If Gen Z and millennials want things to change around gun violence and to have a voice in making the nation a better, fairer place for all, be prepared to fight for it.
That was the message from two of the country’s most visible and effective young political activists, state Rep. Justin Pearson of Tennessee, and Harvard College senior David Hogg at a JFK Jr. Forum Wednesday evening.
“If we want to live in a world where everyone is a part of the ‘beloved community,’ where everyone is respected, where folks have what they need economically and socially,” Pearson said, referring to Martin Luther King Jr.’s aspirational vision of the future, “then we’ve got to be in the fight.”
Pearson was one of two young Black Democratic lawmakers expelled from office this month by a Republican supermajority in Tennessee’s House of Representatives for rallying to toughen the state’s gun laws on the House floor following a March 27 school shooting in Nashville that killed six. He was reinstated one week later.
“We have every opportunity and every responsibility to ourselves and future generations of people who aren’t even born yet to make that a reality, and so, we have to vote. If you can’t vote, you can send emails, you can make phone calls, but we have a responsibility,” he said.
“This is our moment, and this is our time.”
At the event, Pearson and Hogg engaged in a passionate discussion about the scourge of gun violence, the overlooked importance of state government, and the role college students and young people can play in changing the trajectory of U.S. politics with Archon Fung, the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government and director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at HKS.
Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, and a founder of the school safety activist group, March for Our Lives, urged his College classmates to turn down job offers from major investment banks and big consultancies and join the movement by running for office, helping other candidates run, or working for aligned organizations.
“Young people in this room have the most valuable asset,” something our older, political opponents are “afraid of,” which is “that we’re going to outlive them,” said Hogg.
“If we don’t get involved in government, this is not going to get fixed,” he said, referring to the need for stricter gun laws.
While the movement’s focus is primarily on protecting all Americans, especially children, from becoming victims of gun violence or having to endure the daily trauma of worrying about that possibility, the pair said it’s also about resisting those who seek to weaken democracy and to exclude communities of color, LGBT people, those with certain religious or nonreligious beliefs or with reduced economic power, from having their voices heard.
“What we have now” in Republican-controlled state legislatures like Tennessee “that are working to silence and eliminate the voices of dissent and people that they disagree with” said Pearson, “is the abuse of power and the turning of our democracy into a mobocracy where the mob rules instead of the people.”
GOP lawmakers in numerous states have begun to pass laws to make it harder for college students, who backed Democrats in the last three election cycles, to vote in 2024. In Tennessee, for instance, college IDs are no longer a valid form of voter identification. Attorney Cleta Mitchell, who worked with President Trump to overturn the 2020 election results, recently told Republican donors that making it more difficult for students to vote must be a key strategy if the party hopes to prevail in the next election.
“This assault on our democracy is part of the reason why we need young people who go and vote and who participate in the democratic process. The reality is they’re not going to stop putting up as many barriers as they can to have young people and people of color not participate in the democratic process,” Pearson said when asked about these efforts during a press event earlier in the evening.
Gen Z and millennials need to know who their local and state elected officials are and what they’re doing, and if they don’t like it, get involved.
“What happens in local government and in state government matters. And if you only focus on who’s president, you will miss that your democracy is being taken from you by the people who are sitting in your state capitol,” said Pearson.
Asked by Fung about the price they’ve paid for their activism, both Pearson and Hogg said the notoriety has taken a toll on their private and professional lives as well as those of loved ones in the form of death threats, conspiracy theories and lies about them spread on social media, and pointed attacks by political and media figures on the right.
As a high school student Hogg was harassed while walking to the U.S. Capitol by Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia before she was elected to Congress. Hogg was lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In addition, he was mocked by Fox News host Laura Ingraham after he announced on Twitter that he had not been accepted to any of the colleges he had applied to.
Earlier this month former Fox News host Tucker Carlson harshly criticized Pearson at length on his top-rated show, comparing him to Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who pretended to be African American, likening his ministerial speaking style to a “sharecropper” and suggesting Pearson, a 2017 Bowdoin College graduate, was only admitted because of his race.
Pearson said given all of the obstacles his African and African American ancestors overcame just to get the right to vote, like poll taxes and literacy tests, his own troubles hardly compared, and the current wave of legal voting hurdles is something young people will just have to expect and jump over anyway.
“They want to create enough barriers that we quit. But if we never quit, we can never lose,” he said. “We’ve got to keep going forward.”