Across the United States on Saturday, student activists facilitated dozens of public meetings aimed at discussing gun control. But though they invited local and state lawmakers to the forums, many of those elected officials declined to attend. Organizers, undeterred and unwilling to let those lawmakers off the hook, came up with a way to highlight those absences. Coordinators for the meetings, which were collectively dubbed Town Hall For Our Lives, left politicians' chairs empty if they decided not to make an appearance.
"A town hall isn’t a new concept, but in the wake of all the recent tragedies it’s something that’s so important," said Susanna Bucklin, a high schooler and town hall organizer in Wisconsin, according to NBC. Bucklin helped put together a town hall even while Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the state's most high-profile federal lawmaker, declined to attend. Ryan's office reportedly told Bucklin that he had prior engagements on Saturday, when the event took place.
Ryan's district was not the only one in which constituents were left to hold town halls sans their respected elected officials. Over 120 lawmakers were estimated to have skipped out on Town Hall For Our Lives events, according to The Hill.
Event organizers handled their respective absences in different ways. Some opted to leave chairs empty at the front of the room, where the missing politician or politicians would have sat. Others opted to fill those absences with cardboard cutouts of the elected officials in question. At least one event featured a chair with a suit resting on top of it, representing a missing lawmaker.
Photos of the empty seats and cardboard cutouts popped up on Twitter throughout the day.
Town Hall Project partnered with the student organizers, many of whom were affiliated with or inspired by the similarly-named March For Our Lives, a series of gun control rallies which took place on March 23.
The open source initiative, which tracks politicians' public events and maintains a comprehensive calendar of when and where they take place, included Town Hall For Our Lives events on its website. If a lawmaker had declined an invitation, website managers designated that town hall as an "empty chair town hall" and listed which local lawmakers would be in attendance, juxtaposed with those who had declined.
In a comprehensive guide on their website, Town Hall Project encouraged Town Hall For Our Lives organizers to put pressure on elected representatives opting out of the forums. Specifically, the website instructs organizers to reach out to congressional candidates if a member of Congress turned down an invitation to attend.
"If your sitting member of Congress won’t take the time to hear from her or his constituents, it’s time to let people speak out to those running for office who are going to put people over special interests," the guide reads. "Invite any and all declared candidates for that congressional district."
If photos and videos shared to Twitter are any indication, the young constituents took that advice to heart, not only inviting lawmakers, but visually underscoring those politicians who didn't participate.
The wave of student-led town hall events was a direct result of a February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 high school students and staff dead. In the shooting's aftermath, survivors snapped to action, running social media campaigns and organizing March's March For Our Lives, a series of rallies demanding gun control.
The Town Hall For Our Lives movement drew upon the march's momentum. Over 100 Town Hall For Our Lives events were scheduled over the weekend, and over a dozen more are planned for the rest of the month of April.