A Care Package for Democracy

A copy of the Constitution (and some hand sanitizer) for the flight to D.C.

My daughter Sarah leaves San Francisco tonight for Washington DC, where she will join March for Our Lives.

Sarah is 15, a freshman at the Oakland School for the Arts (OSA), a California public charter school. As 9th grade class representative, she helped organize OSA’s participation in the recent 17-minute National School Walkout on the one-month anniversary of the shooting that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Students from thousands of American schools organized themselves on Twitter.

Sarah and her classmates at OSA are being trained to raise their voices, whether on the stage or at the podium, in the courtroom — or in the streets. Sarah’s education in this regard started at the Duck Pond preschool in our Oakland neighborhood, where the kids were groomed to be toddler activists: if they saw one child hurt another, in word or in deed, they knew to call for circle time. In elementary at Park Day School, the motto was “If you see something that’s broken, then it’s your job to fix it.” It’s easy to mock the earnest, ultra-liberal sensitivities of the Bay Area — and I do, quite often — but there is no denying the critical mass of awareness and resources available here.

Our neighbor Danny, who works at GoFundMe, the online fundraising platform, told Sarah that student travel grants were available for Saturday’s March for Our Lives. He encouraged her to apply. (Lest you think Danny is a typical Bay Area lefty, he served as a captain in the United States Marine Corps.) While Sarah was between performances at a theater competition last weekend, she organized a small delegation of OSA students to fly to DC, and drafted a travel budget, right down to the cost of the Metro tickets.

Last Sunday night, face still buried in her phone, she asked, “What’s a 501-c-3?” I explained, and minutes later, she asked me to proofread a note to her school principal, asking if the school could accept funds from March for Our Lives to pay for the plane tickets. The school could not, but the California Center for Civic Participation, a nonprofit in Sacramento, came to the rescue at the 11th hour with a banking assist. The funds were transferred within hours. These students are the mass shooting generation, yes, but also the multitasking generation with super computers fused to their palms.

They are woke and wired.

This morning, I pulled together a care packet for Sarah’s redeye. The citizen part of me selected a worn pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution her older brother Ben brought home in his senior year. A small American flag. That wonderful quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The mom in me tucked in energy bars, travel-sized toothpaste — and hand sanitizer.

During the flight, I hope Sarah can thumb to the Second Amendment in the little blue volume. Yes, it’s all online, and excerpted on bumper stickers too, but something about the infamous 27 words printed on the page offers fresh perspective: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Does this mean the Constitution protects the collective right of a “well regulated Militia” to bear Arms, the prevailing interpretation of the courts from 1787 until the 1980s? Or is it the second clause, the individual right of “the people” to bear arms, which has prevailed since the Reagan era, that has brought us where we are today? (Legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin deftly explores this ambiguity in this 2012 article for the New Yorker, published after the Newtown elementary school massacre.)

There will be time before landing to reflect as well on the First Amendment, both trendy and timeless, yet also misunderstood.

Each year, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania polls Americans’ civic literacy. The results of this annual Constitution Day survey are always dismal, and 2017 was no exception: only 10 per cent of those surveyed could name all the protections of the First Amendment. Almost half (48 per cent) got the free speech part, but only 3 percent (not a typo) could name the right to petition the government; 10 percent knew about the right of assembly; 14 percent named freedom of the press (ouch); 15 percent could tell you about freedom of religion. More than one-third of Americans could name no First Amendment right at all. Only one quarter of Americans surveyed, twenty-six per cent, could name all three branches of government.

To remedy this appalling deficit, Annenberg joined dozens of nonpartisan groups to launch the Civics Renewal Network, offering free online educational materials about the U.S. government. Regardless of politics, surely we can all agree that this is a worthy project. Or is even that a bridge too far?

Sarah tells me that students at California public schools do not take Civics until 12th grade. Because that is three years away for some, and the 2018 midterm election is in eight months, Sarah and her friends hacked their own solution. Using resources found online, they will tutor each other on how legislation is made and where to find unbiased research on the positions of candidates for Congress. Those who will turn 18 before November get first dibs on coaching.

Tomorrow I will march in San Francisco, in support of the hundreds of thousands of young people, Sarah among them, advancing on their Capitol to change broken laws. It will help if I suspend the question that nags me: why do our children now lead a struggle we should have waged on their behalf years ago? For the moment, I will put out of my mind the thought that otherwise haunts me: that of a broken parent in YOUR TOWN HERE, sitting across from the empty chair at the breakfast table, every day, for the rest of their lives. I will still cling though to the new American prayer: that I never join their ranks.

Those are my thoughts & prayers. For now, I will say thank you to our students. And urge them to keep on.