“I was on a school campus where I should be safe and focused on learning and becoming a leader and making friends — and I was worried I was going to be shot.”
Those fears — shared with me by a Chatsworth High School senior in the wake of the massacre in Parkland, Fla. that claimed 17 lives — should never reflect how young people go about their days.
At a time when 47 children and teenagers are struck by gunfire every 24 hours in America, it has been a privilege for me to stand beside the leaders guiding the March for Our Lives movement. These young women and men, who today are stepping up and speaking out against gun violence, are part of an extraordinary tradition of student activism.
During the civil rights movement, we saw the courage of young people who walked with dignity past violently hostile crowds into newly integrated schools, and risked arrest — or worse — for simply sitting at lunch counters while black. Most of the Freedom Riders who headed south to register African-American voters were college students.
Fifty years ago in East Los Angeles, Latino high school students — 22,000 of them — walked out of class to protest their failing schools and racist teachers. And it was Native American teenagers who launched, and led, the Standing Rock protest to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
What followed in the wake of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High will be remembered alongside these milestones of brave activism. And rather than allow the shooting to become a passing moment of grief, students took to the airwaves and streets to demand action.
This is a moment that has become a movement. And when we listen closely to the young leaders working to catalyze change, what we hear gives us pause. That’s not surprising; young people often have the sharpest insights on what we need to do today to secure our tomorrow.
So in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, I invited student leaders from across Los Angeles to share their thoughts on this tragedy, and also their call to action. And their message was clear: they’re in a fight for the most basic right of all — their lives.
The words of one student, a young girl, captured the spirit of the national conversation.
“We need to know what steps we can take — and what steps we need to take — to have better gun laws.”
And gun violence isn’t limited to school shootings. Another student described a routine morning breakfast interrupted by gunfire as he witnessed a neighbor shot outside his home.
As the inspiring voices who took to stages across the country told us, now is the time for decades of inaction to be displaced by swift action. And Washington, D.C. can look to Los Angeles for guidance on where to begin.
For starters, in L.A. we’ve banned the possession of high-capacity magazines and require Angelenos to keep their guns locked up. I was proud to sign those laws because they save lives. This isn’t an act of partisanship — it’s common sense.
Whether we’re talking about ending the homelessness crisis or finally making meaningful progress toward national gun control legislation, the question I hear most often is, “What can I do now?”
We can start by helping the students leading this movement break the gun lobby’s stranglehold on Congress. That begins with registering to vote and then helping others register. For the tens of thousands who marched in downtown last month, we need your passion, energy and enthusiasm to keep this movement going.
And let’s not become so consumed by the national conversation that we forget the discussions taking place around us. Gun laws are important, but so are relationships.
So begin a constructive dialogue with friends and neighbors, and look out for people who are struggling and make sure they know they’re not alone.
These students are giving all of us a lesson in the power of focused leadership and moral authority. Now we have to follow their lead — as they march for their lives, and write the next chapter in the story of how lasting change happens in America.
Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Community Report” column runs the first Thursday of every month in The Wave.