our Lives featured, as such events often will, high-profile performers: Jennifer Hudson, Andra Day, Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus. They made music. They made a scene. They celebrated the political power of noise itself. But it was the silences that were the most striking: silences that were strategic and symbolic. The young—the very young—women who spoke on Saturday made the silence awkward. They made it shameful. They made it powerful. They made it, above all, speech.