Student protests reflect growing trend of Americans embracing activism

NEW YORK — Saturday’s March for Our Lives in hundreds of cities across the country was the most recent sign that an extraordinary number of Americans are taking to heart the adage that democracy should not be a spectator sport.

In numbers not seen since the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s, multitudes are venturing off the political sidelines in a remarkable surge of political and social activism.

They include high school students angered by gun violence, racial minorities opposing police tactics, immigrants fighting deportation, and women with a range of grievances — notably pervasive sexual harassment and the longtime dominance of men in political power.


The array of massive women’s marches in January 2017, primarily a backlash to Donald Trump’s election as president, served as prelude to the #MeToo movement, which caught fire in October and continues to this day. Women are calling out men who have sexually mistreated them in workplaces ranging from Hollywood to state legislatures to symphony orchestras.

The Feb. 14 massacre at a high school in Parkland, Fla., reignited the simmering national campaign to curtail gun violence. Tens of thousands of students across the United States walked out of their classrooms on March 14 to demand action by politicians, a prelude to this weekend’s March for Our Lives.

Activists are now trying to channel the energy of the youth-led antiviolence initiative into this fall’s midterm elections, and some of the leaders of the activist movements have been moving beyond political advocacy and organizing consumer boycotts and investment strategies to change corporate behavior.

As the gun-control campaign was spreading nationally, public school teachers in West Virginia provided a dramatic example of how organized activism can prevail. After a nine-day walkout, they won a 5 percent pay raise even though they lacked collective bargaining rights and had no legal right to strike.


Racial tensions also have fueled activism, including the Black Lives Matter campaign protesting the deaths of black men at the hands of police, and the take-a-knee protests by some National Football League players.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, sees a common denominator in the overlapping movements.

‘‘People see that when they come together, they have power that they don’t have when they’re alone,’’ she said. ‘‘In these movements being created now, there’s a sense that with collective action, you can make possible what would have seemed impossible.’’

Another common denominator: The use of social media to publicize and organize a movement with a speed and scope beyond the wildest dreams of activists in the 1960s.

It took only a few days for global use of the #MeToo hashtag to pass the 1 million mark. Parkland student Emma Gonzalez quickly amassed more than 1.2 million Twitter followers after the shooting. And the West Virginia teachers plotted their walkout strategy over a private Facebook page that grew from an initial 100 members to more than 24,000.

The new embrace of activism has spread into pop culture as well. When Frances McDormand accepted her Best Actress award at the Oscars, she urged all the women to stand in unison in support of equal pay.

The protests have echoes of what happened the last time a new president was elected. In 2010, conservatives staged boisterous rallies around the country in response to President Obama’s health care law. The Tea Party movement helped Republicans complete a takeover of Congress in the midterm elections that year.


Among those getting deeply engaged are a record number of women seeking high-level political office. Nearly 500 women — roughly three-quarters of them Democrats — plan to run for Congress this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That’s up from 334 women who filed to run for the House or Senate in 2012, the previous record high. Women currently hold 106 of the 535 seats in Congress.

The national gun-control movement seems certain to remain energized for the foreseeable future by the infusion of student-led activism, even if Congress and many state legislatures balk at meeting the activists’ demands.

Shannon Watts, who founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America after the 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Conn., says her nationwide organization has added 135,000 volunteers since the Parkland shooting who have been helping press elected officials to curb gun violence.

‘‘We’ve never seen this kind of outpouring of interest, and people getting off the sidelines,’’ Watts said.