How Parkland students turned tragedy into a movement for change

John Barnitt (second from right) and his fellow organisers gather onstage at March for our Lives to demand change. Photo: Mike Stocker / Sun Sentinel / TNS / ABACA / ABACA / PA Images

The shooting

On 14th February 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 14 students and three staff members and wounded 17 others in a mass shooting at his former high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida.

John Barnitt, Parkland student:

“It was Valentine’s Day, fourth period, and I was in the auditorium working on a production for the school drama club with a couple of friends. The fire alarm rang and we initially didn’t leave, but when it rang a second time we thought it was probably serious so we left the building. Someone then ran outside and shouted, ‘Code red – everybody get inside now! This is not a drill!’ I should have bolted off campus but instead me and my friends went inside, into a hallway, running to find a suitable hiding place, when our assistant principal pulled us into a classroom where around 100 students were competing for the best hiding spots. Nobody knew what was going on. It was sheer terror.

“We hid in the corner and from then it was a waiting game. You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone had been in denial – we still thought it must be a drill, but soon we heard police sirens, ambulances and SWAT team members calling out codes and saying people have been shot. That’s when the reality set in: we were in a school shooting and these could be our last minutes on Earth.

Family members wait for news about their loved ones outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas school on 14th February. Photo: USA TODAY Network / SIPA USA / PA Images

“I was in one of the closest classrooms to the freshman building [where the shooting took place] but thankfully didn’t hear the gunshots. We were probably in that room for two hours before the SWAT team burst in and ordered everyone to put their hands up. After 30 minutes they let us leave the premises. The SWAT team said ‘Drop everything’ and we had to run out with our hands up – I’ve never run faster. We left campus and all the major roads had been shut down. This road near the school which is usually busy with traffic was filled with students. A lot of my classmates were bawling their eyes out, but I didn’t feel emotional. I felt like I had been in a movie. I was confused. I didn’t realise what I’d endured. But what had happened soon sank in. My classmates were dead. My teachers were dead. It’s ripped up our community and it’s never going to be the same again.”

Mourners comfort each other at a memorial for the 17 shooting victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on 18th February 2018. Photo: Miami Herald / TNS / ABACA / ABACA / PA Images

 

The birth of ‘Never Again’

As the world’s media gathered outside the school, a group of its students came together to form a movement. Within four days of the shooting they had a slogan and hashtag, #NeverAgain, clear goals on gun control and a nationwide protest against gun violence scheduled for 24th March.

John Barnitt, Parkland student:

“The group formed around Cameron Kasky, a close friend of mine, and we were mostly students from drama club. Cameron was looking for people who were having the same feelings as him, who were frustrated and wanted to speak their minds. On the second day [after the shootings] we all met up at Cameron’s house – we were 18 kids at the time – and he said, ‘Guys, I want to form a group.’ We came up with the name ‘Never Again’.

“Reporters could speak to us because we were easy to get in contact with. For the next two weeks we didn’t have school, so we’d all meet at Cameron’s house every day and make plans to do interviews and get our message out. Cameron’s house became our home; people slept there, on other nights we’d go home at two in the morning. We worked non-stop because we knew that after two weeks coverage of this tragedy would dwindle and it’d just be another school shooting. We wanted to prolong [the news cycle] so people realised that this terrible thing has been happening for decades and we need to fix it before another innocent life is taken.

“We were all feeling a lot of emotions. But most of us turned our sadness and grief into motivation and determination to advocate for what we believe is right. It was exciting to see so much momentum build around our movement. Beforehand I’d be shocked if I got two retweets and now I was getting hundreds for every post.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Emma Gonzalez responds to social media messages in a Parkland park. Photo: USA TODAY Network / SIPA USA / PA Images

“It was great to see the positive public response but there was also a backlash, people saying ‘This is too soon’ and ‘You need to grieve now’. When we’re doing interviews and being articulate and knowing what we’re talking about, some people forget that we’re still kids and we went through a tragedy. We got a lot of hate, especially the thing about ‘crisis actors’ [some right-wing websites spread conspiracy theories that Parkland was a manufactured “false-flag” attack using actors], but that gave me more motivation because I realised that they’re scared of what we’re capable of doing.”

