Not sure if you’ve noticed, but there are a lot of scared kids in this country right now. They’re scared of gun violence, and they have every right to be. They’re even scared here on Maui. And like many students around the nation, a small group of Maui high school students have gotten organized and are taking action.
On the same day that video of the “Empty Shoes Memorial”–7,000 pairs of shoes lined up on the grass outside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. to protest congressional inaction in the face of gun violence against kids–went viral on social media, about a dozen Maui high school students gathered in a circle in the Alexa Higashi meeting room at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. In an arc just beyond them are sitting various adults, including musician Lily Meola, Moms Demand Action Hawaii volunteer director Cale Bennett, Brendan Smith, Maui News columnist Rick Chatenever and University of Hawaii Maui College Librarian Ellen Peterson. Celebrity music and movie producer Shep Gordon, who played a key role in bringing everyone together, is there, too. The students are at the meeting not to talk about the latest shooting, or even guns as a whole, but to continue planning how they will help people on Maui understand why they’re scared.
To do this, they’ve organized a very big event. On Saturday, Mar. 24, the students and many others will gather at UH Maui College’s Great Lawn for March For Our Lives Maui, a rally to demand an end to gun violence in schools.
“March For Our Lives is created by, inspired by, and led by students across the country who will no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action to stop the epidemic of mass school shootings that has become all too familiar,” states the March For Our Lives Maui webpage. “In the tragic wake of the seventeen lives brutally cut short in Florida, politicians are telling us that now is not the time to talk about guns. March For Our Lives believes the time is now.”
After the rally, everyone will move across the street to the MACC for the Concert For Our Lives, a massive show that will include Jack Johnson, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Landon McNamara, Willie K, Lily Meola and a host of other guests. Though general admission tickets–distributed by Eventbrite–sold out as the students were meeting at the MACC on Mar. 13, a very limited number of unused student tickets were put on sale on the morning of Wednesday, Mar. 21, as we were going to press (though student tickets were free, they are mandatory for admission).
The kids have been meeting for a few weeks now, and though they still have a few weeks before the big rally and concert, another event dominated their thoughts on Mar. 13. Just a few minutes into the Mar. 13 meeting, organizer Katie McMillan–who sits in the circle with the students and acts as a group facilitator, asks the students how many of them will be walking out of class on Mar. 14–a day in which students all over the nation have said they’d walk out of class at 10am local time for 17 minutes, one minute for every victim of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. About half the students raise their hands.
One of them was Skylar Masuda, a sophomore at Baldwin High. Reached by phone a few days after the meeting, she described what it felt like to participate in the walkout.
“As soon as I walked out, I started crying,” she said. “We walked into the quad together, and it was just a sea of people wearing white. Seeing all these students care–you don’t see a lot of that usually.”
For the students, being a part of the March For Our Lives means learning about all the difficult, laborious tasks that go into political activism. For instance, McMillan had a tall stack of event flyers printed to advertise the Mar. 24 rally and concert, and that in itself became a discussion point during the meeting.
Would the students volunteer to hand them out at the Kihei 4th Friday Town Party? Could they first ask for permission to hand them out there? Would the students be careful to pick up any flyers that get tossed to the ground? Should they even have flyers–what if they just printed the relevant information on a big board or set up a selfie station?
These are the nuts and bolts of running a political campaign. McMillan could give the students prompts and ask them questions, but ultimately they were deciding how they wanted to proceed (though by the end of the meeting, it was unclear if the students would hand out any flyers).
At one point, Peterson asked the students for what she termed “concierge volunteers” for the rally. “People are going to ask you where the bathroom is,” Peterson said. “They’re going to ask you what the event is about–believe me. People will show up because there’s a crowd.”
Having at least some of the students themselves speak at the big rally was also discussed. Sure, elected officials would be there, but everyone agreed that it was important for some students to speak. Skylar Masuda is one of the students who agreed to speak.
“That’s the plan,” Masuda told me after the meeting. “My friend and I are preparing our speeches. We’ve never done anything like this before.”
Now let’s be honest. The only reason the American news media is still talking about gun violence more than a month after the Parkland shooting (which as we all know wasn’t even close to the first school shooting in the U.S.) is because a lot of students there refused to just be quiet. They spoke out, and are still speaking out. As long as they continue to do so–as long as they continue to add voices in every school district across the U.S.–then there’s hope something can be done to stop gun violence.
But before we go further, we should be clear about some statistics, because there are tons of memes flying around social media that give wildly misleading takes on the whole gun violence debate. The most important thing to understand right now is that school shootings are NOT reaching epidemic proportions in the U.S.
