Student protest leader Josh Groven, growing up on the right side of history

Apple Valley high school student Josh Groven spent 13 hours in Sen. Warren Limmer's office, trying to get the Maple Grove Republican to at least hold discussions on gun control.

Apple Valley high school student Josh Groven spent 13 hours in Sen. Warren Limmer's office, trying to get the Maple Grove Republican to at least hold discussions on gun control. Josh Groven

Josh Groven remembers the moments after he spent 13 hours sitting in Minnesota state Sen. Warren Limmer’s office in St. Paul, wearing a suit and mostly getting ignored by everyone who worked there.

He and a group of students had refused to leave and had interrupted a hearing, demanding that the legislators at least discuss options for gun control. They got gaveled and escorted out.

But he wasn’t being ignored by everyone. Before he knew it, his photo -- staring down the Maple Grove Republican with his arms crossed -- was everywhere. One of his father’s friends mentioned seeing Groven in the Seattle Times. In the afterglow of that exciting, exhausting, confusing day, he felt energized. He was ready for more.

But he wasn’t ready for exactly how much more. As spring break rolled around, the senior at the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley got constant emails and notifications from news organizations, town hall organizers, and activists. There were invitations to a flood of events, to give speeches and interviews. Every ping was a question: “What’s next?”

“It felt good in one way, but also very exhausting,” Groven says. He wasn’t used to getting this kind of attention, or being the subject of internet conspiracy theories that peg him as a puppet of the DFL.

“So let’s see, an orchestrated event set up by a Democratic senator – and that’s brave??” wrote one critic.

“That kid needs some duct tape to shut him up,” wrote another.

He finds the taunts more funny than anything else, as if he couldn’t possibly have an opinion on his chances of getting shot at school.

He’s a high school kid, after all, and spends a lot of his time working hard on his roster of classes: AP psych, AP seminar, AP human geography, AP environmental science, AP literature, and chemistry.

Yeah, he likes school. No, he doesn’t get as much sleep as he’s supposed to.

What keeps him up at night? Wasted potential. He thinks about wasted potential all the time.

He wasn’t even old enough to vote when this whole sit-in thing went viral. All he and the nearly 20 students at the March 19 sit-in wanted was for Limmer to allow gun control to be debated and discussed. Suddenly, he had the ear of the state.

It wasn’t like he was alone in all this. Sure, he’s more politically engaged than the average kid, but most of his friends are, too. He’s been participating in demonstrations and protests since he was a freshman. His first was over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man who died in the back of a Baltimore Police van after being denied medical attention.

Until that point, he’d been interested in politics and current events, but that incident made them real for him. Politics became more than just this abstract thing you heard about in the news. They were a matter of life and death.

On March 14, he and a group of six or seven students organized a joint gun violence walkout in Apple Valley, Eagan, and Prior Lake, with students leading marches in several different schools.

That was what initially inspired the idea for the sit-in at Limmer’s office. As the chair of the Senate Judiciary’s public safety committee, Limmer decides whether or not a gun control bill will go before the Senate. So far, the senator has refused to even allow a discussion.

The high school walkout was great, Groven says. But it also felt removed. He wanted to take the protest to the people who were actually making decisions.

That Limmer wouldn’t even entertain the notion of gun control legislation let him down. These things need to be discussed in a public setting, he says -- even if not everyone agrees. It’s important to give an idea its space before it’s either taken up or thrown away. That’s what the political process is for.

“Currently, the Minnesota Legislature, I’m disappointed with it,” he says. “That’s not at all how the process should be functioning.”

At least that’s not at all the glories of democracy as taught in civics classes. The School of Environmental Studies is pretty politically hip, he says, but students still don’t get a lot of information on the act of being political, on voting and writing your congressperson. They certainly don’t get taught how to protest.

But things are different now. Protesting is just something that Groven and his peers do to get a word in edgewise. It’s how the high-schoolers from Parkland, Florida are getting things done.

But the idea of things being broken doesn’t make Groven any less optimistic. He’ll be attending and organizing more protests. After all, he says, everything happening now will one day be in a history textbook. He’d prefer to be on the better pages.

Besides, he’ll be 18 on May 20, and he’s looking forward to finally being able to make good on the slogan “vote them out.”