Heart first, then head. Reignite the imperative to act, and then map out how we get there.
Dave Cullen cemented his role as the go-to journalist for commentary on school shootings with Columbine, his ten-years-in-the-making book that brilliantly, painfully chronicles the narratives around the shooting that would unfortunately herald a rash of them. As a result of his research and immersion in this bleakest of subjects, Cullen suffered from secondary traumatic stress, or “vicarious traumatization”. He “discovered that post-traumatic stress disorder can strike even those who have not witnessed a trauma directly.”
This condition, sounding like a devastating mixture of PTSD and depression, hit him twice. Describing it, he says that he couldn’t “bear the prospect of documenting horror another time.” But the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day 2018 was immediately different. All the horrific touchpoints were there, but so was something new: a fierce, fighting group of teenagers who’d survived and were furious, motivated to make this the last time. If adults were unwilling or unable to force change, they would take matters into their own hands.
Hours after the shooting, high schooler David Hogg appeared on Laura Ingraham’s primetime Fox News show, answering questions and delivering an unwelcome message to the conservative-leaning audience:
“I don’t want this to be another mass shooting. I don’t want this just to be something that people forget.” He said it affects every one of us “and if you think it doesn’t, believe me, it will. Especially if we don’t take action to step up and stop things like that. For example going to your congressmen and asking them for help and doing things like that.”
She cut him off, because Fox News. But David kept talking to the media, hammering this point home, and it galvanized something unusual. Cullen points out that day-one victims are understandably in shock and mourning, they’re not usually on this track so quickly. But David wasn’t alone, as more and more students, including soon-to-be-famous-faces Emma Gonzalez, Jaclyn Corin, and Cameron Kasky, rapidly organized, demanding “never again.”
The kids behind the March for Our Lives movement channeled their anger, grief, and frustration into action with a speed intended to capitalize on the intense media coverage and national attention in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting. They organized precisely, deftly liaised with politicians, and honed simple, powerful messages to speak with one voice. Several became viral figures, recipients of both massive support and hideous backlash, while others worked quietly behind the scenes, doing things like creating social media content to ensure constant, spotlighting presence. (There’s needed levity too, like when one kid at their secret office HQ pauses in explaining his role: “He stopped midsentence, with a concerned look. “Do you know what a meme is?”)
The flip side of their groundswell activism is the pushback from the NRA, which, I was surprised to learn, isn’t nearly as big as I’d thought, or they’d like everyone to think, they are.
The NRA closely guards its membership data, but it claims nearly five million members—“And David Hogg is three of them,” Jackie took to telling audiences later. “Lots of people like to buy us memberships.” They doubted the five million figure, but if accurate, it represents just 1.5 percent of the population. Yet the NRA has succeeded by turning out reliable single-issue voters to swing close elections, with no countervailing force.
I just assumed that with its outsized influence and funds, it was bigger. There are many such details related to these political issues that will enrage you even more.
Another one, courtesy of Professor Robert Spitzer, a gun politics expert at the State University of New York College at Cortland:
“I’m sure very few people are aware of the fact that the ATF still does its background checks from paper records located in a building in West Virginia,” Professor Spitzer said. “They were barred from computerizing their records back in the 1980s by pressure from the NRA written into legislation. When I repeat that now, reporters are kind of shocked, asking, ‘Is that really true? How could that be true? No computers?’” Voters don’t understand this, Spitzer said. They will be outraged once someone demonstrates that effectively.
At various stops across the country for speaking events, rallies, and uniting with other survivors, protesters showed up to menace or follow their buses waving AK-47s. Imagine that. Teenagers, who have survived a school shooting, lost friends and remain traumatized by the sight of police vehicles and loud noises, being bullied by adults brandishing assault rifles, because the kids are asking that they be allowed to go to school without being shot. It makes me shake.
As the MFOL movement grew, it joined forces with groups like Chicago’s BRAVE (Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere) and Peace Warriors, uniting organizations fighting firearm accessibility making school shootings possible, with those fighting the conditions allowing gun violence to proliferate in neighborhoods like Chicago’s West Side. MFOL was criticized for its members’ whiteness, and the kids take criticism in stride when it’s warranted, making changes and adapting to be inclusive and effective, and above all to make sure their message isn’t mistaken for anything it’s not. This, despite efforts to portray them as crisis actors and whatever other accusations their opponents pull out of their big bag of bullshit. These kids are intelligent, social media-savvy, and wise enough to choose words and actions carefully.
Cullen emphasizes how significant all that actually is, taking opportunities to remind that these are really just kids. They get petulant, impatient, and annoyed despite the maturity it’s taken to do what they’ve done. It’s a jarring reminder sometimes, what they’ve achieved despite being so very young.
Parkland is page-turningly readable, and gives an illuminating, affecting glimpse into these young activists’ lives and struggles, plus contextual data and the whirlwind narrative of their activism, but it’s also loaded with sometimes unimportant details, which can be repetitive. Cullen portrays their day-to-day as they learn to cope with trauma, while showing remarkable courage facing adults in the NRA and government, and this is incredible. But some of the personal feels almost uncomfortably up-close.
And there’s a choice to reproduce speech directly, I think also in service of underscoring their youth, and despite their impressive eloquence and the power their words carry, it can be hard to read, punctuated as it is with “like” and “literally”. Again, not that I don’t support them and this movement/message completely, and Cullen for his dedication in reporting these tragedies, but reading it is trying. (This might translate better on audio than the page.)
As he makes connections with the Columbine survivors and their accomplishments, he makes a significant distinction from the Columbine book, in addition to spending very little time recounting the events of the attack: ignoring the perpetrator of the violence completely. His name is never mentioned. It’s powerfully effective. At one late point in the book when a topic returns to the issue of solely blaming mental health instead of gun control, as trumpeted by the NRA, I was surprised to remember his role.
Cullen focuses only on those who survived and those who lost their lives, what desperately needs to change so that those losses weren’t in vain, and how this next generation has assumed responsibility after adults failed. As a result, this feels more positive, uplifting, and hopeful than I’d thought possible. Qualms aside, it’s inarguably important and wonderfully promising.
They expect MFOL to endure, and plan to lead it for a long time, but no one really knows for sure. Five or ten or twenty years from now, MFOL may be a powerhouse organization, or it may have faltered, or evolved into something new. But somehow, in some way, the fight will go on. And when Jackie, Emma, David, Matt, or whoever is still fighting hands the reins to the next generation, their vision for this movement will prove a force more powerful than the NRA.
Parkland: Birth of a Movement
by Dave Cullen
published February 12, 2019 by Harper