By Maria Kowalska Elleberg

In the wake of the Rob Elementary school shooting, we look back at our interview with the co-founder of March for Our Lives, Sarah Chadwick, from our Youth issue.

At noon on August 3, Sarah Chadwick, one of the founding members of March for Our Lives, a Parkland-shooting survivor and a Twitter genius, calls me on Skype from her bedroom. We’re going to talk about her work surrounding common-sense gun reform in America and about her remarkable use of humor as a form of activism. She smiles at the webcam, and I realize, after a confused couple of minutes, that mine is still covered by the tiny piece of tape I put over the microphone of mine after reading an article about hackers (it’s a real thing, people!). It all feels very relaxed, very casual. She tells me that she just got back from the March for Our Lives Our Power summit in Houston, Texas.

What we don’t know then is that, in another city in Texas, just an hour and a half before our Skype call, the El Paso police responded to an active shooter. A 21-year-old, white male had walked into a Walmart carrying an AK-47-style rifle and proceeded to kill 22 people and injure more than 20 others. In the early hours of the next morning, another young, white male, this time in Dayton, Ohio, killed nine people and injured 27 using a rifle-style gun that he had bought online. During one weekend, 31 people had lost their lives in mass shootings. 

Chadwick herself was only 16 on February 14, 2018, when a young, white male—and former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida—shot and killed 17 students and teachers with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, before fleeing the scene hidden in the mass of terrified students. (He was later apprehended and is currently awaiting trial.) No one needs to be reminded that this wasn’t the first mass shooting in U.S. history. A quick Google search suggests that there have been up to 17 mass shootings of the same caliber in 2019 alone. However, the difference when tragedy struck the sleepy, small town of Parkland, was that those students were not going to stay quiet. 

“It started very organically,” Chadwick says. “A day after the shooting happened, there was a group of us doing interviews and talking to the media. We decided to have a meeting—I guess you could call it—even though a lot of us had no idea what we were doing. We obviously felt pain, loss, and grief, and we were going to come to terms with it by making sure that no other community had to feel this pain, loss, and grief. So we thought, ‘Hey, what would make America see that this is a problem that’s happening right now, all over the United States, that many people care about, and that it has to be fixed?’ What’s a better way to show that many people care about something than having a bunch of people show up to march?” 

Inspired by the Women’s March, “a group of teenagers” managed to arrange one of the largest single-day protests against gun violence in history. When asked about why gun violence is so prominent in the U.S., Chadwick patiently replies: “This question I get a lot. From what I understand, and the explanation that I’ve come up with is that the United States has a problem with gun culture. Guns have been a big part of our history and always will be. A lot of people would like to think that we can change the gun culture, but it’s so deeply rooted. Not that I don’t think it’s possible! It’s just going to take a lot of work. But honestly, the reason why these shootings keep on happening is money and politics. It’s because our government lets things get corrupt—corrupt in a subtle sense, so that our population doesn’t really recognize it. Ninety-seven percent of Americans support universal background checks, but because of money and politics, it hasn’t fully happened yet.” According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA’s total lobbying expenditure during 2018 was estimated to be $5,076,000. “It’s basically politicians choosing profits over lives. They don’t want these donations to stop coming in, so they aren’t going to pass laws that could save lives,” she continues.

March for Our Lives has grown and changed together with its founders. In the early stages, its sole focus was to go up against the NRA and “bring down the NRA-loving companies and politicians”, as Chadwick calmly puts it. This is of course still the main focus of the organization, but its members have become a lot more intersectional in their approach. 

“You have to think about how all these issues correspond with each other,” says Chadwick. “For example, gun violence and police brutality are one and the same. Police brutality usually happens with firearms, and firearms go into the category of gun violence. When you think about trans poc [people of color] and how their life expectancy in the United States is—I think—37 years old, you also have to think about how this group are one of the most targeted victims of gun violence. It all intertwines. If you’re not paying attention to all these issues, you’re not seeing the whole picture.”

