March for Our Lives kids refused to let adults derail change

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If I had been advising the students who organized and led the March for Our Lives protests around Maine, I would have told them to keep the program short.

I’d have said to avoid the sappy songs and the poetry, to keep the message sharp and focused. Don’t be too strident, don’t take it too far, mind your language.

I would have discouraged them from featuring an international student — and non-U.S. citizen — who shamed our country for its purposely porous gun policies

And I would have warned them about getting too angry and about raised fists. Don’t offend the sensibilities of the largely white, mostly older population of Maine

I would have been wrong.

This was about the kids. It was raw, off message at times and real. What happened in Washington, around the country and at 15 locations in Maine is exactly what needed to happen to shift the debate.

At the national March for Our Lives in Washington, the students who controlled the stage followed their own rules and stayed true to themselves. While these kids had help, they showed that they were in charge and that they were willing to take “chances” to be inclusive, to talk about the range of gun violence — and not just mass shootings — and to move beyond protesting to real action.

Emma Gonzalez used a long, awkward silence to make a powerful point. Moments of silence are not unusual at these types of events.

But several minutes can feel like eternity, both for the audience watching — and not necessarily understanding what’s happening — and for the person behind the microphone.

“Since the time that I came out here, it has been six minutes and 20 seconds,” Gonzalez said. “The shooter has ceased shooting, and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape and walk free for an hour before arrest.”

The power of those six minutes — both to take lives and remind people of them — is overwhelming.

Sam Fuentes was another speaker in Washington. Like Gonzales, she survived the Parkland, Florida, shooting despite being shot in both legs.

She was so nervous before she read a poem that she had written that she threw up on stage, and then somehow had the courage and the gumption to continue to talk in front of hundreds of thousands of people.

I attended the March for Our Lives event in Portland. Thousands of people were there and marched from Congress Square to City Hall.

The program included middle, high school and college students from around southern and central Maine.

Calling their generation the mass shooting generation, Hamdia Ahmed, a student at the University of Southern Maine and co-organizer of the Portland event, was passionate and powerful.

“Our leaders have failed us. Now it’s up to us — the mass shooting generation — to create the change we need,” Ahmed said. “We are done politely asking. We are registering to vote, and we are running for office.”

I’m glad these kids didn’t let anyone take the edge off their protests or listen to anyone who would have robbed their words of the harshness and the stumbles in favor of a slickly packaged program, poll-tested and grandmother-approved.

Politics is surely about addition, not subtraction. If we want change, we have to connect and persuade people we might disagree with. But it’s also about passion, honesty and authenticity.

And sometimes it’s about being fearless in the face of opponents who will attack you, demean you, lie about you and dismiss you and not being concerned that someone, somewhere might hear what you have to say and take offense or purposefully misconstrue it.

There’s an honest debate going on right now about whether we have sanitized gun violence, that the images we show in the coverage of horrific events are too clean to convey the carnage of the what actually happens when someone is hit by a high velocity round from an assault weapon. Should we show the terrible destruction?

There’s also been a debate about how we talk about it. Many of us who believe in improving gun safety laws have been afraid to call ridiculous arguments ridiculous, to question the motives of people on the other side or to match gun enthusiasts with the same kind of strident words and passion.

These kids aren’t afraid. This generation — this mass shooting generation — can change the world for the better. We’ll all be better for it.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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