‘This right now is the biggest issue in our country,’ said a student who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting
A week ago they were high schoolers like anywhere in the country, studying for their end-of-year exams, preparing for baseball practice, for drama club, and the myriad other activities that typical teenagers like to embrace.
But as another week begins in Parkland, Florida, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school are adjusting to life in a different and unexpected role. They find themselves the flag bearers of a powerful new push for gun control laws, and are determined to be the generation that finally breaks the cycle.
It was not a position that any of these young people envisioned for themselves until last Wednesday, when Nikolas Cruz, an expelled former classmate, returned to the campus with an AR-15 assault rifle and ended the lives of 14 of their friends, and three adult teachers.
In the words of Cameron Kasky, an 11th-grader and one of the founders of the rapidly-growing #neveragain movement: “It was 17 shots right to the heart of this community.”
Amid the candlelit vigils, church services and the first funerals of the victims, Kasky and his friends quickly found their voice. Stoneman Douglas students angrily denounced inaction by politicians in Washington at an emotional gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday.
On Sunday, they fanned out across the morning talk shows to rip into the Trump administration and politicians including Florida senator Marco Rubio for accepting money from the National Rifle Association.
By lunchtime on Sunday they had announced plans for a March 24th March for Our Lives rally in Washington DC and cities nationwide. And by mid-afternoon they had achieved what appeared to be a significant first victory, a concession by President Trump, who did not speak publicly about the shooting for 20 hours, to meet with high school students and teachers on Wednesday for what the White House described as “a listening session”.
The students insist they can sense a tidal wave of momentum behind them, largely fuelled by social media using the #neveragain and #marchforourlives hashtags, which has left politicians floundering.
“They are hiding behind their own little castles of NRA money and they have no idea what to do,” said Kasky, 17, who spoke to the Guardian with several fellow students at a park close to Stoneman Douglas high school on Sunday.
“I can smell the fear from Rubio, [Florida governor Rick] Scott and Trump right now, and they are not ready to take us on. I understand that because we’re strong, and I wouldn’t want to either.
“But you’re either with us, or you’re against us. We’re making a badge of shame for anyone accepting money from the NRA. It’s not red versus blue, Republican versus Democrat, it’s us versus those who are trying to kill us and don’t care about our lives. We’re the kids, you’re the adults, and you’re acting like the kids.”
His friend Alex Wind, who has helped organise a trip to Tallahassee on Tuesday for 100 Stoneman Douglas students to meet state legislators, said the memory of his friends was the group’s driving force.
“There’s grieving obviously, but we’re breathing and coping through our voices, not through our tears,” he said. “Now is the time for action, for power and strength.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican, Democrat, Green party, libertarian. If you receive money from the NRA we will not vote for you, that’s how things will go down. It’s absurd to receive $30m from the NRA and not do anything about gun control. Action needs to be taken, whether that action is voting them out of office or whether it’s them embracing the movement.
“We can talk about Russia and everything else in the news, but this right now is the biggest issue in our country. Fourteen children and three adults lost their lives. How many more need to die?”
This coming Wednesday night, students, parents and thousands from Parkland and neighbouring communities will fill the BB&T arena in Sunrise for a nationally televised debate on gun control hosted by CNN.
Rubio has agreed to appear at that event.
For Daniel Duff, a 14-year-old who spent almost two hours hiding in a closet during the shooting, it is an opportunity to keep the pressure on.
“It’s crazy how much changed since Wednesday, how quickly we’ve bonded together,” he said. “We can’t waste this chance.”
His father Brian, 55, said he was proud how the students framed their response to the shooting. “It’s all them, they’re doing it on their own,” he said.
“Your first concern as a parent is that they’re going to be OK and deal with this. Nobody had any expectation it was going to grow into this movement that could give them a voice they didn’t have before.”
According to Alfonso Calderon, a 16-year-old junior, the Parkland shooting could be the catalyst for change because of who the victims and survivors were. “This time it’s going to be different because for once, instead of grieving, we got straight to the point,” he said. “A student was already talking to Fox News about how gun laws need to be changed directly after the shooting.
“We’re not asking to repeal the second amendment, we’re asking for common sense, like more intensive background checks. It’s always a troubled young man, in our case somebody who’s been expelled, reported to police 39 times, and he’s still able to buy a weapon of war without anybody flinching. It’s just not viable any more.”