School students in the US are organising a national high school walk out against gun violence on 20th April, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.
We're approaching the 15 year anniversary of the March 5th and March 20th 2003 school walkouts against the Iraq War. High school students today, if they were even born before those dates, won't have any memory of this event, so what can we learn from it and more recent school walkouts in the US?
Mainstream accounts of the movement against the Iraq War have focused on the February 15 2003 demonstrations where millions walked quietly around major international cities to protest the war. I attended that protest in London, met some lovely people, and had a nice walk, but that was about all it achieved.
What has largely been forgotten is the limited, but still significant, direct action against the war. Students, and some teachers, walked out of their schools, blocked traffic, set up temporary barricades in the street, and clashed with police. I was a bit too old to walk out of school at the time, but on the way back from work one day I literally walked out of a tube station into the middle of a road block of a major London roundabout. What began so promisingly fizzled out as the war showed no signs of stopping, but it was still a significant moment in the radicalisation of the generation of activists currently in their '30s.
In 1975 Martin Glaberman, US auto worker and associate of CLR James wrote1 :
If teachers or students shut down a school, the school is shut down. But when five thousand 'people in some small town in Ohio shut down a stamping plant, within two weeks two-thirds of General Motors is shut down and steel plants begin to lay off and railroads begin to lay off and so on. Those workers who have access to that kind of power are aware of that reality.
What Glaberman missed in this analysis was the power of workers, students and the unemployed to blockade capital from outside the workplace. When a factory shuts down, it can affect the entire supply chain, but when roads or public transport are shut down, it can affect the ability of capital2 to flow through an entire city. Following de-industrialisation, with some exceptions such as transport workers blockades3 may actually be more effective at disrupting capital accumulation than strike action at many workplaces. After all if you shut down your coffee shop, the coffee shop is shut down but nothing else will be.
Since 2003 there have been multiple large scale school walkouts.
In 2006 thousands of school students in the US walked out of the school for the May Day immigrants rights marches. This followed school walkouts and occupations earlier in the year in France against the CPE employement law.
In 2010 over 100,000 schoolchildren in the UK walked out of school to protest against ESA cuts and university tuition fees, playing cat and mouse with police through the streets all over the country.
If we look at this history of school walkouts, even going back to 1911, we see that the 2003 Iraq War protests were an anomaly. In most cases students have walked out over their own material conditions - whether against corporal punishment, cuts to education subsidies, or ICE raids on their classmates.
Just last week hundreds of Austin high school students walked out in support of Dennis, a student from Honduras who had been the victim of racist bullying and detained by ICE after another student had thrown a bottle at him and called him a racial slur.
— Rose-Ann Aragon KPRC (@RAragonKPRC2) February 14, 2018
School shootings are terrifying, but the US government is unlikely to be able to respond to them without making things worse. A study of just 8,000 US public schools showed that over 70,000 students at those schools were arrested between 2013-2014, 29% of these schools had a permanent police presence4 . A step up of 'security' in schools seems a more likely response from the Trump administration than gun control.
In St Louis September 2017, students walked out of multiple St Louis schools during protests against the Jason Stockley verdict. The wider protests against the Stockley protest blocked streets, disrupted shopping malls, and clashes with police eventually led to the shut down major pop concerts in the city.
The St Louis school walkouts also show an example of how liberal teachers and school administrators, whether just by misplaced good intentions or machiavellian ingenuity can undermine the effectiveness of the tactic.
Teachers at University City High School allowed students an official short demonstration before the start of class, students were expected to stay on the sidewalk outside their school, and return to class when the end of the demonstration was announced. However a group of kids had other ideas, and as soon as the end of the demonstration was announced, set off in the opposite direction, unfortunately coralled back to school again by over-enthusiastic teaching staff. There is no doubt that school administrators will either attempt to keep protests within very strict parameters, or stop them happening altogether, so students should be prepared, and organised via whatsapp, instagram, writing on paper, toilet doors (or whatever you kids use these days) to take things outside their control.
This isn't only a tactic used against school kids. In February 2017, liberal film maker David Simon gave all the staff at his company the day off, to attend a 'National General Strike' on February 18th5 . This was followed by companies such as Google giving staff an hour or two off in the afternoon to attend anti-Trump rallies. Needless to say, if the company gives everyone a day (or afternoon) off their regular duties to attend a rally, it's a team building exercise, not a strike. These show that employers and school administrators are worried about a genuine strike action, so they're not to be sniffed at, but they offer a way for people to let of steam without challenging institutional authority, which is the root cause of the societal problems people are fighting against.
School students can best protect themselves against the combined threats of mass shootings, ICE deportations and police violence by taking control of their own struggles.
Where possible, encourage teachers to support them in taking disruptive action, instead of constraining their activity to a set piece lunchtime rally.
Disrupt the flow of capital in your communities, not just the functioning of your school but the roads and businesses connected to it - A walkout at lunchtime might empty your school; but a walkout before school could block traffic and public transport, disrupting the economy by making hundreds or even thousands of people late for work.
Be prepared to take further action if students are disciplined for taking part.
Most importantly talk about all these possibilities and limitations in advance.
- 2Deliveries of fixed capital to companies, of commodities to consumers, of workers to workplaces.
- 3Blockades are not a new strategy, during the 1894 Pullman strike by workers organised under the exclusively white American Railway Union, black communities in Chicago overturned cars in their neighbourhoods to support the strike action. The history of mass strikes in the US has always involved support from outside the workplace and clashes with police (and until the mid-20th Century the National Guard and the Pinkertons) - it was never just 'stopping work'.