Republished from Americas Quarterly
Fed-up high schoolers walk out of class and take to the streets. Their frustration puts a single issue at the top of the political agenda, and laws change, accomplishing what years of public debate couldn’t. The students get older and take their activism to universities. Young, charismatic leaders become the face of a national student movement, and soon, of national politics.
That was Chile starting in 2006, but the survivors of the United States’ most recent mass shooting could be writing a similar story. A week after a 19-year-old shot and killed 17 people at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students who survived the massacre are keeping the tragedy in the headlines and demanding action from lawmakers. Their activism is fueling a movement for greater restrictions on gun ownership – specifically of assault weapons – and for politicians to break ties with the gun lobby. Such a push for change orchestrated by the survivors themselves has been rare in the country’s regular cycle of gun violence.
Their resolve has spread quickly. Students have walked out of classes across the country, from Texas to North Carolina to California. A national march is planned for March 24.
This picture of teen activism is reminiscent of what happened in Chile, where in May 2006 students staged a national strike to demand changes to an inequitable education system shaped by dictatorship-era policies. Despite the very different national context, they carried the same message that students in Florida are now taking to their state and national capitols: When young people’s futures are at risk, they won’t be silent until the system changes.
Marches in Chile drew, at their height, between 600,000 and a million high school students in 2006. But it’s what came next that can show today’s students in Florida how a movement of teenagers can make a lasting political change.
Pressure from Chile’s high school movement led to minor reforms over the next two years, including an increase in government scholarships and the creation of a government agency focused on education quality. Larger, structural changes were slower to come, but students’ pressure on the government never let up. By the time the students from the 2006 protests entered university, their marches were shutting down cities. In 2011, the high school activists were in college, leading student federations at Chile’s universities. They took their demands with them. Their marches over the next two years made education reform a key issue in the 2013 presidential election, which returned former President Michele Bachelet to office on a reform-driven platform. She went on to pass measures that increased university access considerably for students from lower-income families.
But perhaps the most enduring legacy of the student movement in Chile was a shift in the understanding of young people’s clout in a political system otherwise dominated by aging established politicians. This change was made clear in 2013, when four leaders of the youth movement, Camila Vallejo, Gabriel Boric, Giorgio Jackson, and Karol Cariola, were elected to Congress. The four have kept education on the legislative agenda. Boric and Jackson have also started a political coalition, the Frente Amplio, which has become an influential third force in national politics.
Is a similar future in store for Florida teens like Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Cameron Kasky, whose activism over the last few days has made them household names? It’s hard to predict. But if the example of Chile teaches us anything, it’s that writing off young people is imprudent. Today’s high school and university students are perhaps the most technologically connected and most diverse in history, and they’ve grown up watching many of their leaders react to senseless massacres with a shrug. If any generation is poised to rewrite their country’s political script, it’s this one.