The group of students who founded March for Our Lives has been celebrated, accused of being “crisis actors,” seen as future leaders of America, and been chastised for their outspokenness. Regardless of reactions from the public, they have consistently proven that, in today’s society, an understanding of social media equals power. “We should change the names of AR-15s to ‘Marco Rubio’ because they are so easy to buy” tweeted Chadwick on February 23, 2018, as a comment on the fact that Senator Marco Rubio, at that point, had accepted $3.3m from gun-rights associations. That statement has been retweeted 73,800 times (if you’re not already following her, you should) and is only one of her many outstanding contributions to the social platform. Another highlight is from May 7, 2018: “I <3 Donald (Glover)”. 

“I think that Millennials and Gen Z kind of perfected/claimed dark humor,” says Chadwick. “On Twitter, it’s basically all dark humor just because Millennials and Gen Z basically rule the app. I think it is our coping mechanism, but it’s also our way of bringing attention to injustice. We are the generation that is going to have to fix the older generations’ shit. We are using our dark humor to find a light in that, and we are going to use it to connect all of us and make sure that we can fight this fight. I don’t think that older generations get the dark humor, or like it.”

When I object and add that minorities, for instance, have been using humor and sarcasm as a way to tackle injustice, oppression, and a lack of control for a really long time, she nods and continues. “I think it’s the same way with climate change. You see all these jokes about going under water. Florida, where I’m sitting now, is supposed to be under water within the next 50 years [Laughs.]. I think it’s about just finding the humor in that, but also using that humor to connect and activate people. Show them that this is what’s really going on, and that, even if this is a fun tweet, we should actually try to do something about it. Plus, dark humor always seems to go more viral on Twitter.”

Before the Parkland shooting, Chadwick was a shy teenager—she wouldn’t raise her hand at school, and would never volunteer to talk in front of the class. Many of her old teachers were surprised that she took on such a public role in March for Our Lives. “I have overcome a lot of my public-speaking fears,” she says. “Because that was an actual fear of mine. I was a very … not a different person, but more reserved before everything happened. I wasn’t as involved in activism and gun reform, but I still cared about the issues and I was, I guess you would say, a Twitter activist. Now I’m taking my opinions, and instead of spewing them on Twitter, I’m spewing them to people like you, to magazines and media.”

Maria Kowalska Elleberg: Why do you think that some people, like yourself, can go through a tragic, terrifying event like that and still have the strength to stand up and fight?

Sarah: For me, it came from a lot of grief. I think that the reason why a lot of us were able to come together so early after everything happened was because we didn’t know how to handle it. I found my strength in my grief, and my activism became, and still is, a grieving process. It’s how I grieve. I get to busy myself with helping others so I don’t have to actually think about what I went through or how I’m feeling. It’s more about putting others first, which isn’t healthy all the time.

Mke: No! I was just thinking, that doesn’t sound very healthy. How are you facing that trauma yourself?

Sc: There is no handbook on how you are supposed to overcome something like this, or how you are supposed to go on with your life. You don’t know. I had to figure it out. I’m still figuring it out. I don’t want something like this to happen and nothing to come out of it. I don’t want this to just be the Parkland shooting—at least we got March for Our Lives to come out of it.

Mke: Any advice you would like to give to other young people?

Sc: I’d say become more civically engaged. Even if you don’t think that something affects you, it probably does. If you choose to ignore politics, or you think that you don’t want to get into politics, that’s a privilege that other people don’t have. You should use that privilege to stand up for others and to make the world better. 

Mke: What’s your thought on the political climate in America at the moment?

Sc: It could be better. I think right now there’s a lot of hope leading
up toward the 2020 election. In
2016, when Trump was elected, it felt unreal, and no one actually expected it to happen—it kind of started as a joke. I think everyone remembers where they were when he became president—it’s almost like how everyone remembers where
they were when the Twin Towers [came down]. 

America as a whole has a lot of growing to do. There is still a lot of injustice that has been swept under the rug. When you think about what the Trump era has brought—all of the racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism—it was always there. It was there during the Obama era, too, but no one saw it. In a sense, I am thankful for the Trump era, just because it has brought these things to light, and it’s shown people that we have to up our game. That we have to become more involved. We have to remember that, even if a Democrat gets elected as president in 2020, these things are still going to be happening. It would be an injustice if we decided not to act upon them just because we have a Democrat in the White House. I mean, there will always be wars and injustice in the world, at least during my lifetime, but I do have hope for the very, very distant future. Maybe when the robots take over [Laughs.]. I don’t know.

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