As the walkouts begin, Churchill HS student activists organize underground

As the walkouts begin, Churchill HS student activists organize underground

The day before spring break, San Antonio area students began their campus-by-campus displays of solidarity with students around the country as they left class to peacefully protest gun violence in the wake of the Parkland, Fla. shooting that left 17 dead. Brandeis High School in Northside ISD made the local news, and Longfellow Middle School in San Antonio ISD tweeted out photos from its protest.

So far, none of the reports have included the punitive measures signaled by district administration, nor have the protestors left campus.

In the heart of North East ISD, which issued a definitive statement prohibiting student protests, students at Winston Churchill High School are watching their peers and waiting for April 20, when they have planned to join over 1,600 other schools in protest on the anniversary of the 1999 school shooting that left 15 dead. (Most national walkouts will occur on March 14, which falls over Bexar County schools’ spring break.)

“I’m really proud (of Brandeis), even though it was only a few, they didn’t care,” a Churchill student organizer said, “but I was really upset (that) the teachers were trying to stop them…and (that the school tried to stop) the media.”

It made the organizer mad, they said, because this is such a perfect opportunity for schools to stand behind their students and be proud of their engagement.

The student wished to remain nameless because, “I want people to stay focused on the cause, and I feel if people knew my name is would almost be like a distraction…(also,) kids can be mean, and would focus their anger (about) change towards me.”

The Hall Monitor is going to honor their request for anonymity. I have confirmed the identity and student status of the organizer.

Some of the Instagram comments appear to be from gun supporters in the community, but others appear to be Churchill students. Most call the walkouts “dumb” and say that they “won’t accomplish shit” (or rather, shittt, to be accurate). Others argue against gun control as a whole.

“Churchill leans more conservative,” the student organizer said, making education essential to the mission of the protest. Pro-gun sentiment is strong on campus, and led to misunderstanding about the goal of the protests. The tagline on the group’s Instagram page is “Don’t ban, regulate.”

While some involved in the protests might be in favor of much stricter gun laws, the goal was to find common ground, the organizer said. They hope more people will participate if they didn’t feel like the cause was unrealistic or overly radical.

Universal background checks are widely popular, even among gun owners. A poll taken after the Parkland shooting shows as many as 97 percent of people who live in a home with guns support universal background checks. Many have attributed Congressional reticence to the lobbying of the NRA. Politifact reported that, all told, the NRA has spent a total of $203.2 million on political activities since 1998. 

The protestors do not have that kind of money. They say they are hoping for the kind of grassroots uprising that many of their parents and grandparents may have abandoned.

The NRA has its own influence in the grasslands, though. The organizer assumed that most students were part of that 97 percent who support background checks. It was not until they set up the Instagram account that it became clear how divided the campus really was. Many Instagram commenters recited the rhetoric promoted by the NRA and other pro-gun activists through conservative news networks. Students hear it at home and bring it to school, the organizer said. It has become the organizer’s habit to ask for the data behind the claims.

“You can say (pro-gun rhetoric) around the dinner table, but now you need to back it up with facts,” the organizer said. The same is true for gun control advocates, and the organizer seems well-prepared.

To be fair, many conservatives have accused the student activists in Parkland of being puppets of gun control activists. Those students have taken to social media to refute this.

 

The Churchill organizer professes to have always been pro-gun control, but mostly just in theory. The Columbine shooting took place before most of today’s high school students were born. They have grown up in a world with semi-regular school shootings swirling in the news around them.

“We’ve normalized something so horrifying and disgusting,” the organizer said. 

The organizer compares the situation to a dystopian novel (the kind so very popular with young adults…and the rest of us) wherein the main character has to be awakened from a sort of complacency.

Parkland changed that, the organizer said. When ABC’s David Muir interviewed survivors, letting them tell the story of the shooting in their own words, something “clicked.”

“For the first time I wasn’t just seeing the news far away,” the organizer said. When those same students began speaking out and organizing, it was the peer effect, the idea that the teenagers themselves could act, that made the difference, the organizer said, “I saw the opportunity to get off my ass and actually do shit.”

For now, that means organizing, but in November’s midterms and again in 2020, the organizer said, “doing shit” means voting. (Chances are MOVE San Antonio will encourage the students to vote in a few lower profile elections in-between as well.)

Of course, doing shit often has consequences. It’s not totally clear what will happen if NEISD students go forward with the protests as planned. The organizer met with Churchill principal Justin Oxley, and reported that he offered a compromise. If students stayed on campus for a peaceful demonstration, like a moment of silence, the administration may be willing to work with them. If they go off campus as planned, they would receive unexcused absences, zero grades for missed work, and possible in school suspension.

Oxley did not return my email or phone call.

Compromise, the organizer said, takes the air out of the protest. “We could still put ourselves in this change, but it wouldn’t be as bold,” they said. 

Student organizing group MOVE San Antonio has helped several campus activists as they prepare for the March 24 “March for our Lives“, which will begin at noon at 100 Military Plaza. Organizer Sean Rivera said that the organization has had very limited involvement with student walkouts, because the group is not allowed on campus.

Facing uncertain consequences has had a galvanizing effect for some and a chilling effect for others, the organizer said. In the end, it’s giving students a taste of real world activism, with all its murky waters and tough choices.

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