Apr/May 2019

Parkland, One Year Later

On the March for Our Lives and the politics of gun control

Patrick Blanchfield


Parkland

by Dave Cullen

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IT HAS BEEN ONE YEAR since a young man armed with an assault rifle killed seventeen students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Since then, the horizon of possibility when it comes to gun control has broadened dramatically. More than twenty states have enacted new legislation, raising minimum-age purchasing requirements for certain weapons and imposing mechanisms to separate alleged domestic abusers from their guns. A freshly invigorated Democratic majority in Congress has just proposed a new assault weapons ban. Voters tell pollsters the issue is newly urgent for them, and a growing contingent of young voters say their desire for gun control is what drove them to register.

These developments owe in large part to the public pressure of a youth movement inspired and organized by a small cadre of Parkland survivors who emerged from the shooting “resolved to mark Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as the final outpost in a generational war.” If any nonfiction writer is equipped to tell this story, it’s Dave Cullen, the veteran journalist whose award-winning 2009 Columbine documented, in excruciating detail, the 1999 school shooting, which left thirteen students and faculty members dead (not including the two shooters, who killed themselves) and inaugurated a new era of mass killings. Parkland, however, is a very different book from Columbine. The latter took nearly a decade to research and write, and made Cullen’s name as, in his words, the media’s “go-to mass-murder guy”; the former was composed in under a year, with Cullen shadowing the activists as an established expert on the mass-shooting beat. Whereas Columbine offered a psychological autopsy of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, Parkland does not linger on the background of its shooter. Cullen notes the many red flags in his case (including a score of police visits to his home and a tip-off to the FBI) but refuses to name him. His reticence is justifiable; Cullen is loath to fuel what has clearly become a cycle of notoriety-driven copycat killings. “One name will not appear in this book,” he writes, “that of the killer, who quickly grew irrelevant. Although he inadvertently set off an uprising, he is of little significance himself.” Instead, Cullen focuses on the activist survivors, and on the “uprising” they catalyzed. “The Parkland kids seem to have accidentally solved the problem of celebrity shooters,” Cullen notes, “simply by becoming bigger celebrities themselves.”

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Seven-year-old Emma at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School memorial site, Parkland, Florida, March 10, 2018.

In Cullen’s telling, the Parkland students embody a generation that grew up in the shadow of Columbine, one “raised on lock-down drills—responding to tragedy by learning to hide better.” But instead of remaining cowed, the teenagers he profiles are full of righteous fury at the murder of their classmates and the failure of the adult world to prevent it. Trapped in locked classrooms for hours as their peers died, they tracked news of the shooting in real time on their phones and documented their terror and rage on social media. After Columbine, survivors had no script, and so were absorbed into what soon ossified into a national ritual of “thoughts and prayers” followed by inaction. But the Parkland students knew exactly what to expect—and rejected it. Only hours after the shooting, they were confronting reporters on TV, demanding that Americans contact their congresspeople, and launching appeals for change that went viral nationwide and beyond. “The Parkland generation was prepared on day one,” Cullen writes.

Before the shooting, the core organizers Cullen profiles were all engaged in different ways with student leadership and the performing arts. David Hogg was news director of the school’s student TV station; Jaclyn (Jackie) Corin its junior class president; Emma González was president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, and Cameron Kasky and Alfonso Calderon were heavily involved in school theater. In the hours and days after Parkland, they leveraged these existing social networks and their comfort with public speaking to heighten exposure and set hashtags trending, and quickly found each other, pooled resources, and combined their efforts. Some of these young people might self-describe as misfits, but this designation, Cullen makes clear, is not incompatible with social savvy.

Shadowing the activists for a year, Cullen conveys the excitement of organizing and the ups and downs of movement-building. The students stage a protest trip to meet with state legislators in Tallahassee and initiate a nationwide student walkout. They hold die-ins and pickets, at first finding themselves stupefied by the indifference of some Americans they meet. “I learned that even if I cry in front of a senator, they won’t change their mind,” Corin tells Cullen. “I cried twice in Tallahassee. Hearing them say that they’re not changing their opinion even though we were there. And then the same thing happened in DC. I talked to Congressman Steve Scalise—he was shot during the baseball game—and hearing him say that guns aren’t the problem, I started crying.”

