It’s an image that endures. It’s not old enough for us to call it historical yet. It only goes back about 30 years. But the frames of video taken by an amateur videographer show a man in a white shirt, dark pants, facing a column of military tanks. It was June 4, 1989. It was the final day of the student-organized, non-violence demonstration at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, just before China’s People’s Liberation Army gunned down hundreds of civilians for protesting government corruption and lack of free speech.
“Tank Man,” they called him. But the Sunday Express newspaper in Britain later claimed the man was Wang Weilin, a 19-year-old student, who’d joined the weeks-long protest, despite the threat of annihilation.
Whoever he was, to me, the man represented two things: the strength of an individual’s stance in the face of adversity, and as important, the clarity of youth speaking truth to power. The image of Tank Man came to mind over the weekend as I watched and listened to David Hogg, a senior student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where on Feb. 14, a fellow student allegedly used an AR-15 military rifle to kill 17 schoolmates. A CNN journalist asked Hogg, 17, if he had a message.
“My message to lawmakers is please take action,” Hogg said. Then, with President Trump’s innocuous response to the killings in mind, he added. “You can say you have thoughts and prayers. … Please. This is the 18th [school shooting) this year. That’s unacceptable. We’re children. You’re the adults. Get over your politics and get something done.”
If a young person speaking truth to power wasn’t strong enough, then the events that followed spoke even louder. Over the weekend, Whitney Bowen, from Northern Virginia used Facebook – at long last, a constructive application of social media – to organize a youth lie-in in Washington, D.C. Bowen, aged 16, and her Facebook friends lay down in front of the White House for three minutes, signifying the time it took the shooter to kill 17 innocent people.
“It’s the kids who are sitting scared in classrooms,” she told a reporter. “We want change. We want something to be done.”
Some of us will simply dismiss these young protesters as naïve. A lot of us will question their maturity and life experience. And there will be those too, with licenced guns in this country, who believe it’s an American aberration, or who in their dismissal of the protests blithely support the notion that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrines Americans’ rights to bear arms. And you know what? They’d wrong.
A little research shows that the Second Amendment was ratified in 1788 to preserve what were known as “slave patrols.” Even before the American Revolution, colonial laws, for example in Georgia, required all plantation owners (and their male white employees) to be members of the Georgia Militia and for those militia members to inspect the quarters of all slaves, “to keep a keen eye out for slaves who may be planning uprisings.”
Well, the last time I looked, slavery was illegal (the 13th Amendment of 1865) in the U.S. The last time I looked, the Federal states put an end to the Confederate rebellion to preserve such institutions. Whom is society protecting by questioning a constitution that upholds the preservation of humankind’s inhumanity? And might we try to move this discussion into the 21st century?
A number of ironic coincidences have emerged in the wake of these young Americans demanding closer screening of gun sales, limited access to assault weapons, and resistance to the National Rifle Association. The NRA regularly stages national meetings to drum up support (a.k.a. sales) for its lobby. For perhaps the first time I can recall, a high-profile U.S. civic leader has stood up against the gun lobby this week. Mayor Dwaine Caraway has called for the NRA to reconsider holding its May meeting in his city.
“It’s time to put some heat on the NRA,” Caraway said.
He is the mayor of Dallas, home to at least two horrific shootings in its streets – the ambush of city police in July 2016, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Even when his vice-president Lyndon Johnson assumed power and brought the Gun Control Act (to restrict mail-order sales that put the rifle into the hands of JFK’s assassin) to Congress in 1968, the gun lobby prevailed.
In Canada, the Harper government abolished the long-gun registry in 2012 and nobody appears to have the spine here to try to prevent future episodes such as École Polytechnique or the RCMP shootings in New Brunswick and Alberta. If the so-called adults making such decisions prevail, we’re in for more tragedies, more political foot-dragging and more innocent deaths.
“Ideas are great and they help you get re-elected,” student Hogg said to lawmakers. “But what’s more important is pertinent action that results in saving children’s lives.
We ignore the voices of young people standing up for their own safety at our peril.