Kyra Gurney, Miami Herald reporter:

“My priority in the days after the shooting was to go to vigils, speak to people who had been at the school at the time and try to piece together exactly what had happened. As journalists we had to be careful not to make the situation worse and traumatise these kids all over again when asking for accounts of what they had seen. A pretty big portion of the student population at Marjory Stoneman Douglas was broadly involved in the activism, but you will find students who feel differently. There are definitely Parkland students who don’t think the solution to school shootings is tighter gun-control laws.

“The group formed by Cameron Kasky quickly became the one that was willing to speak out about what they wanted changed, and they very quickly organised their efforts on social media. It was so impressive seeing these 16- and 17-year-olds organising themselves and fielding hundreds of interview requests from reporters.”

Po Murray, Newtown Action Alliance chair:

“The Parkland shooting opened up wounds that continue to exist inside us. [After the Sandy Hook shooting of December 2012] we knew that more school shootings would occur, and they continue to happen on a frequent basis. Watching the pictures from Parkland brought back that tragic day here in Newtown.

“The students give me hope. We’ve been campaigning for five years [for federal gun-control legislation] and it’s been both rewarding and frustrating. On one hand we’ve been able to bring those directly impacted by gun violence to Washington DC so we can attempt to change the hearts and minds of our congressional leaders, but on the other hand for the past five years we have not been able to influence those who take money from the NRA [National Rifle Association] to get common-sense gun laws passed to protect more Americans. Two groups are largely responsible for the inaction [since 2012] – our elected leaders and the gun lobby, which raises and spends significant amounts of money to influence these politicians to push their guns-everywhere agenda.

“We will be working to provide support to the Parkland students because the Newtown students lived through a similar tragedy here in Sandy Hook. And we hope that we can work together to amplify the the voices needed across the nation to push this issue forward.”

Student activists Cameron Kasky and Jaclyn Corin speak to reporters from car rooftops in Parkland on 20th February. Photo: Susan Stocker / Zuma Press / PA Images

Ro Khanna, Democratic congressman:

“When America decided that we weren’t going to do anything after Sandy Hook, when first graders were gunned down, it was a moral blight for our nation. If that didn’t spur our consciousness, one wonders what would. But the Parkland students were old enough to speak up and the way they mobilised gives me hope. I’m 41 and in my lifetime I’ve not seen student activism with the seriousness of purpose and commitment the Parkland students have. They understand that the political class has failed them and they are committed to the long run.”

 

March for our Lives

On 24th March an estimated 800,000 people joined the Washington DC March for our Lives protest 
in support of gun control organised by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students. Many more people attended sister protests across the US and around the world.

John Barnitt, Parkland student:

“It was surreal. We had organised March for our Lives in Cameron’s kitchen and now we had hundreds of people working with us. When I arrived in Washington DC and saw the stage it was such a proud moment because we were kids, and we’d managed to organise one of the largest marches in history. It was the youth rising up and saying that we know what’s happening in our country – the politicians say they’re keeping us safe but we know they’re not. That day was a complete dream. I was so full of joy.

Over 800,000 people joined the protest in support of gun control organised by the Parkland students, 24th March. Photo: Michael Nigro / SIPA USA / PA Images

“We had a diverse and inclusive range of speakers because we’re aware that we’re a very affluent community. It’s sad to say this but we’re from a majority-white, privileged town and that’s why we got so much attention. But tragedies happen all over the country and don’t get media time – a life is a life and the colour of your skin doesn’t matter.”

Mya Middleton, Chicago student:

“There were many people of colour at March for our Lives, but this day was about all people who experience gun violence. I grew up with the sound of gunshots in the background. I was never able to play outside [as a kid] because my mom was scared that I wouldn’t come back inside the house again. Kids in my neighbourhood all go through this. Chicago is known for gun violence but we never get to share our opinions on it, so at March for our Lives I wanted to be a voice for Chicago.