Their early efforts culminate in the March for Our Lives rally in March 2018. Only five weeks after the shooting itself, nearly half a million protesters gather in Washington. At the same time, somewhere between one and a half and two million protesters rally at marches nationwide, making it the “third- or more likely fourth-largest demonstration in national history.” One wounded Parkland survivor, Sam Fuentes, is overwhelmed at the podium, throws up, and then keeps going. González’s turn at the mic, punctuated by minutes of haunting silence, will likely go down as one of the most watched speeches by a teenager in American history.

The book documents, amid this public ferment, the palpable malice and danger faced by a group of teens thrust into the center of the national debate over gun control. Cullen does not sugarcoat this: However inspirational they may be, these young people are also clearly struggling, in different ways, with trauma. More than once, he asks whether they have taken on more than they can handle. He is particularly shaken after one conversation with González, who tells him: “We could get shot by someone who’s like, ‘Don’t take away my guns!’ Which is not what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to take away anybody’s guns, but they misconstrue our message because they’re afraid of this becoming a slippery slope. They’re afraid of us because we have a voice now.” Although at pains to respect the autonomy and maturity of the students he profiles, Cullen is still disturbed by this frank acknowledgment that their activism could leave them open to very real, even lethal risks. In this context, he worries—elliptically—about the relationship between trauma, recovery, and flirtation with self-destruction. “Trauma is unpredictable. It lurks for months or years, and can take you down in an instant. Debilitating depression can follow, or worse. Sometimes the cliff comes with warning signs. Other times, other kids dance along the edge oblivious, until the moment they careen off.” Yet the students persevere. As a psychiatrist specializing in childhood trauma tells Cullen, their activism may also be an adaptive sign of mental health: “They’re saying, ‘Hang on. Stop. I’m going to regain control. We’re going to do something about these weapons that we had no control over.’”

Cullen also documents how the March for Our Lives teens—a group of largely white youth hailing from Florida’s gated communities—must struggle with the double binds, forced trade-offs, and unspoken taboos of the gun control debate. From the start, and to their great credit, the students have acknowledged that mass shootings on suburban school campuses represent but a small fraction of American gun violence, the victims of which are disproportionately urban, poor, and black. Mainstream debate tends to divide these phenomena into separate boxes, but the Parkland students sought from early on to build alliances with two activist organizations in Chicago, the Peace Warriors and BRAVE, and to welcome critics of color, including from their own school, into their core group. The March for Our Lives has partnered and shared funding with minority activist groups, demanded coverage of inner-city shootings from reporters inclined only to write profiles of the students, and undertaken a nationwide bus tour, modeled on civil-rights-era Freedom Rides, starting in Chicago.

The prospects for genuinely intersectional gun control are inspiring. But this is also where the picture Cullen paints seems most dysphoric. Parkland presents the problem of “urban violence” as an issue of coalition-building, inclusivity, and optics; a fundamental synergy between reducing school shootings and curbing inner-city violence is presupposed. Yet American history suggests otherwise: From at least the late 1980s onward, mass shootings against exemplarily innocent children have been used to justify funding ever more aggressive policing that has translated into black and brown men getting thrown behind bars and shot. “Common sense” appeals to keep guns away from “criminals” may receive broad support from a majority of Americans (how could they not?), but the blunt fact is that many urban spaces in America are already flush with guns and people who have criminal records for low-level offenses like drug possession. What this means in practice is that cracking down “on guns” always threatens to reinforce the most fundamental dynamic of American gun politics: the criminalization of entire communities by armed agents of the state. In fact, under Donald Trump and his erstwhile attorney general Jeff Sessions, the US Justice Department has pursued low-level weapon possession charges against drug and other offenders to a degree unseen in any recent administration, with the overwhelming majority of those charged and convicted being black. This development has come to pass with the approval of liberal gun control voices, including that of the Brady Campaign, originally known as the National Council to Control Handguns, which was itself founded after a white graduate student at the University of Chicago was threatened with being shot during an off-campus mugging.

