The Kids Who Said “Never Again”

Book review: Parkland, by Dave Cullen (Amazon / Book Depository)

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 Columbinehis 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

Amazon / Book Depository

34 thoughts on “The Kids Who Said “Never Again”

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    1. They both are tough to read but this one was easier, in some sense, since it’s almost entirely focused on moving forward and their incredible efforts. It feels very positive, if exhausting because of what a dumb mess we’re already in. Columbine is intense – it’s excellent, but just so, so upsetting. It gets to you. But I don’t mean to discourage, you absolutely should read it. He’s an incredible journalist, just go into it prepared!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That makes a lot of sense – I was pretty young when the Columbine shooting happened but I do remember how it was treated as this horrifying isolated incident as school shootings hadn’t been normalized to the extent they are now. I definitely want to pick it up still, it seems like an essential piece of journalism that’s worth reading despite how heartbreaking it inevitably is.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Absolutely still read it, I think everyone should, really. Just have something else cheerful and light to switch off with, I think that might help! I read Columbine straight through and it just puts you in a dismal mental state. I’m so interested in hearing your thoughts on it!

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    1. Thank you!! I think I understood it’s the ATF (bureau of alcohol, tobacco, firearms) that keeps the paper records, but apparently has to do with how the do background checks and the NRA blocked it changing to computerized records!!! That is just such madness I can’t even wrap my head around it. I don’t know why/how they’re able to exercise this kind of influence when they’re such a small group.

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  1. I read Columbine by Cullen, and also a memoir from one of the shooters’ mother, A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold. I didn’t like that one as much. I respect Cullen’s ability to go deeply inside a tragedy, but at what cost to his psyche? Reminds me of Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, one of my favorite titles from last year. She suffered from delving into a grim topic and living below the surface of it for too long. The pills she took to wake up and fall asleep were a direct cause of her heart failure, though she apparently had a congenital defect which the pills exacerbated.

    I do want to read this, because I like to examine society as a microcosm. In fact I used to live about an hour’s drive from Parkland. I let out a sigh of relief that all my kids are done with schooling, but then have to remind myself — I have 3 grandkids in public school, cross-country from me. And as other tragedies have shown–a multiple-death shooting yesterday at a place of employment– no one is exempt from the possibility of a mass gun shooting in this country. I don’t have the words….

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    1. You’re so right, it’s very similar to Michelle McNamara’s difficulties while researching that case. I didn’t even think of that. And it hadn’t occurred to me how this would affect Cullen even though merely reading Columbine, I was affected by it for days afterwards. I can’t imagine what he went through doing a deep dive into it for 10 years! And he mentions that he’s called on to be a news show talking head every time there’s another shooting so has to go back to that mentally. It sounds harrowing.

      I haven’t read Sue Klebold’s book, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. She gets a brief mention in Parkland, apparently she supports the kids strongly and attended an event of theirs in Colorado.

      I saw that about the shooting yesterday, it seemingly never ends…breaks my heart. I don’t understand how politicians can see these things and decide that money is more important to them than gun control. Like you said, no words.

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  2. I’m interested. A good departure from the tradition crime narrative of the before, during, and after of the assailant. I read Columbine and really don’t want to read another like it. This one sounds like he tried to find answers or at least hope in the survivors. Thank you for this review because I know I would have seen it around.

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    1. It’s refreshingly different, I wouldn’t classify it as crime, even. And different from Columbine, the discussion of the shooting itself is mercifully brief. Im glad I read that book but you said it well, I’m not eager to read anything like it again. That book haunted me. This ends up feeling very optimistic if starkly honest about the rough road ahead to enact lasting change. It’s a good and very meaningful read, I’m glad you liked the review!

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      1. I’ve been in the classroom for twenty years and know that there’s nothing that can be done at this level short of turning every school into a prison, which is ridiculous. Young activism is awesome and I’m glad that there was an optimistic tone to this book. 👍🏽

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  3. Wonderful review. I’m glad this was easier to read in some ways than Columbine, but we both know acts as atrocious as these shootings will always be hard. The NRA has yet to comprehend their role in these individuals having access to guns. I’m going to go with your suggestion and read this one via audio.

