By Iric Nathanson, Becketwood Member
On March 14, I was in Washington, D. C for the day, visiting friends who live just across the District line in suburban Chevy Chase. I had planned to take the Metro, Washington’s subway, into town and spend the morning strolling through the Capitol Hill neighborhood. I had lived there in the 1970s when I was a staff assistant to a Minnesota congressman.
When I reached the suburban subway station, I found a huge crowd of young people on the platform waiting for the next train. When the train pulled up, it was already packed with hundreds of teenagers. I pushed my way into the crowded car and found myself surrounded by a group of boys who appeared to be about 16 or 17. As our train made its way its way through the darkened subway tunnel, the boys and I struck up a conversation. They told me they were from the Bethesda Chevy Chase High School and they were on their way to the White House. It was then I realized that I was in the middle of a nationwide protest. That day it was occurring all over the country as students were walking out of class to protest gun violence.
As we continued to chat, I asked the boys if they were going to get in trouble for skipping class. “Not really,” one of them told me,” we’ll get an unexcused absence, but that’s no big deal.” “I called in sick,” another said. “Well, I am sick—I am sick about all these shootings, so that’s why I am here.”
I told them I had been at a demonstration at the White House 45 years ago. But I was not a participant; I was an observer. We congressional staffers were told to dress up in suit and tie, wear a white armband, and carry a damp handkerchief in a plastic bag that we could use in case we were tear-gassed. I explained that my job was to monitor an anti-war demonstration, and report on any police violence against the protestors.
As our train was reaching its final stop, one of the boys turned to me and said, “Why don’t you join us?” I thought to myself “Why not?” It was an important cause. This time, I needed to be a participant, not just an observer as I had been back in 1973. “Sure, I’ll come,” I told him, trying not to sound too enthusiastic. Then we pushed off together with the huge throng making its way to the White House.
I was struck with how different this demonstration was from the ones I remembered during the Vietnam era. To begin with, these demonstrators were younger. They were high school students—very earnest, fresh-faced and clean-cut. The boys all had short hair. A few were trying to grow scraggly beards but without much luck. Many of the girls wore braids. Everyone was carrying a phone and a backpack.
There was none of the counter-culture vibes that I remember from the 1970s. No long, scraggly hair. No disheveled clothing. No boom boxes blaring out rock and roll. No sweet aroma of an illegal substance wafting through the crowd—a substance that is now legal in several western states.
Now, in 2018, these young people were not protesting “authority,” as many were doing during the 1970s. My fellow protestors had a very specific objective – tougher laws to control the violence that had taken the lives of too many of their contemporaries.
I was the only older adult in the crowd. Everyone else was a teen-ager. The word about the school walk-out had spread on social media, but the demonstration was clearly not orchestrated by one of Washington’s many social action organizations. The high school students had done their own organizing. Their signs were all hand-lettered and homemade.
By now, we were at Lafayette Square in front of the White House. Crowds of young people were converging on the park from all directions. “No talking,” I heard one of the boys say. “We are supposed to be absolutely silent.” Quietly, we all sat down, with our backs to the White House. There were no speeches. The silence was powerful. As I sat there in Lafayette Square surrounded by thousands of teen-agers, I felt a sense of hope for the first time in a long time about this country’s political future. Maybe, just maybe, these determined, courageous young people could accomplish something that we adults have not been able to do.
We sat there silently for 17 minutes, one minute for each of the victims at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. Then someone let out a “Whoop!” We all got up. The protest was over.” I waved good-bye to the boys from Bethesda Chevy Chase. They left with the crowd and starting marching off to the Capitol. I turned and went off on my own, away from the crowd.
Those 17 minutes will remain one of my most cherished memories of my time in Washington.