Student Voice

What Childish Gambino's 'This is America' Has to Do With School Shootings

I know there are a lot of interpretations of Childish Gambino’s new single “This is America” and what it all means, but here’s how I think it relates to the horror of school shootings and the short attention span we as a society have given to the students who raise their voices on the issue. First, a little background if you haven’t seen it. The video begins with a man playing guitar in a chair with Gambino standing behind him. After a few seconds, a sack is placed over the guitarist’s head and Gambino shoots him in the back of the head. It’s jarring. Especially since Gambino was smiling and dancing to an upbeat guitar riff just a few seconds prior. I see it as representative of the Las Vegas shooting, as the murderer shot at the crowd from a window more than 30 stories off the ground; much like the guitarist with his head covered, the crowd had no way to see the attack coming or fight back. Gambino hands his gun off to a helper, a child, and then dances forward as the chorus of “This is America” begins playing. During this time, a group of four youth, dressed in what looks like typical school uniforms, begin dancing behind him. The next scene is of a 10-person Black baptist choir. They sing the next section of the song together and dance with elation. Gambino enters the room and dances along with them in jubilation for the next few seconds. Then, from out of nowhere, someone tosses Gambino an assault rifle and he shoots down the entire choir without hesitation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY This bears a striking resemblance to the Charleston shooting, where the assailant spent time worshiping with the church goers before ultimately killing nine of them. Gambino then hands his rifle to another helper, and dances his way forward, this time with much more chaos in the background; cars burning, people rioting, furniture being thrown from balconies. But ultimately, just like last time, he continues dancing forward to the chorus of “This is America,” and uniformed school children dance behind him. This is a recurring theme. Despite the gore, Gambino dances almost the entire time. This video is already sparking thoughtful debate across the country. Nearly three months after the carnage Stoneman Douglas High School, Childish Gambino is forcing us to ask questions about the video: Why are children in this warehouse of violence? Why are people assisting this man in getting a weapon? Why aren’t they paying attention to the chaos all around them? Why has no one stopped dancing? Perhaps by design, each of those questions can be asked about America as a whole.

Why Are Children Exposed to Such Violence, America?

There are children in school, right now, who believe it’s normal to have active shooter drills in the same way they have to prepare for a fire, or have field-day once a year. That doesn’t have to be normal. People at just about every level dropped the ball before the Parkland shooting: counselors, local law enforcement, the FBI. The shooter should have been picked up long before February 14. In the wake of the shooting, students from Stoneman Douglas called for sensible gun reform. We need that, and we need to enforce the laws we already have. It’s been 19 years since Columbine. Isn’t it time we take this issue seriously? It’s also remarkable how the children model themselves after the shooter while paying no attention to the victims of his attacks. This bears a striking resemblance to the way mass-shootings are portrayed in the media. The name, face, and life-story of the killer is portrayed everywhere, while the victims of the shooting are deceased. Why don’t we put more focus on the victims and survivors?  Why do we give mass murderers the opportunity to gain notoriety and receive fan mail for committing such heinous actions.

Why Are People Helping Him Get These Weapons, America?

In the same way Gambino’s rifle was thrown to him on screen, someone sold every weapon used in a mass shooting. Sometimes, the weapon wasn’t sold to the killer directly, but instead to someone who allowed the killer to access the weapon. In most cases, the shooter has proven himself to be dangerous before he obtained the weapon, in the same way Gambino received a rifle after already killing the guitarist. Shouldn’t a screening process be more stringent?


The point of the video became clear to me during the next scene. Gambino enters a parking lot, where the guitarist from the first scene—head still covered—begins playing his music again, while Gambino dances on top of a car. At first I didn’t understand. He was murdered in the first scene? How did he come back? That’s when it hit me; we forget so quickly about the victims of mass shootings. Violence in our communities and in our schools has become so constant, many are no longer phased by it. When a shooting occurs, we all publicly mourn for a week, lambast the killer, and demand change until a new scandal overwhelms the news cycle, and we largely forget about it. The reality of these shootings lasts much longer than they do in public consciousness. There are currently parents of middle and high school students in Newtown, Connecticut, that will forever be impacted by an event that has largely left the public consciousness. The Parkland shooting happened three months ago, but those students and families will never be the same again. We need to support them in making sure there is never again another school shooting, despite the fact that news coverage has already moved on.
Photo from YouTube.
Elijah Armstrong
Elijah Armstrong graduated from Penn State in 2019, and from The Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2020. In 2021 he started the Heumann-Armstrong award, a scholarship for students in the 6th grade and up (including higher education) who have experienced and fought against ableism in education.

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