“When I was first asked if I wanted to talk about my experience of gun violence I thought it would just be a round-table discussion. All of a sudden I discovered I was going to read my speech in front of thousands of people. I’d never done anything like this before. I had to be pushed onstage I was so nervous. But as I walked towards the podium I realised I had to do this, to share my story, otherwise it will never be heard. All my nerves went away. I spoke for four minutes but I got my point across – we haven’t done anything about gun violence in this country, and it’s time we did something.”

Parkland students onstage at March for our Lives. Photo: Mike Stocker / Sun Sentinel / TNS / ABACA / ABACA / PA Images

Po Murray, Newtown Action Alliance chair:

“We brought eight buses down from Newtown to Washington DC with nearly 200 students who wanted to stand with Parkland and others fighting gun violence. We felt compelled to be there and support the initiative. The speeches by the students were truly heartwarming. My son Tommy, who’s 16, and his friend Jackson Mittleman co-lead the Junior Newtown Action Alliance Club [the student wing of Murray’s organisation] at their high school, and they made a speech [about their experience of the Sandy Hook shooting]. Onstage they met the ‘Never Again’ students from Parkland and they’ve been communicating ever since.”

Kyra Gurney, Miami Herald reporter:

“I joined up with Parkland students when they were having breakfast before the march and took the bus with them from their hotel in Virginia to the protest site. A lot of them said they were feeling anxious. Some have post-traumatic stress disorder and they felt nervous about being in a huge group of people. There was one point during the speeches when they flashed images of news footage from after the shooting and this impacted them a lot. A colleague saw some students leave because they appeared to be having panic attacks.

“One of the students at the hotel in the morning was 15-year-old Kyle Laman, who was in a wheelchair because he was shot in the leg during the attack. He was there with his family, the two surgeons who operated on him and Jeff Heinrich, an off-duty police officer who was the first person to see Kyle after the shooting [and who tended to Kyle’s injuries]. It was Jeff who pushed Kyle’s wheelchair at the march.”

Michael Nigro, photographer:

“The kids who organised and spoke at the event are so smart. They had focus and attitude. They are looking back at the generations that came before them with complete disdain because they’ve been failed by them – and now they’ve had enough.

“One memorable moment was when Sam Fuentes [a student wounded in the attack] was so emotional she vomited during her speech. Then she got back up and shouted, ‘I just threw up on international television and it feels great!’ The crowd erupted in cheers and she got everyone to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Nicholas Dworet, one of the shooting victims who would have turned 18 on 24th March. It was so beautiful and so moving.”

Protesters at March for our Lives on 24th March in Washington DC. Photo: Sun Sentinel / TNS / ABACA / ABACA / PA Images

 

After the March

Despite the success of ‘Never Again’ and March for our Lives, which made some of John Barnitt’s fellow students such as David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez household names in the US, political progress since has been limited. While some state legislatures passed gun-control laws in the weeks following 14th February 2018, there was inaction at a federal level; President Trump reiterated his support for the NRA and floated the idea of arming teachers. The ‘Never Again’ activists would later focus on November 2018’s midterm elections, aiming to increase the youth turnout. On 18th May, meanwhile, ten people were killed at Santa Fe High School in Texas. It was the 23rd American school shooting of 2018.

Po Murray, Newtown Action Alliance chair:

“We want the people of Parkland to be able to use us in Newtown as a resource. We are here for them and other communities that share a similar tragedy. They’re hurting, and I hope they take some time for self-care, but many of us in Newtown needed to take action. I needed to keep moving to honour the lives lost here. That’s the only way I could recover from the tragedy that occurred.

“Part of the reason I shed so many tears at March for our Lives is because I really do feel that the culture is shifting. These children who have been impacted by gun violence will no longer tolerate it, as evidenced by all the school walkouts and protests across the nation – and they’re not going to let up. I really think that young people will march to the polls [for the midterm elections] in November.