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    1. Thank you! You said it perfectly. It’s a harrowing subject to read about, and almost surreally mind-boggling how the NRA is able to manipulate legislation allowing this to even happen, but feels very important to read about progress and how we can (hopefully) begin moving towards safer, saner policy.

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  4. An incredible review for what sounds like an incredible book! I have both Columbine and Parkland to read! I still struggle to get my head around gun laws, surely the only law should be that they’re illegal 🤷🏾‍♀️. I was talking about this on Twitter the other day, I heard it’s built into the curriculum now to teach children want do in the event of a school shooting, running mock drills, that’s so heartbreaking!

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    1. Couldn’t have said it better – the only law should be that they’re illegal, end of story. I grew up with it and still can’t get my head around it, especially having learned how other countries (like the UK!) responded to shootings like this – namely, strict gun laws, bans, etc., and it’s over. Yet we continue through this cycle, offering “thoughts and prayers” for the victims each time. It’s so ridiculous I feel my blood pressure rising even thinking about it.

      He mentions what you’re describing here too – that these kids were raised with lockdown drills, and they’re taught the order they should try things during a shooting, like first try to run, then try to hide, and so on. We were doing lockdown drills as a relatively new thing when I was in high school, but the added element of “run, hide, then try to fight” brings it to a new level of horror. I can’t believe what we’re putting kids through because the NRA can throw a lot of cash at politicians…revolting.

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      1. I posted about receiving these books on Instagram and someone commented that not one of these shootings were committed by a legal gun owner, the statement just made me so sad because it like that person can’t see the damage that guns being legal does, the whole culture and message it delivers to youth. In schools, in the U.K., if someone wants to do damage, a gun certainly wouldn’t be the first thing they think of (it’d probably be bloody spray paint, lol, as it should be for kids! Although I can’t overlook the knife crime in the U.K., but nothing on the scale of these massacres!). US laws and the US President are reason why I could never consider moving to the US.

        Fire drills are the only bloody drills that should be run! That’s crazy, where does it stop, you’re right when you say it’s a cycle!

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      2. It’s always like that, they obtusely miss the point. And as you say, the message that this sends and culture it reinforces is another layer of terrible. Also, from my understanding the Columbine kids DID have guns legally, or at least one of them, I think…it was purchased for them through the gun show loophole where a background check isn’t required (nothing in this world makes sense, I know.) An older friend purchased it so, ok, not completely legal, but also, easily within the realm of possibility following the laws in place. But you can’t even engage, you’ll just run in circles with them. And I hate that they always use this argument of saying if it wasn’t guns it would be the something else, like knives…well, yes, but you can’t do as much damage as with an assault rifle, and tell me why any civilian needs one of those!!! They don’t have a leg to stand on when you apply a minimum of common sense and yet the same arguments have somehow become powerful enough to dictate our gun laws. It’s ridiculous.

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  5. Wow, this is an amazing review! I still haven’t read Columbine, although it’s been on my TBR for literally years. I think I’ve been putting it off because I know how upsetting it will be, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an important book. I’m encouraged to hear that Parkland is a much more hopeful book overall, and I look forward to reading that too.

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  6. Excellent review, I have Columbine to read courtesy of the lovely Janel from Keeper Of Pages and I’m so intrigued to get started. I have such strong opinions on gun laws and what the US has been through recently with school shootings breaks my heart! ☹️

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    1. It’s an excellent book, but affected me so strongly. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, it’s completely gut wrenching but also enraging… I wish all of the politicians who pretend mass shooting don’t necessitate stricter gun laws would read it!!! Would love to hear your thoughts on it, especially with such a different national perspective with your background…ours is just ludicrous at this point.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I feel so bad for you guys. Especially those who oppose it. Don’t know what I’d do if I lived over there – probably go on loads of anti-guns protest marches or something? Who knows! 🤔😂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I haven’t read either this or Columbine. Being in the UK we don’t hear as much about the school shootings as you do there for obvious reasons. We hear when it happens and then it’s gone.
    Which is a good starting point to read more about why these sad events occur?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not even that different in the US, sadly…it’s this weird cycle of frenzied media coverage in the immediate aftermath, lots of pledged “thoughts and prayers” and then on to the next without doing anything differently. Cullen writes here about how other countries, like the UK, quickly enacted meaningful legislation in response to shootings and ended the problem. We never seem to learn from our mistakes, but I hope it’s changing…

