On March 14, 2018, they asked students to leave school at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes (for the 17 victims at Parkland). The protests were moving but happened haphazardly and only for a brief, emblematic period of time; they were repeated a month later on the anniversary of Columbine, and there were even some separately organized student strikes last week. The walkouts of 2018 may seem forgettable now, but they did point to a tactic that, used more aggressively, could genuinely get under the skin of some grown-ups.
And here is where hard power comes in. One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is that when children aren’t in school, society strains. This would make a strike an extremely powerful form of leverage. A walkout with enough students involved and taking place over days, not minutes, puts concrete pressure on officials, from the municipal level all the way up to Washington. When students aren’t in school, parents have difficulty getting to work. Suddenly understaffed services—hospitals, subways—suffer the consequences. Politicians and local officials have a mess on their hands—children falling behind in learning, parents overloaded—and a strong incentive to accede to a demand.
I’m not looking forward to having my own children at home or seeing them pay an unfair price in lost education. They’ve suffered enough during the pandemic, and they shouldn’t be on the front lines solving a problem their elders created. But history tells us that successful movements always demand difficult trade-offs. Take the classic example of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott to protest segregation in the mid-1950s. For 381 days, at great burden to themselves, the Black citizens of the city walked and carpooled and otherwise put in the hard work to organize themselves so they could avoid taking the bus. This kind of self-sacrifice not only built an enormous sense of solidarity; it also allowed them to win.