In other words, certain kinds of violence are widely understood to be acceptable until they claim victims they are not supposed to or happen in spaces that are meant to be kept hygienically safe from such events. Many Americans today view gun violence in the form of police shootings as a normal, inevitable, or even salutary feature of the social order. It is shootings that happen to more “valuable” persons (above all to white and middle- and upper-class children) and in valued places (schools, offices, churches, and malls) that represent a crisis that must be combated—more often than not by further empowering and arming state agents.

While Cullen does not explore this tension, some of the Parkland students, Hogg in particular, have rejected police-centered gun control interventions and demanded action on police shootings of unarmed minorities. But this is still America, which means that the bulk of March for Our Lives activism respects various pious norms. Perhaps inevitably, many activists are quick to telegraph to Americans in “gun country” that they have no problem with the Second Amendment itself, nor with the American military—as when, in a televised debate showdown with Marco Rubio, one activist points to a peer and demands of the senator: “This is my friend who is going into the military. . . . I need you to tell him that he’s going to live to make it to serve our country.” Savvy as it may be as a gambit against a Republican like Rubio, this appeal rests on a fallacy: namely, that it is scandalous for young patriots to be shot by guns here when they should be bearing arms over there, somewhere else. But what if this kind of cultural narrative is part of why mass violence happens the way it does here, on the so-called home front? What if our national relationship to violence, both outwardly directed and inwardly suffered, reveals two sides of the same coin? Even as Parkland students in the ROTC sacrificed their lives, with heart-breaking bravery, to save their peers, the shooter himself was ex-ROTC, and carried an AR-15 explicitly branded as a “Military & Police” model, the better to appeal to military-crazed civilians.

All this is to say that the question of whether the United States can ever have socially just gun control without discontinuing structurally racist policing remains open. It is doubtless unfair and unrealistic to expect a group of teenagers, no matter how talented or influential, to simultaneously change the hearts and minds of voters while also transforming some of the most elemental features of the American political landscape. Parkland suggests that the past year of activism is taking place within a political window that even the most inspirational and dramatic campaigns can only crack, not throw wide open. Cullen makes clear that the Parkland teens want to initiate a multigenerational struggle. Meanwhile, he observes, other, more marginalized Americans might feel lucky to have received the exposure they did. “Everyone marveled at all the white people,” Cullen writes of the kickoff of the bus tour in Chicago. “The locals said they were thrilled to have them. They needed those white people, and if it took the Parkland kids to bring them, bless those kids.”

There is a long history of activists using outrage over high-profile acts of violence to demand change that affects less exceptional victims. In March of 1891, a mob of New Orleanians led by an anti-immigrant district attorney invaded the city jail, killed nine Italian prisoners inside, seized two others, hanged them from a tree and lamppost, and shot their bodies to pieces. No charges were filed; for many Americans at the time, lynching was unremarkable. Yet what had happened in New Orleans soon grew into an international scandal, thanks to the efforts of surviving family members and the work of dedicated anti-lynching activists. In a singular and highly public way, a previously normalized kind of violence—extrajudicial terror that sought to impose white supremacy on black lives—had claimed the wrong people as victims. As a result, several Southern states passed their first anti-lynching measures. These laws were rarely enforced, but the precedent of state action furnished activists with a powerful appeal. Ida B. Wells would later argue to President McKinley that if the government could recognize the evil of lynching in the case of Italian immigrants, surely it must do the same for its black citizens. Today, Wells’s argument to McKinley is mirrored in the position of the urban black American poor, the demographic most vulnerable to American gun violence, who must hope that outrage at exceptional cases involving more socially valued persons, like the teens of Parkland, will improve their own plight. History also suggests that the Parkland activists are being realistic when they speak of change on a generational timeline, particularly when it comes to federal law. After all, anti-lynching advocates first introduced legislation to Congress in 1918. The US Senate finally passed a law making lynching a federal crime a full century later, in December 2018.

Patrick Blanchfield is a writer and associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.

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