Discerning the Truth About Student Activism

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Truth Student Activism
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Lane Murdock, a 15-year-old Connecticut girl, has organized a National School Walkout Day on April 20 to protest gun violence. Prompted to action by the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the teenager created a petition on change.org that has over 254,000 signatures. It was followed by an official website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account where Murdock regularly interacts with both supporters and detractors.

Murdock, who grew up a 30-minute drive from Sandy Hook, is the latest student to emerge as a national activist against gun violence. She confirmed in an interview that the anniversary of Columbine was the reason for the April 20 date. The 1999 school shooting in Colorado first brought the reality of gun violence in schools to national consciousness.

Yet, in our current political climate, where an entire issue can be dismissed with the “fake news” label, where political views are decidedly liberal or conservative and the middle of the road opinion is apathy, rumors about and criticisms of the purpose and origins of the walkout are rampant.

For example, April 20 is also a day celebrated by marijuana aficionados. While the origins of the date are hazy, it likely originated from a group of students who met to smoke at 4:20 p.m. back in the 1970s. Detractors of the protest have argued that the walkout is merely an excuse to skip school and smoke pot.

However, in a Tweet from the @schoolwalkoutUS Twitter account, Murdock, who runs the account, acknowledged that the dates coincide but pointed out that many students who planned to partake in any marijuana activities likely would not be in class that day. She invited the students who do attend classes to join in the walkout. The April walkout will last an entire day, unlike the 17-minute walkout on March 14. There will be speakers, activities, and voter registration.

April 20 is also Adolf Hitler’s birthday. The Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, chose the date because of Hitler’s birthday, according to a story in the New York Times, but there are conflicting reports. David Cullen wrote in his book Columbine that the planned date was April 19 based on documents released by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, including excerpts from the killers’ journals.

Michael Moore, the director of the documentary Bowling for Columbine, interviewed the parents of one of the killers for the film. While the interviews were cut from the film, Moore later disputed any connection to Hitler’s birthday, saying, “The idea that [they] picked the date of the killings because it was Hitler’s birthday is ridiculous.” The reason?  “People don’t realize the Klebolds are Jewish. That would not have been Dylan’s reasoning.”

Nevertheless, there are dozens of commenters on various websites that make up the underbelly of the internet who claim that Murdock chose the day to commemorate Hitler’s birthday. These claims often appear alongside racial epithets and calls for the downfall of fascism and communism. Many are anonymous. Other people reason that because the killers at Columbine chose the date for its connection to Hitler, it was insensitive of Murdock to choose that date.

The National School Walkout is being plagued by conspiracy theories of the same type that have afflicted victims of school gun violence. Sandy Hook residents have withstood rumors that the children they lost never existed and were part of an elaborately staged plot to deceive the American public. David Hogg, a student survivor of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, has had to state in interviews that he is not a crisis actor. Even Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has received approximately $3.3 million from the NRA in his political career, felt compelled to criticize the decency of those who perpetuated this falsehood on Twitter.

It is unsurprising that people are already conjecturing that Murdock is a bot, an adult posing as a child, or a crony of unnamed liberal politicians, especially in light of Congressional findings that Russian hackers infiltrated Facebook and retweeted messages by Donald Trump more than two million times in the runup to the 2016 presidential election. Fox News reported that the bots were not partisan but rather anti-American; meanwhile Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues his investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. Truth has become a murky topic.

The Women’s March website maintains a list of walkouts planned for April 20, and it appears that for now the National Walkout is operating separately from those who organized March for Our Lives. However, Murdock said she hoped to be able to meet with the students from Parkland who are leading the Never Again movement.

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