“Since 1990, there have been 22 shootings at elementary and secondary schools in which two or more people were killed, not counting those perpetrators who committed suicide,” James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, wrote in a Feb. 19 opinion piece for USA Today. “Whereas five of these incidents have occurred over the past five-plus years since 2013, claiming the lives of 27 victims (17 at Parkland), the latter half of the 1990s witnessed seven multiple-fatality shootings with a total of 33 killed (13 at Columbine).”
That being said, overall gun violence numbers are very high in the U.S., especially when compared to other post-industrial nations. “America has six times as many firearms homicides as Canada, and nearly 16 times as many as Germany,” said German Lopez in a Vox story that was most recently updated on Mar. 14.
Though campus shootings may be relatively low in the nation, it’s also true that since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting–as the recent “Empty Shoes” Memorial in Washington, D.C., showed–guns have killed about 7,000 kids.
Sure, social media has amplified the violence that has occurred, but that doesn’t mean students’ fears are misplaced. In truth, students everywhere in the U.S. have every right to be afraid of guns–especially given the fact that the Republican Congressional leadership has steadfastly refused to do anything regarding gun violence, or even allow the Centers for Disease Control to study the problem. Instead, all they offer are empty “thoughts and prayers” after every mass shooting.
While there haven’t been any school shootings on Maui, threats and incidents have occurred (one of the most recent was an anonymous threat scrawled on a restroom mirror at Iao Intermediate School in late February.
“My close friends and I are really passionate about this,” Masuda told me. “We ask ourselves what we’d do if someone brought a gun to school. If we have a chance to make a change, we might as well.”
To be sure, not all schools on Maui have seen vocal student anti-gun violence activism. During the Mar. 13 meeting, Peterson–the UHMC librarian who acts as one of the student group’s advisers–said that organizing at the college has been a challenge.
“Our student government doesn’t appear to be very motivated when it comes to rallying the student body for a cause,” she said. “That’s why the library staff decided to go rogue–to step up and speak out in the absence of student activism.”
Immediately after the meeting, Peterson gave more context to the ambivalence she’s been seeing on the UHMC campus. “Individually, the students are interested, but our student groups tend to avoid anything political.” she told me. “They don’t want to talk about politics, I think because they don’t know how. But the students are more interested in where they’ll get their next meal. There’s a very real poverty issue at the college.”
As it turned out, a large group of students did walk out of UH Maui College classes on Mar. 14. They gathered at a tree near the center of campus and tied 17 ribbons to its branches.
Isabella Blair, a senior at Seabury Hall and director of TEDxYouth on Maui (a job she’s had since the eighth grade), couldn’t participate in the Mar. 14 walkout because her school was on spring break. But that hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for being part of the March For Our Lives group.
“I thought it was really fascinating that so many students were getting together to bring change,” she told me after the Mar. 13 meeting. Students should feel safe in school. I just hope that students feel they have a voice. Their involvement is very important and very impactful. I hope this inspires people to take action.”
What happens to Blair, Masuda and the rest of the student activists after the Mar. 24 rally and concert remains to be seen. There was talk at the Mar. 13 meeting of aligning with the organization Students Demand Action, and Shep Gordon said funding was available to the students should they decide to form their own group.
Though none of the students I spoke with said they’ve faced any pushback for their activism, one student at the Mar. 13 meeting did ask how they can reach students who aren’t yet old enough to vote, and feel they’re irrelevant in a political fight.
“That’s a very important message because kids think that if they can’t vote then they’re not constituents,” said Marnie Masuda-Cleveland, one of the group’s adult advisers and mother of Skylar. “They are constituents.”
Shep Gordon, who brought along a skateboard deck autographed by Tony Hawk as a prize donation for a raffle for students who sign an anti-gun violence pledge, immediately agreed. “To a politician, the scariest thing to them is one of you saying you won’t vote for them,” Gordon told the students.
This goes to the heart of why students–whether they’re from Parkland or Maui or any other city–represent such a powerful force. They’re willing to stand up and say what they feel. They’re willing to be a public voice for those who are voiceless. In our age of doxxing, online threats and Twitter-shaming (“I can’t believe how powerful social media is,” Lily Meola told the students during their meeting), these kids are willing, even eager, to speak truth to power. They’re willing to denounce inaction in the face of terrifying violence, something far too many public officials have been too frightened to do.
“Thank you, guys,” Peterson told the students at the end of the Mar. 13 meeting. “What you’re doing is really brave. I feel better about the future of our planet.”
Cover design: Michelle Latorre
Photo of Shep Gordon: Sean M. Hower