A few weeks ago, Bryce O’Connor of Perkasie, Bucks County, probably didn’t picture spending his 17th birthday quite like this—standing on a frigid, windswept sidewalk near the Rite Aid that stands kitty-corner from his Pennridge High School, getting the occasional honk-honk or a wave from passersby when they realized he and a dozen other folks were protesting gun violence.
But, then, Bryce didn’t plan on defying school officials and walking out of school March 14, earning a two-hour Saturday detention that he’d served last week. Now he was here with his dad and his also-birthday-celebrating twin brother, showing support for the next batch of detainees who’ve branded themselves the #Pennridge225.
“I was walking by the doors that everybody was walking out of and thinking, ‘In 20 years from now, what am I going to tell my kids about what I did on this day?'” Bryce recalled of March 14’s National School Walkout Day, after the Pennridge School District had warned that anyone leaving the building would be punished. “So I walked out. I thought it was something I had to do.”
And when Bryce and others in the first detention batch of 46 teens staged and filmed “a modern sit-in” last Saturday morning when they took their punishment, it became a viral act of defiance that may have angered some grown-ups, but earned praise and even amazement from other grown-ups, like his dad, Jim O’Connor.
“There are times—very rare—when you do have to stand up and break the rules,” the 48-year-old O’Connor said, as the wind whipped across the ridge that gives the high school its name. “And understand there are good people out there who will support you.” The dad held aloft a sign from a week earlier. It read: WAITING While My Child Is PUNISHED FOR BEING AWESOME! #ENOUGH
The prevailing winds on Saturday were heading south for the epic March For Our Lives, to Washington, D.C., where some of Bryce’s Pennridge classmates traveled to join a human tsunami of 500,000 or more demonstrators, or to satellite events like a packed Philadelphia protest. Yet I found myself, in dawn’s early light, heading north against those gusts to Perkasie, 30 miles north of Philadelphia, to witness the hardy two dozen teens, parents, and allies. They were there to show support for some kids who couldn’t march on the U.S. Capitol because they were forced to reenact The Breakfast Club.
It’s a protest that captures the imagination because in this supercharged moment of a fresh generational uprising, with a million people in the streets, singing songs and carrying signs, the Pennridge 225 have injected the one element most likely to spark a real change:
They broke the rules.
Sometimes you have to sit before you can march—which explains why the video of the Pennridge kids protesting their detention, locking arms on the floor, and holding the names of 14 teens who were gunned down last month in Parkland, Fla., has been viewed more than 3 million times. Rep. John Lewis—who knows more about fighting for social change than any living human, the only person who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington and at Saturday’s March For Our Lives (in his hometown Atlanta)—has a phrase for what these kids are doing. He calls it “good trouble.”
Lewis wrote earlier this year that “I think we’re going to have generations for years to come that will be prepared to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. And lead us to higher heights.” And here come some kids from Pennsylvania Trump Country (the president carried the area around Pennridge High School by about 10 percentage points) to prove his point.
Hundreds of thousands of kids across America walked out March 14 to honor the dead from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and call for stricter gun laws, but few on the Eastern Seaboard faced as much hassle as the Pennridge 225. Their initial plan for a 17-minute protest didn’t pass muster with the GOP-led school board, including one—Joan Cullen—who later tweeted at Philadelphia talk radio hosts that the protests were “truly radical, anti-police, anti-U.S. govt.”
There were moments when things got nasty in the hallways. Makenzy Portney, a 16-year-old junior, said someone called her “a liberal retard” as she headed for the door that morning. Indeed, some kids decided the protest—and the mandatory Saturday morning detention that awaited anyone who walked—wasn’t worth the risk.
“I have a scholarship that rides on me not getting a suspension,” said 18-year-old senior John Bordo, recently accepted at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. But Bordo did what he felt he could by showing up this Saturday to cheer on his classmates who waved from the windows of minivans as their parents drove them to their punishment.
Ironically, what could have been mostly over 10 days ago, in 17 short minutes, has instead become a running civics lesson for the Pennridge kids — on the meaning of civil disobedience and how to best celebrate the First Amendment and the rights of free speech and free assembly. For the second Saturday in a row, the allies of the Pennridge 225—who’d been ordered off school property by police—faced about a half-dozen counterprotesters, Pennridge seniors who’ve used the controversy to show support both for Second Amendment gun rights and for Trump, occasionally breaking out into “God Bless America” or Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.”
“We didn’t feel it was fair that they were getting all the media attention,” said Daniel Mainieri III, 18, an activist in the local Young Republicans who wore a “Make America Great Again” hat and wants to run for office one day. “We wanted to show the press and the people of the country that there are people who aren’t in agreement with what they’re standing for.”
Yet Mainieri shared one thing with several teens on the other side of the street: A desire to make a life in politics, despite the current stench in Washington.
When the two-hour detention ended at 10 a.m., one of the kids who streamed out to applause—15-year-old Emma Hawkins, bearing a batch of posters including one with a semiautomatic that read AN ASSAULT ON OUR FUTURE—said she also wants to go into politics, prompting her mom to blurt out that means she plans to run for president. But for right now, the Pennridge activists are focused on the more down-to-earth goal of getting 18-year-olds to register—and vote in school board elections.
“I didn’t consider it a punishment,” said Emma, who said school officials on Saturday prevented a sit-in similar to the one that took place a week earlier, although it wasn’t immediately clear how. “I consider it a badge of honor.”
So do a lot of impressed grown-ups. Yes, I realize that comparisons to the 1960s (of which I’ve made way more than my fair share) can be overwrought, that there’s a new generation with a new explanation. That said, one can’t look at the events of 2018 so far and not be reminded of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, when adults foolishly tried to restrict what young people can say—and instead opened a Pandora’s box of righteous grievances against war and social injustice.
My hunch is that the remarkable scenes we witnessed Saturday were the cusp of another great youth awakening in America. I can’t predict where it’s headed, and neither can you. But expect a lot more good trouble. Necessary trouble.