On Saturday morning, an estimated 175,000 people marched in the streets of New York City as part of the March for Our Lives, a gun-control protest organized by the survivors of the Parkland shooting. Hundreds of thousands more flooded the streets in Washington, D.C., and 20,000 people protested down in Parkland. In New York, there were signs as far as you could see in any direction. Signs covered in pictures of AR-15s with big, red ban circles drawn over them. Signs calling BS on “thoughts and prayers” rhetoric. Signs about how 18th-century laws are still being applied to 21st-century guns. And … signs covered in SpongeBob memes. This was, after all, a protest conceived and executed — with some help — by teenagers. Sure, the Our in March for Our Lives applies to everyone who lives in the United States and runs the risk of being killed by a gun, but mostly the lives being fought for on Saturday were the lives of schoolchildren. Many of whom were out marching with memes in hand.
In New York, I snapped a photo — and tweeted it — every time I spotted a kid with a meme-inspired sign. The unfaithful boyfriend meme recast with Trump staring at the NRA and ignoring “students lives.” A Mocking Sponge with a “Make America Great Again” hat. Several Krusty Krab versus Chum Bucket riffs. “I don’t get her sign,” I overheard a woman in front of me saying to the man next to her, while we were waiting to march. “Hi, I can explain that,” I said, breaking meme-rule No. 1: Never talk about a meme IRL. “It’s a good versus bad comparison. The Krusty Krab is ‘good,’ and the Chum Bucket is ‘bad.’ So the NRA is bad here.” “Oh, I guess I probably could have figured that out,” the woman replied. “That makes sense.”
By the end of the day, I’d tweeted photos of a half-dozen meme signs I’d seen in New York City. Other protesters started sending me DMs and replying to my tweets with pictures of their signs from different cities. Twitter created an entire moment dedicated to SpongeBob signs alone. But for every like and fave — just look at the impressive shading on this Chum Bucket — Twitter, and my mentions, quickly filled with people barking about how stupid these kids were. About how cartoon-covered poster board is a terrible way to get people — voters, government representatives, “adults” — to pay attention.
“And we are supposed to take you seriously?” asked one user. “It’s like they don’t understand or don’t know true facts so they just drew pictures instead,” tweeted another. “This is why the rest of the world hates us,” weighed in someone with, clearly, a nuanced understanding of international relations. “The left can’t meme,” somebody else wrote. “Has anyone told these children yet that you can’t vote with a crayon?” asked one Twitter user in response to a Krusty Krab versus Chum Bucket poster photo I’d tweeted. “I didn’t use crayons actually,” Luna, the talented teen artist behind the sign, snarked back. “I used prismacolor pencils, sharpies, and copic markers.”
The thing here is, these teens know exactly what they are doing. They know that a sign that says “#Enough” isn’t going to get thousands of retweets and national news attention, but that if you put that hashtag coming out of the mouth of Mr. Krabs … it might. You can’t vote with a crayon, but you can sure as hell get attention with one. And getting people to pay attention to gun violence, as any teen who has ever crouched beneath a desk and texted their families not knowing if they’d make it home alive would probably tell you, trumps being taken “seriously.” Putting a meme on a sign is, in a way, an act of disruption.
There’s a reason some of those same kids have roasted the likes of Tomi Lahren and Marco Rubio to ash on Twitter with apparent ease. There’s a reason a group of the Parkland survivors are holed up in a secret office in a strip mall in Florida where they spend their days engineering activist meme content engineered for virality. Teens are fighting the war on gun violence from their own turf, a digital-first turf where they speak the language fluently and everybody over the age of about 25, well, doesn’t. Calling them out on Twitter is exactly what they want you to do. If you’re taking the time to type out your half-baked argument that SpongeBob can’t be equated with seriousness, you’re playing right into their hands.