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Opinion: It’s the Action of Youth That Shames Lawmakers

Amid the chaos of Washington, young marchers stepped up

Whether or not you agreed with the vision of the many young people who participated in the weekend’s “March for Our Lives” rallies across the world, at least they had one, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Whether or not you agreed with the vision of the many young people who participated in the weekend’s “March for Our Lives” rallies across the world, at least they had one, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It was partly partisan politics that drove protesters and counterprotesters in the global “March for Our Lives” on Saturday. Many who traveled to Washington or their town squares demanded action on school safety, gun control and more.

But to Washington lawmakers, of both parties and on either side of the gun issue, who just managed to pass a $1.3 trillion omnibus bill to keep the government running that same week and may not pass any other major legislation for the rest of the year, it was a rebuke.

That day had to feel bigger than a one-time event driven by the violence that has touched too many young lives. “These kids,” whether you praise or curse them, were actually doing something, and acting more grown-up than the adults.

From their cogent and moving speeches, to the diverse coalition that covered not just the issue of school shootings but also the everyday violence that threatens young people in cities, suburbs and rural areas, to the support offered to kids overwhelmed and momentarily cowed by the spotlight, all of it modeled leadership that so many Americans have been missing.

Sure, political groups and celebrities and others stepped up with moral and economic support; but they also stepped back as young people demanded and took the lead. The day felt more like a beginning than an ending, and offered solutions, both aspirational and practical.

Watch: ‘Vote Them Out’ — Thousands March on Washington to Protest Inaction on Gun Violence

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Meanwhile, the adults …

Amid the chaos of Washington, too many of the major players look frivolous by comparison.

President Donald Trump travels to Mar-a-Lago many weekends, including the most recent one when hundreds of thousands descended on Washington. Though the White House sent a message of support applauding “the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights,” the president himself did not have much to say. But we did learn a day earlier of his support for a ban on many transgender troops. (You would think that with its robust national security team, the administration might want our volunteer military to be fully up and running.)

It was disappointing that Trump himself did not make time to approve of the students’ civic engagement if not their talking points, since he makes time for almost everything else .

Members of his Cabinet were not very visible, as they were busy defending outlandish purchases and first-class airline travel, the cost of doors and dining sets — while trimming their agencies’ mandates and budgets — or, as in the case of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, lamenting his soon-to-be exit.

Our leaders lament “the optics,” and sidestep the responsibility. Americans who’re busily hustling to file their taxes — and paying them dutifully — must have a few questions of their own.

Members of the House and Senate look increasingly hapless. Republicans have the majority — and most are united behind Trump. But when he signed that deficit-busting bill, few rejoiced. (Note to everyone: Scratch fiscal discipline as a GOP principle.)

Democrats don’t have the numbers, but they spend a lot of time contemplating whether their leader Nancy Pelosi would be the best candidate for speaker of the House that they have not yet gained control of. Though it may not fly, Trump is blaming the failure to come to a deal to help recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on Democrats. Those “Dreamers” still reside in limbo, as human beings, not political chum.

According to a detailed Roll Call study, “The cumulative net worth of senators and House members jumped by one-fifth in the two years before the start of this Congress, outperforming the typical American’s improved fortunes as well as the solid performance of investment markets during that time.”

Though a lot of the wealth does not have to do with their day jobs, does solving the problems of the citizenry have to seem so part time?

Children shall lead them

Into the breach venture young people who have faced gunfire, in their schools and their neighborhoods, who have lost friends, teachers and siblings, yet still have the focus to organize a coming together that included the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 9-year-old granddaughter.

Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old fifth grader from Alexandria, Virginia, amazed many with her calm speech that named the African-American women being left out and left behind in the conversation over justice rendered and denied. It did not take long before admirers began counting down the days until she is eligible to run for office. Her plea was timely, as police shootings of unarmed African-Americans take over the headlines, recently in Sacramento, California.

We haven’t heard from the administration on criminal justice and law enforcement reform, though it looks to be headed into litigation with several states over a Commerce Department decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census.

If there is an opportunity for political gridlock, our leaders will most certainly pursue it. And whatever happened to top-of-the-agenda issues everyone cares about, such as infrastructure? (The White House on Wednesday issued an infrastructure plan; Americans will be watching.)

Predictably, those who disagreed with the message of the march have attacked the young Washington messengers — with personal insults, outlandish accusations and calls that these kids should get off the D.C. lawn.

That misses the point — the march was mostly about the big picture, a call to action. Whether or not you agree with their vision, they had one. Young people have often spurred action, even in the face of danger, as the children of the civil rights movement did when they stood up to hoses, dogs, violence, arrest and the unknown.

Politicians run for office promising change and an end to “the swamp,” corruption and the status quo. Too often, they quickly become preoccupied, not with bipartisan cooperation and compromise in order to move the country forward, but with strategy and fundraising in order to stay put. Some, such as the long-serving Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, concentrate on serving constituents across party lines. What a concept.

Next week, April 4, will mark 50 years since a young leader, the 39-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was murdered by a gunman — his vision of justice and unity incomplete. His granddaughter Yolanda Renee King predicted in her speech Saturday: “We are going to be a great generation.” While every generation believes that, the future will reveal whether her vision will be not only honored, but also heeded by elders who have lost their way.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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