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Can you keep an activist campaign running during a pandemic? March For Our Lives is trying

“Celebrity” guests on Zoom, artistic expression, and phone recruitment have all become parts of the new landscape of online activism for curbing gun violence.

Can you keep an activist campaign running during a pandemic? March For Our Lives is trying

The original March For Our Lives event in 2018 formed the largest youth-led protests in American history, with turnout estimated at more than 2 million in 387 districts across the nation, protesting the lack of gun control legislation. Since then, the group that started locally in Parkland, Florida, has expanded, organizing more marches, sit-ins, and bus tours. They’ve become as a disrupting force in the fight against gun violence. “That’s how we took a hold of this conversation,” says Trevor Wild, March’s regional organizing director for the southeast.

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What happens when a group that’s been so focused on in-person activism has to figure out how to adapt to organizing during a worldwide pandemic? Gun violence is still rampant even the lockdown, and at a time when traditional podiums, banners, and buses are out of reach, the group has had to switch tactics, turning to virtual engagement, increased focus on phone banking and social media outreach, and other expressive outlets. It’s especially urgent in an election year, when turning out the youth vote is a firm goal.

On the weekend of March 10, they commenced the campaign with a six-hour Zoom call involving volunteers from all over the country. At any given time, there were an estimated 1,000 people on the call.

Reacting to an unprecedented wave of mass shootings, the March For Our Lives campaign worked to increase voter registration for the 2018 midterms, with the long-term goal of electing representatives who would reshape gun policy. Through canvassing and collaborating, it played a part in driving the largest number of young people to the polls in 25 years; turnout among ages 18-29 was 32.6%, double the 2014 turnout of 16.3%.

The organization had hoped to duplicate its efforts for the high-stakes presidential election in 2020: to bring in new members and reinvigorate current chapter members. To that end, it had planned to launch its official 2020 campaign: Our Power, a new program for mobilizing young people.

Then, the coronavirus hit. “When this world flipped upside down, we had a choice,” Wild says. “We could either cancel the Our Power campaign, or we could push through and innovate and do what we did in 2018.” So, in March, the two-year anniversary of the original protest, they launched a digitally rebranded version of Our Power.

That called for some strategic tweaks, to move from traditional to digital campaigning. Pre-COVID-19, they’d planned banner drops and sit-ins—in-person strategies they refer to as “direct disruptions”—but that all had to move online. On the weekend of March 10, they commenced the campaign with a six-hour Zoom call involving volunteers from all over the country. At any given time, there were an estimated 1,000 people on the call. It featured Q&As with organizers, panelist discussions, training presentations, digital music concerts, and art exhibitions—and a kick-off appearance from Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Since the initial call, March has put on these Zoom meetings weekly, dubbing them “Our Power Hubs.” They’ve had other on-mission high-profile guests digitally drop by, including March founding member Emma González, Georgia Representative Lucy McBath, and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. “For the kids in our chapter network, U.S. senators are celebrities,” Wild says.

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The weekly hubs include training sessions and webinars, and have emphasized a newfound importance of phone banking. The phone outreach has focused on locating coronavirus support for those in need, building awareness within communities for mutual aid resources. Sessions have prioritized answering people’s questions about the Census, and have tackled get-out-the-vote and recruitment priorities. As of the April 10, they had made 6,000 calls, and recruited 142 new members.

Organizing in front of a screen of peers is a world apart from the camaraderie felt by being in physical proximity to fellow organizers, whether for phone banking, making posters, or planning events. “There’s an energy that builds when you’re around a bunch of powerful young people,” says Ariel Hobbs, a March board member based in Houston. “It’s hard to replicate that energy.”

There’s an energy that builds when you’re around a bunch of powerful young people. It’s hard to replicate that energy.”

Ariel Hobbs

But, the Our Power campaign has helped find voices for volunteers who perhaps weren’t comfortable joining in before: people who care about the cause but may be daunted by activities such as speaking at large events. Some of the digital events have catered to people who prefer to express their activism via art, for example. March did a lot of “artivism” before, such as big art installations outside the Capitol Building and in Times Square; now, those lofty projects have had to morph into online projects.

Unquiet, a 24-page digital zine that launched March 24, contains various poems, drawings, collages, and digital graphics from young creatives around the country. One gripping piece is a pencil drawing of the famous “Whipped Peter” slave photo, with the words, “America was never great” carved into his welted back. One colorful graphic focuses on the intersection of undocumented immigrants and gun violence, with the text, “Las balas no piden papeles,” or “bullets don’t ask for papers.” Another, featuring a semi-automatic rifle inside a coffin, urges, “Put guns to rest.”

Though it’s missing in the headlines, gun violence has remained rife during the pandemic. The Trump administration ruled gun shops as essential businesses, and the FBI reported 3.7 million background checks in March, the highest in any month in more than 20 years. Shootings in Chicago have stayed consistently high, and even mass shootings have persisted. Kelly Choi, an Asian-American March member in Houston, personally worries about the rise in hate crimes against her community.

Social media now plays an indispensable role in broadcasting messages about these risks. Most of the organization’s 300-odd local chapters have their own Twitter and Facebook accounts, which have increased posts about safe gun storage in the home, at a time when families are sheltered with children around, and high tensions and close quarters making domestic violence a real concern. Engagement on social media has gone up since the start of quarantine, the group reports.

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Strategy aside, the coronavirus crisis has drawn attention to fundamental, systemic problems, creating new avenues for activism. It’s exhibited the injustice of workers on the front lines still only getting minimum wage, immigrants experiencing hate crimes and not receiving relief packages, and crippled unemployment systems in many states. It’s exposed new attempts at voter suppression, which the group is addressing by actively pushing virtual voting-by-mail drives. “This is a moment that has sparked such an outrage at the failures of so many different structures of society,” Wild says.

A massive, nationwide campaign has needed technology to connect since the very start, and everyone’s naturally become pros at tools spanning from Zoom to Snapchat. Ultimately, March’s goals are just as possible digitally. “Our activism isn’t just performative,” Choi says. “It isn’t just to go and rally in the street. It’s to create change and to save lives.”
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