They came from all over Virginia, battling gray weather and buckets of rain, to see the faces of a student-driven movement that shows few signs of stopping.
They came by the hundreds, young people and older ones—at least a third of the attendees were parents, judging by a show of hands—to hear first-person testimonies from the survivors of the mass shooting in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. They came to learn how they might be involved in ending gun violence. In a few cases, they came to protest.
The message they got from the speakers at this traveling town hall, over and over, was this: Vote.
As it matures over the course of its months-long Road to Change tour through the United States this summer, the March for Our Lives movement’s broad goal of ending gun violence is increasingly focused on voting, one of the most essential of all civic responsibilities.
The rally here on Thursday was the 24th since the tour hit the road in June. It took place a stone’s throw from Virginia Tech, the site of the nation’s second deadliest school shooting, in 2007, which left 33 dead.
So, as might be expected, the town hall here featured plenty of discussion about gun restrictions, the new possibility of manufacturing firearms with 3-D printers, and the media’s frequently “heartless” way of depicting gun violence in communities of color. But the focus on voting was threaded throughout.
It came up when the Parkland students and the local activists who’ve joined them here were asked how their movement against gun violence stacks up to earlier youth-powered movements.
“One thing I thought was lost in the movements before 2016 was that they didn’t make voting a big enough priority,” said Geoffrey Preudhomme, an intern for a Virginia U.S. congressional challenger who spoke alongside the Stoneman Douglas students. “We have to vote out those majorities with the new majorities.”
It came up when Parkland survivor Ryan Deitsch, a senior when the attacks took place, was asked about how outside influences can skew the political process.
“Democrats and Republicans both had very different views on gun control,” he said. “That changes because of the influence of money in politics ... and because it’s easier to gerrymander the districts. That happens a lot in Virginia.”
It came up in the “merch” area in the lobby of the downtown theater where the town hall was held, where T-shirts for sale featured a QR code that directs curious smartphones right to the March for Our Lives’ voter registration page.
And it came up when high school students attending the town hall shared their own aspirations, such as when rising Blacksburg High School senior Francesca Shaver said her dream is to be a politician, “so I can represent you guys.”
By way of response, she received a gentle corrective from the activists: First, focus on learning the ins and outs of local elections—maybe by volunteering to canvass in Virginia’s 2019 House of Delegates contest, which could tilt that chamber from Republican to Democratic hands.
“Knock on doors, phone bank. That’s how we’re going to get change, not from the top down,” she was told.
Signing Up Voters
The subtext is clear: Efforts to boost voting can dramatically reshape the political contours of what’s possible on gun policy. Elections can be won on the back of the 18-to-29 age category of voters, which makes up more than one-fifth of the electorate. That is, if they vote: In 2016, only about half of those eligible—slightly less than the rate for the population as a whole—voted.
A recent analysis shows an increase in voter registration among young people, especially in swing states. In Virginia, it was up 10 percent, possibly one reason why the volunteers staffing the voter registration table at the town hall here found just one nonregistered person attending the Blacksburg town hall. Everyone else had already signed up.
Organizers expected a couple hundred people at the town hall in Blacksburg. They got more than 500, pushing the Lyric Theatre far past capacity.
Perhaps that’s partly because it’s impossible to stroll through this college town without meeting someone whose life was affected by the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.
Nineteen-year-old Katarina Yuan’s mom was just a block away from the shooter that day, something that immediately changed her own perspective on guns. But it wasn’t until Katarina was comparing notes with classmates during her first year at Smith College in Massachusetts that she saw how the shooting had also shaped her view of what was normal: “What do you mean your schools don’t do lockdown drills?” she recalled saying.
Yuan and two high school friends, Sarah Parker and Thomas Brunsma, are sharing a mini-reunion here over the summer break; All three attended the town hall and said they see activism in their own futures. Parker, who initially had hopes to be an English major at the University of Mary Washington, now thinks she may turn to government; she wants to be an activist or an organizer.
March For Our Lives’ focus on the importance of local action also explains why the lineup of activists at each stop on the tour differs. Partly, it’s a matter of participants’ schedules, since a Florida-based road tour is occurring simultaneously. But primarily it’s because each stop is coordinated with local groups that know the political contours of each community better.
In effect, as the group works to educate communities on the importance of voting, it is also bringing a new coterie of activists into the spotlight, some of whom will continue to represent the movement in other cities.
The Road to Change tour has attracted counter-protesters as well as fans—most notably the owners of a Utah online gun-sales portal who are following the group from city to city in a faux armored car, recording the meetings on iPhones, and encouraging counter-protesters to “open carry” their weapons, according to news reports.
Bryan Melchior, the co-owner of the store, defended his group’s tactics as reasonable to protect the U.S Constitution’s Second Amendment.
Guns aside, what did Melchior make of the group’s message on voting?
“I do like that,” he said.
Student ‘Getting Woke’
If voting is widely seen as key, both the youths and some adults at the town hall had more mixed views about their school-based preparation for civic participation.
“These kids are not apathetic—they are getting woke—but sometimes, kids don’t know what to do,” said one Blacksburg high school teacher who had brought a handful of her students with her.
Shaver, the local high school senior-to-be, recalled her 8th grade civics class as focused on “just how it works,” not on the messy details of representing multiple, often conflicting constituencies.
Brunsma, one of the college students, had a better experience in civics. Sometimes, he said, he wishes that the respectful tenor of those discussions carried over into political dialogue.
“I remember it being the first time I was encouraged to talk to my peers about my opinion and how and why it might be different from theirs,” he said. “I’m not sure I’ve really had a chance since then; it’s difficult without having people just yelling at each other.”
Sometimes the best lessons aren’t learned in the classroom. Activist Matt Post, an organizer and speaker at the Aug. 2 meeting, served as the student member of the school board in Montgomery County, Md., and was elected by the districts’ secondary students.
The school board election has a turnout that would make most municipal election officers seethe with envy, and Post said he thinks his district’s decision to give young people a chance to participate in a consequential election long before they turn 18 is partly why Montgomery County students’ turnout during the school walkouts in February was so high.
Teachers were also among the new generation of activists featured on stage at the town hall. One was Ryan Wesdock, a 22-year-old who is completing his education and history teaching program at Virginia Tech, and who helped organize the meeting here.
What would he do to improve civics?
“My goal would not be to do what my teacher did with textbook knowledge. It would be to teach them how lobbying works, to understand money in politics, and to teach them how to advocate, maybe with a yearlong project,” Wesdock said. “I don’t want them just to go out and vote every four years; I want them to feel like their values fit somewhere in the system, and are reflected in their legislators, and in the legislation that gets passed.”
The Road to Change tour continues through Aug. 12, including a march in front of the National Rifle Association’s Fairfax County, Va., headquarters this weekend.
“I know a lot of people thought the movement was going to die a long time ago,” said Ramon Contreras, a New York-based youth advocate. “But we’re still here. We’re still traveling.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2018 edition of Education Week as Parkland Students’ Road Tour Closes With Calls to Vote