Chicago students join the National School Walkout, to honour the lives of the Parkland victims, on 14th March 2018. Photo: TNS / SIPA USA / PA Images

“There has been some progress. We’ve seen Republican governors pass common-sense gun laws. They’re not as strong as we’d like them to be, but Florida and Vermont have passed significant measures. And after the Parkland shooting over 30 corporations have distanced themselves from the NRA and/or gun manufacturers. Cities and towns and states are taking action. They’re not waiting around for Congress to do its job because too many people are dying. We won’t make progress at a federal level before the midterms. We have not passed a substantive gun law since 1994. It’s been 24 years of Congress failing to take action on gun violence prevention.

“We are on the right side of history. Ninety-seven percent of Americans support universal background checks and 67 percent support a ban on weapons of war [the Parkland gunman used an AR-15, a semi-automatic weapon that was banned between 1994 and 2004, when Congress let the ban expire]. Americans are with us, and it’s only a matter of time before the federal leaders are with us too.”

Ro Khanna, Democratic congressman:

“Has there been a political impact? [The ‘Never Again’ movement] has stiffened the spine of Democrats and progressives, and it’s probably stiffened the spine of some moderate Republicans who are representing moderate districts. But the Republican leadership remains in charge in Congress where the speaker of the House, currently Paul Ryan, gets to decide whether to bring something up for a vote or not. So until you have a change of leadership in the House it doesn’t matter how many members may be in favour of something. Public opinion has shifted and individual members’ opinions have shifted, but the Republican leadership has not shifted, and for there to be progress there has to be a change in the control of Congress. President Trump has been all over the map [on gun control] so it’s unclear whether if the Democrats were in charge of Congress and passed legislation he would veto it or sign it.

“One thing that really impresses me about these young folks is that they understand this isn’t just a fight to the midterms. They realise it’s probably going to be a multi-year struggle to move the needle, like the civil rights movement. And they have the dedication to do that. The silver lining to all these tragedies and the Trump presidency is seeing so many young people mobilised, going into politics or journalism.”

John Barnitt, Parkland student:

“There haven’t been huge steps [towards gun control] but there have been baby steps and they keep me motivated. We know we’re not going to get the results we want in a year – this is going to take years of work and effort and being persistent. The midterm elections are coming in November and then we have the chance to vote out politicians who don’t share our views and don’t want to ensure the safety of citizens. Nowhere near enough eligible young people vote. That’s a crucial age range because it’s the future of our country. We really need more young people to vote in November.

“Trying to juggle activism and my school life has been a struggle. I often travel to do speeches or interviews in different states, and I’m missing lessons and tests – these begin to accumulate and pile up. Some teachers are understanding but others are working us harder than before because we lost two weeks of school and they’re trying to catch us up. [Fellow Parkland activists] David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez are still going to school and since they’re now such big public figures I think many teachers have been understanding towards them. They understand that the work they’re doing is way bigger than a math test.

“I think about that day a lot. I remember how much distress my classmates were in and how much terror we all felt. It brings home why I’m doing this and why I can’t lose motivation. I don’t want anybody to feel like that again. I don’t want any other school or community to feel 
that terror.”

 


Interviewed for this story:

John Barnitt – 17-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School pupil and a member of the student activist group that started the Never Again movement.

Kyra Gurney– Miami Herald reporter who covered the Parkland shooting and its aftermath.

Po Murray – Chairperson of the Newtown Action Alliance, 
a gun control advocacy group formed after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Ro Khanna – Democratic Representative for California’s 17th congressional district and a supporter of gun control legislation.

Mya Middleton – 16-year-old high school student from Chicago, who made a speech at March for our Lives about the time 
a gunman threatened to 
kill her at a grocery store.

Michael Nigro – Activist and photographer who covered March for our Lives in Washington DC.

 

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