Young people have galvanized social change throughout American history. As a new exhibit on the Aspen Institute campus shows, art has been a source of inpiration and a way to get the message out. This past spring, students became the leaders of anti-gun violence protests. Arts and culture reporter Christin Kay met with three students, on the forefront of the fight to make schools and society safer, to talk to them about the role of art in social unrest.
Kayla Schaefer, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, stopped in front of one framed protest poster.
"A lot of these posters speak to me because they’re youth and the students." She pointed to the bottom. "Student Mobilization Committee to End War in Vietnam," she read.
Also along for the tour were Olivia Wesch, a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Ke’Shon Newman, a junior from Chicago, whose older brother died in a shooting when Newman was 13 years old. Like so many others in the U.S., their lives and communities have been forever changed by gun violence. What’s different is these three have joined other teens across the nation in demanding change. Newman said there’s nothing special about their motivation.
“We got sick of it! So since we got sick of it, we just made sure that no one else had to go through what we had to go through. So if that means that we have to go to rallies, marches, protests any of those type of things that we have to do, that’s something that we have to take on,” Newman said.
As they walked through an exhibit of protest posters from the 1960s and 70s on the campus of the Aspen Institute, Newman, Wesch and Schaefer found they had a lot in common with those who protested the Vietnam War. Wesch looked at one poster that declared, in bold letters, “End The Draft!”
“This is proof that the young people have a lot of the power in situations and we have the drive and the will and the power to end situations like this,” she said.
Newman, whose brother was killed, said it feels like they are in a similar battle as those who carried these posters through the streets, chanting for peace.
“So seeing that the youth ended war in history, that’s kind of what we’re here to do right now. We’re here to end this war that we have to deal with,” he said.
If this is a war, these students see groups like the National Rifle Association as one of their opponents; they know what they’re up against.
“They have a lot of power, they have a lot of money, they have a lot of influence that we don’t have," Wesch said.
"We don’t have it yet,” she added.
Demonstrators in the 60s and 70s fought for specific goals: To end the draft and the war. Wesch believes there is an equivalent ambition for today's movement.
“I personally believe that nobody under the age of 21 should be able to purchase a gun; nobody should be able to purchase military grade weapons and we need to have stricter background checks and mental health evaluations,” she said.
Rallying young people to vote is also a main goal of their movement against gun violence. Schaefer gestured to a poster that read, “Let the people vote on war!”
“They were trying to rally people to vote on war and vote against it, and we’re trying to have people vote against guns. And it’s similar because war involves guns, war involves hurting. It all involves violence and it all relates together. Even though it’s many years ago, we are still fighting,” she said.
Schaefer said they see themselves as responsible for fixing what adults have broken or at least have been unwilling to take on.
“The adults decided that it’s not their problem, it’s our problem, so we all combined to like make sure that the youth don’t have to go through what we go through, and I know, when we’re older, we’ll be fighting for the youth then, too," said Schaefer.
The students believe that art, like songs and posters, is uniquely able to capture the horror and the emotion of shootings like the one in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
"I think art has a really big impact on people because sometimes you can’t express yourself through words," said Wesch.
Fifty years ago, protesters found inspiration in these images that surround them, of raised fists and Uncle Sam making the peace sign. They had songs, by artists like John Lennon, whose image appears in one poster beside them.
Styles may have changed. This year has seen performance art, like students dropping to the ground in front of state houses and social media call-outs have taken the place of flyers, passed out in dorm rooms. But music is still a source of strength and inspiration. These students mentioned “This is America” by Childish Gambino, a hip hop satire about racism and gun culture in America.
As the song played on You Tube, they broke down the symbolism they saw.
"Look at the gun. Every time it gets handed off, it gets handed off in a red cloth," said Schaefer.
"Right. It’s worshipped, but then they drag that body away like it’s nothing. Look in the background. There's tragedy," said Newman.
Protestors of the Vietnam war may never have imagined this scene. A highly produced music video, commented on by millions, displayed on a portable, 10-inch screen.
The art is different, but the hope is still the same. These students are joining those who came before them in rising up, in fighting for peace.