      I do think Columbine is a better starting point, even though this one is obviously more up to date and affected by events of recent years. But Columbine was the beginning of this issue and it’s such a deep dive into what’s wrong and why. It’s very emotionally affecting and hard to read but I think it’s necessary.

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  8. I can’t bring myself to read any of these books because they just make me furious. There should be some absolute safe places in our world and schools should top that list. I have a special hatred for the NRA as well. I fear reading it would turn me into an insanely angry person. Still, I loved your review and I will make sure and tell people about it who are interested in reading more on the subject. Great review (as always!).

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  9. I listened to Columbine last year and will always be thankful to Cullen for waiting ten years to write the book, as well as for taking it on. It made it a more truthful and insightful undertaking.

    I’ve debated whether to get Parkland as I thought it might be too soon but based on the focus, I am revisiting my decision. He still seems a bit too close to the survivors but I’d like to hear their voices now. Yes, of course the audio version will be my choice☺️

    Thank you for your excellent review!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He’s definitely a bit too close, but the reasoning is that they want to keep momentum and capitalize on what they can as near as possible to the memory of the actual event, since interest tends to fade quickly, then the next tragedy occurs, sadly. So I get why he wanted to do it like that, but it does suffer here and there for it. The way he describes the kids in particular just has such a different tone than anything in Columbine, for example. And it has to focus a lot more minutely on their actions instead of pulled back and with a lot of reflection and perspective from time, like in Columbine.

      I’m amazed you can listen to this kind of nonfiction on audio, I could never. I think I’m just a visual learner to begin with so audio never feels right, but I don’t pick up so much information and for dense books like Columbine I would be completely lost. I notice with podcasts I sometimes have to listen 2 or 3 times to retain some things and those aren’t usually as structured as books. I just assumed maybe the reproduced speech would seem more at home in that format. I hope it does, and hope you give the book a try!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. One of the reasons why audio works so well for me in this genre is because I am more inclined to listen intently as I’m trying to learn something, different from fiction. I remembered the coverage of the Columbine shooting during the event, how chaotic it was and all the conflicting information but thought I knew the facts. Then I listened to Sue Klebold’s book and was stunned by her truths versus what I’d been told ten years ago. After, I listened to Cullen’s book, looking for confirmation of her accounts, which I found. I was blown away by the realities of what happened compared to my recollections. The audio was perfect, especially for both books, even more so for Sue’s story. I was mesmerized.

        I don’t know if this makes sense but, for me, it’s akin to having someone sit down and talk to me personally. I’m a good listener so it works.

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  10. Thoughtful review, and thanks for the introduction to the author’s work. I’ll have to add this, along with Columbine, to my list of books to read before the end of the year. I learned a bit more about the movement from having watched Moore’s documentary 11/9 before the election, but the doc only scratched the surface. It’s good to know the author focuses more on the aftermath of the event and touches only on the shooting itself briefly.

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    1. I haven’t seen the documentary, is it worth watching?

      I was very glad that the shooting itself was the minorest of minor subjects here…it’s nothing if not thorough in Columbine, and although I’m very glad to have read that book and think it’s a must-read, it was extremely difficult to take in. Just knowing that something like that is happening every time one of these shootings occurs is upsetting enough.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The doc might be worth watching, though I suspect that you’re too well read and informed to get much out of it. It surveys the rise/fall of Clintonism and the resurgence of grassroots activism across the country, which I found helpful.

        Yes, I couldn’t agree more – it’s an incredibly upsetting subject, and something that could so easily be prevented. Reading about one in detail seems painful enough.

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