Never Again: A Turning Point?

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University.  He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at [email protected]

BY ERIC MINK

I fell in love with Washington, D.C., for the first time in the spring of 1964. I was one of a few dozen students on a trip to the nation’s capital, an opportunity organized and chaperoned annually by University City High School.

I had no particular political passions. I was just a 16-year-old junior with an awareness of current events and, like my parents, a liberal outlook. So Washington, nestled against the curves of the Potomac River, seduced me with its distinctive physical beauty:

Avenues cut at surprising angles through the conventional grid layout, offering long vistas down broad streets lined with templelike museums and government buildings. (The enshrined documents of the National Archives were an immediate favorite.) An infinite supply of traffic circles seemed to disrupt street plans and define surrounding neighborhoods. Light poured onto the streets and sidewalks, encouraged by the limited heights of surrounding structures.

Standing at the top of the long stone staircase at the front of the Lincoln Memorial and looking eastward, I took in a panorama that took my breath away: the still waters of the Reflecting Pool at the foot of the memorial’s steps, the endless green of the National Mall stretching beyond, the Washington Monument slicing into the sky and, at a point almost too distant to bring into focus, the United States Capitol.

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I fell in love with Washington again just last month. I was home in St. Louis watching live television coverage of the March for Our Lives rally on March 24.

The Washington rally — mainly speeches and musical performances − was the centerpiece of a national observance that included so-called “sibling” activities spread across about 800 other American cities and towns.

The gathering in the capital was organized mainly by student survivors of the Feb. 14 mass shooting that killed 14 students and three faculty members and injured 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. A former student, Nikolas Cruz, 19, has been charged with murder in the shooting, which was carried out with a military-style semiautomatic rifle firing many shots in a short time using ammunition designed to inflict horribly severe wounds. 

Soon after, a core group of Parkland student survivors coalesced and created the Never Again movement. It demands legislation and regulations to help protect young Americans from being killed and injured by gun violence in their schools and neighborhoods. It also vows to vote out of office politicians who fail to support the effort. And it promises to “Call B.S.,” as one survivor has ferociously declared, on anyone who tries to snow them.

What I saw on the screen that afternoon were thousands upon thousands of people of all ages and colors filling block after familiar Washington block of Pennsylvania Avenue.

And what I heard from the stage were young people of matchless authenticity and righteous determination repeating truths they had learned the hard way: Gun violence that harms children and young people is unacceptable, whether it occurs in schools where young people learn and socialize or in neighborhoods where kids live, play, do homework and walk to and from school. Such violence not only tears apart bodies but also traumatizes the psyches of those whose bodies escape damage. The word “survivor” is well-chosen.

I lost count of the number of times these kids — teenagers and children as young as 9 — moved me to tears, but the Washington I’ve always loved never felt more beautiful and welcoming than it did on my TV screen that afternoon.

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A year and a half after my school trip to Washington, I returned in the fall of 1965 and fell in love with it again.

I was starting four years of college at George Washington University, years that would coincide with a period of protests against the Vietnam War and the American government waging it. The conflict would roil America, nowhere more than in Washington, the center of democracy. Those years shaped me profoundly.

​I arrived as a pre-med major and left with an unemployable degree in English literature and a fascination with the process of discovering and sharing information through journalism. I met a fine young woman at G.W., a fellow St. Louisan, leading to a long marriage that​ ​eventually ended.

And I came of age politically, drawn into activities demonstrating opposition to the war in Southeast Asia, including 1967’s 100,000-person March on the Pentagon.

Then, in 1968, after spring vacation in St. Louis, I returned to Washington to find federal troops patrolling National Airport and the city’s streets, and smoke still choking the air. It was the aftermath of rioting that followed the assassination in Memphis of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 50 years ago this month. My heart broke for the country’s loss and the struggles of my beloved adoptive city.

It was not lost on me that Dr. King’s pursuit of justice had extended well beyond his long fight for civil rights. It had come to include his moral and political opposition to U.S. actions in Vietnam and his increasingly shrewd understanding of the systemic economic forces that locked people in poverty here at home.

As a senior that November, I joined the staff of the student-run newspaper, The Hatchet. My first assignment was photographing demonstrations on campus and D.C. police overreactions against students on Election Day. I was a month shy of being eligible to vote for Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon.

Opposition to the war in those years was principled, well-informed, fraught with complexity and spreading well beyond college campuses. It cost Lyndon Johnson a second term as president, denied Humphrey a realistic shot at the job and saddled the country with the criminal Nixon. Still, our activism was one factor that — to some degree, at least — helped shorten the war and reduce deaths and injuries on both sides.

The young people of Never Again seem to be maneuvering their tricky terrain better than we did. They have shown a discipline in their planning and actions that is well beyond their years and experience. Their use of language shows a maturity and coherence that gives their words extraordinary impact.

Theirs is an astonishingly media-literate generation with an acute ability to detect and reject phoniness, qualities that seem to bewilder the advertising industry and pose daunting challenges to the well-financed political forces arrayed against them.

Perhaps more than anything else, though, the Never Again message and the young people delivering it are distinguished by hope, that their just cause will prevail: Children and teenagers are dying from gun violence, and it has to stop. Oppose us, and we will vote you out of office.

Washington served as a grand platform from which the young people of Never Again proclaimed their message and bore witness to its truths. I’ve never loved Washington more. Perhaps this really is a turning point.