Last weekend’s march was not the first evidence of super-upstarts, aggrieved youths totally on top of their game in a way that few grown-ups in political life are these days. Two months ago, more than 100 sports-prodigies-turned-public-survivors made national headlines as they delivered their stunning version of the same call—protect us, and listen to us. At the sentencing hearing of Dr. Larry Nassar, convicted of serially abusing athletes under his care, his victims powerfully yoked personal trauma to a systemic indictment. “Adult after adult, many in positions of authority, protected you,” said the former captain of the phenomenal U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, Aly Raisman, staring straight at Nassar. “How do you sleep at night?... You are the person [the USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee] had ‘take the lead on athlete care.’… I cringe to think your influence remains in the policies that are supposed to keep athletes safe.”
The reverse side of the “Sorry for the inconvenience” sign at the march aptly summed up the unexpected generational dynamic on public display: “When our children act like leaders and our leaders act like children you know change is coming.” Today’s young protesters—the Dreamers have been at this for a while—aren’t extremist misfits, or out-of-control tweeters, or squabbling grandstanders. Their trademark is breaking the mold by being the ultimate model children. They win gold medals at the Olympics, write 50-page term papers on the U.S. gun-control debate, excel at the piano (as the girl who first inspired Senator Dick Durbin’s DACA mission did). They strive not just to fit in but to soar in America.
As disciplined achievers, they aren’t just a stark contrast to their shaggy 1960s forebears—viewed by their elders as “vagabond dropouts in a vaguely academic orbit,” Renata Adler wrote in a New Yorker piece about student organizers back in 1965. More relevant, they subvert stereotypes of Millennials and Gen Z kids as needy snowflakes. Young people, the refrain goes, have been hovered over at home and cosseted by “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” at school. Immersion in social media has corroded their attention spans, mental health, interpersonal relations, and agency in the real world.
Yet the recent upsurge of youthful activism doesn’t look much like a symptom of arrested development or fragility. The triggers that these kids are worried about are physical, not just psychological (guns are a leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds). No critic could construe their demand for safe spaces as a request for fainting couches; they’re talking about classrooms and doctors’ examining tables. Being traumatized hasn’t inspired this cohort to retreat. The Parkland kids were ready for more than quiet, private mourning, and student leaders wasted no time in getting busy. Savvy about social media, they have been insistent about the need for real—not just virtual—contact and action. Rallying their peers hasn’t been hard.