Baltimore student protests and the $100,000 field trip

Much attention has been paid, and deservedly so, to the students in Parkland, Fla., who were traumatized by the shooting deaths of 17 people, including students and educators, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and resolved to do something about it. But what about young people who deal with gun violence not just on one day but every day? What about kids for whom living in fear is a constant, who have lost not just peers but friends and relatives, perhaps even parents and siblings? What about the 12 children who were homicide victims in Baltimore in 2017, which is just two fewer than the number of students killed in Florida on Feb. 14?

That’s the context that needs to be given Mayor Catherine Pugh’s announcement this week that Baltimore will pay as much as $100,000 to hire a fleet of buses to help transport city school students to a planned “March For Our Lives” national gun control protest in Washington, D.C., on March 24. In a different school district or a different time, it might be regarded as an inappropriate use of tax dollars to support what is essentially a political protest. Certainly, it’s not difficult to find $100,000 in unmet needs in city schools, from malfunctioning furnaces to undrinkable water.

But giving Baltimore students a chance to have a voice on the subject of gun violence is too important to be taken lightly. Take, for example, students at Excel Academy who have witnessed the murders of seven of their peers — seven — in the course of just 15 months. Baltimore experienced the highest homicide rate in the city’s history last year. Even if the homicide rate declines, and there are certainly early indications this year that it is, the pain will not be over for these kids — not today, not tomorrow, maybe not for years. They bring issues to the table that the Parkland kids don’t, and they need a chance to have their voices heard.

Just this week, hundreds of city students walked out of class from a mix of schools as diverse as Friends and Dunbar to march to City Hall to protest gun violence in an event that briefly drew national attention. The value of the lesson here can’t be overstated. These young people are not accepting of their fate, not resigned to shootings and murders, and not so cynical that they believe government will ignore their pleas, at least not yet. This isn’t some routine extracurricular field trip, this is a chance for children to fight for their lives, to band together for a cause too important to ignore.

Will more affluent suburban school districts use tax dollars in this manner? Probably not. But you can bet that there will be schools, private and public, where parents offer donations or children are holding raffles or bake sales to finance such expeditions. That’s a path less available to schools in Maryland’s poorest neighborhoods. But there’s certainly nothing preventing Baltimore’s private benefactors from writing a check tomorrow for the cause. There are enough people in this town with the money and conviction to make that happen..

We will acknowledge that people like NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch will still hate the idea of a city with underperforming schools spending precious resources on what they see as essentially a field trip. They will see nothing good coming from anyone raising objection to their absolutist views on the Second Amendment. Such individuals will never be made happy by enabling protests of shootings, mass or small-scale. They are also in a distinct minority when it comes to that opinion. Americans don’t want guns, particularly powerful weapons designed for killing people on the battlefield, in the hands of criminals or the severely mentally ill. Even NRA members share that view, polls have repeatedly shown. This is not a one-party protest, this is of concern to the vast majority of Americans.

If $100,000 buys a little bit of progress on gun policy, then it’s money well spent. If it buys empowerment and allows a generation of gun victims to participate in this democracy and speak their peace, then yes, it’s a worthwhile investment. And if it gets Baltimore teens to be energized and mutually supportive, to believe in a brighter future and an end to the wave of gun violence that has plagued their lives and their city, then it’s worth its cost, and probably much more.

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