Making his way through the aftermath of the March for Our Lives that took place in the US state of Washington DC, overnight celebrity David Hogg effortlessly worked the swarm of reporters and camera crews following him, shaking a hand here, answering a question there, smoothing his jacket for a CNN interview.
He was like a powerful, polished politician.
Except he’s 17 and still in high school in a small town in Florida. And he was with his mum, his dad, and his 14-year-old sister.
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“I’ve had to remind him to eat and hydrate,” said his mum, Rebecca Boldrick. “He doesn’t sleep.”
He and his friends – so called “the new leaders of the free world” by Good Morning Britain producer Rav Vadgama – who travelled from London to cover this unlikeliest of American movements that took place on March 24.
Even Pope Francis seemed to be referencing the group on the day after the march in his Palm Sunday address in Vatican City: “Dear young people, you have it in you to shout. It is up to you not to keep quiet. Even if others keep quiet, if we older people and leaders, some corrupt, keep quiet, if the whole world keeps quiet and loses its joy, I ask you: Will you cry out?”
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Hogg and his fellow student activists from Parkland, Florida, have managed to capture America’s attention in the five weeks since February 14, with the raw passion, energy and optimism of youth – a well-spoken, outspoken youth that was in the wrong location, but right place in history when a 19-year-old shooter with a legally purchased gun walked into their school and killed 17 of their friends and teachers on Valentine’s Day.
Students of debate, journalism, and drama, residents of an affluent life and community, they are children of voice and privilege who have grown up with the freedom to call it as they see it. Using their social-media skills to get out a platform, in just a little more than a month, they put into motion a national school walk-out to protest the American Congress’ inaction on gun control; sparked a massive march in the nation’s capital, and 800 like it around the world, including in Hong Kong.
Maybe most stunningly, they have started to penetrate America’s power system, shaming politicians who take campaign contributions from the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) gun lobby.
“If you listen real close, you can hear the people in power shaking,” Hogg roared to the crowd of 800,000 last Saturday, which roared back with the chant that became the mantra of the march: “Vote them out! Vote them out!”
“You’d better take that [NRA] cheque and put it in your retirement fund because we are going to vote you out,” said high-schooler Jackson Mittleman, who was a young student at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the US state of Connecticut during that school’s 2012 mass shooting.
Not afraid to speak their minds
They are brash. They are refreshing. They are what provoked Sue Topham to get on a snowmobile with her husband and her 13-year-old son at her home 1,200km from Washington. That took her to a ferry, which took her to her car, in which she drove her family to DC for the rally.
“I wanted my son to see what something like this is like,” she said. “I wanted him to see that kids can have the power to make a difference, and these kids from Parkland started that.”
Before it was over, some 20 young people – and only young people – would speak, with kids as young as nine-year-old Yolanda Renee King, granddaughter of Martin Luther King, and ending with Parkland’s icon, senior Emma Gonzalez. Gonzalez spoke a few words, then dropped into a chilling silence that lasted the six minutes and 20 seconds it took for Nicholas Cruz to stop shooting her friends. The crowd didn’t know whether to clap or chant at first and then, realising what she was doing, they all went silent, too.
Emma’s classmate Sam Fuentes giggled nervously as she started to speak, then leaned down behind the podium as two people moved to help her. After a few seconds, she stood back up to finish her speech.
“I just threw up on international television, and it feels great,” Fuentes said, laughing again into the microphone, before asking the crowd to join her in singing Happy Birthday” to Parkland victim Nicholas Dworet who would have turned 18 on the day of the march.
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Representing Parkland, Sandy Hook, and also less-publicised gun killings in inner-city Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, young activists stepped up to a microphone in front of almost a million people, demanding better gun laws and better support for impoverished communities. They called on Americans to vote out politicians in the 2018 midterm elections who don’t vote for better gun control, and to organise meetings on gun control with their local government representatives.
In a rare bridging of the great divide in a country famously split on politics, they also called for politicians to stop reducing the issue of gun control to a fight between Democrats and Republicans.
“This is not a red, white and blue issue,” said an emotional Parkland student Sarah Chadwick. “This is a morals issue.”
As we saw during Hong Kong’s Occupy Central, it is the young people of America who are not afraid to speak out when adults can’t seem to. These students are in a particular position of strength, their grief out in front of them like a shield. No politician, at the risk of appearing callous, would seriously take that on.
They’re the new leaders of a broken system, they are young and not going anywhere.
“The adults don’t know how to use a [expletive] democracy. So we have to,” says Hogg, a fourth-year broadcast journalism student at his high school. “This is my lifelong mission now.”
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For now, the march is over. It’s spring break week, which Hogg’s family of four will spend in DC, where Davidwill likely be recognised on the street, and often.
His mother, who recently changed her email to start with “momofdavidhogg”, said David asked her to buy a disguise for him, maybe a wig. But then, as we both watched him accept thanks from a rally-goer and then take a question from a reporter, she admitted: “He was just kidding”.
“Aren’t you tired?” a reporter asked him.
“No,” he said. “The crowd gives me energy and keeps me going.”
And the 17-year-old moved on to shake another hand.