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“We’re Not Your Pawns”: Parkland’s Never Again Movement Meets the Lawmakers

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Three weeks after a former student had shot seventeen pupils and staff
at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and three days after classes had
resumed, the campus was settling into a routine again. A few patrol cars
and a small squadron of sheriffs on motorcycles were all that remained
of the police presence. The sign-waving supporters outside were gone,
and the farm animals trained in emotional support had returned to their
paddocks. By the time the school bell rang on Friday, at 7:40 A.M., the
one television crew on site was breaking down its tripod. Outside the
school fences were piles of rotting flowers, Teddy bears, deflated Mylar
balloons, and pinwheels spinning in the sun. What had begun as an
emergency was settling into finality.

In the days leading up to the Stoneman Douglas students’ return to
school, the movement for gun control they had started had grown far beyond the city, out in the world. The teen-age activists had tolerated
expressions of empathy from daytime talk-show hosts (Dr. Phil and Ellen
DeGeneres) and lame jokes from the nighttime ones (Jordan Klepper and
Bill Maher). John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, George and Amal Clooney,
Oprah Winfrey, and other celebrities had made large donations for the
upcoming march on Washington. As bereaved parents gave furious speeches
at the Florida statehouse, where the legislature was considering a
school-safety bill, a delegation of Stoneman Douglas students travelled
to Washington, D.C. They met with the Speaker of the House, the House
Minority Leader, and the Florida congressional delegation, all of whom
afterward posted photos on social media of themselves engaged in
thoughtful conversation at conference tables. The students posted photos
of themselves with Congressman John Lewis, of Georgia, the civil-rights
leader, and with the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

Emma González, one of the student leaders, hadn’t joined the delegation
to Washington, but had stayed at home to work on recruitment for the
March for Our Lives, to be held on March 24th, in Washington. The
afternoon of her third day back at school found her in the gymnasium of
the recreation center at Pine Trails Park, preparing for an information
session. Since her return to school, González had dedicated herself to
selling the march to her fellow-students. This meant sharing Never
Again’s platform about gun control, while also being sensitive to a wide
range of political viewpoints. At a meeting the previous day, some
students expressed worry that the march’s message was too partisan.

“These are my opinions,” González said to Jeffrey Foster, her A.P.
Government teacher, who was there to answer questions from parents.
“I’m, like, you can say whatever you want about whatever topic, I’m not
telling you what to say there, but make sure the message is cohesive.
Here’s how I feel, and here is what goes through my head. You don’t have
to listen to me on this, but if you want to help this is a really
important way to help.”

The gym had been stocked with pizzas, boxes of tissues, and coolers of
drinks. Students arrived, many of them accompanied by their parents, and
took their seats. González checked to make sure that bottles of water
and paper plates had been put out. She wore a maroon sundress and pink
sneakers. Less than two weeks before, I had watched as she sat at a
picnic table and chose a Twitter handle. Now she had more than a million
followers on Twitter—more, as many pointed out, than the N.R.A. But all
of this had happened outside of school. I asked how it was to be back.

“It’s pretty good,” she said. “And if news developments happen in the
day—like today, when we found out about the shooting, my friend got
upset, and I was immediately able to talk to her. I didn’t have to drive
over to her house or run over there, like, she walked down the hallway
and we were able to talk to each other. That’s nice. And the support
dogs—have you heard about the support dogs?”

The shooting that day had happened at Central Michigan University, where
a nineteen-year-old named James Eric Davis, Jr., had killed his parents,
who had arrived to pick him up for spring break. For González and the
other students, the news of yet another act of gun violence on a campus
had renewed their sense of purpose but also their feeling of

“It feels like we’re not getting anything done,” González said. “The
wheels of bureaucracy turn so slowly that, no matter what we say and how
many people we get to sign petitions, we can’t vote anybody out until
midterm elections, which are so far away.” As February gave way to
March, two points were proved about the gun-control debate: first, that
cynicism about it was not unfounded; second, that, even as the students
advocated, the violence would not stop.

To insure that students would be comfortable asking questions, the media
were not allowed to remain in the gym for the lecture, so, as González
dimmed the lights and began her presentation, I stepped outside. Near
the entrance of the rec center, Ryan Deitsch and Delaney Tarr, who had
been among the students who went to Washington, D.C., earlier in the
week, sat at a table. Never Again had developed a platform, the main
tenets of which Tarr read out to me from a yellow notebook with the
words “Anything Is Possible!” embossed on the cover in gold.

“Of course, the assault-weapons ban is the most difficult, and that’s
the longest-term thing,” she said, flipping pages until she found her
list. “But now what we’re really getting into is universal background
checks. That would also entail closing the gun-show loopholes, closing
straw purchases, and instilling the red-flag system. We also want to get
rid of high-capacity magazines, and we want to raise the age from
eighteen to twenty-one.” In Washington, particularly when talking to
pro-gun politicians, the students focussed their arguments on narrower
problems: the law that forbids the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms,
and Explosives from creating a searchable database; the Dickey
Amendment, which prevents research that advocates or promotes gun
control; bump stocks, which allow a semiautomatic weapon to fire at a rapid clip. The students became increasingly adept at identifying
political obfuscation: the congressman who might discuss “extensive
background checks” rather than universal ones; the congresswoman who
brings up mental illness to change the subject from gun control. With
Senator Charles Schumer, of New York, they discussed the flaws of the
background-check system, and how to improve the original assault-weapons
ban, from 1994, which Schumer co-authored, and which the students think
could be more effective with the addition of a gun-buy-back program.

I asked what it was like to go back to school. “Boring,” Deitsch said.
“It’s been coloring and Play-Doh.” Classrooms had been supplied with
games and something called “kinetic sand” to ease the students’
reëentry. “When you sit down with the Speaker of the House and then
you’re told to just play with a lump of clay, it’s not really

The Speaker of the House, it turned out, had given the students some
pushback on their critique of the Dickey Amendment, and a hallway
encounter with Congressman Darrell Issa, of California, had turned
downright contentious. The Democrats had been more amenable, but, after
speaking to them, the movement added another message. “We also wanted to
tell them, ‘Listen, we’re so grateful for the help and everything, but
we’re not your pawns,’ ” Chris Grady, a Stoneman Douglas senior who went
on the trip, said later, after the meeting in the gymnasium. “Make no
mistake about it: we’re our own movement.”

The following evening, the second annual Obama Roosevelt Legacy Dinner,
advertised as one of the “premier events for the Broward County
Democratic Party,” was held at the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel, in Fort
Lauderdale. Valets waved attendees into parking lots that overlooked a
marina filled with gleaming white yachts. The dinner, tickets to which
cost a hundred and seventy-five dollars or more, had been planned long
in advance of the shooting, but the agenda had shifted. Bowls of ribbons
in Stoneman Douglas colors were available for guests to pin to suit
lapels and sequinned cardigans. The crowd was friendly, mostly over the
age of forty, and clad in sensible shoes. The yachts outside likely
belonged to other people; Mar-a-Lago was a county away. Several Stoneman
Douglas students had come to the fund-raiser, too, although not, they
emphasized, to endorse a particular candidate. If anything, it was the
politicians who wanted their photos taken with the students. In their
cocktail-hour soapbox speeches, the Democratic candidates for Florida’s
2018 gubernatorial race emphasized their records and sentiments on gun
control. Afterward, a host encouraged guests to proceed to dinner in a
“blue wave.”

The national anthem was sung and the Pledge of Allegiance recited, and
then the ceremony began. The focus of the night was the violent act that
had happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and what to do
about it, as if the students had woken the politicians from a long
enchanted slumber. There were only perfunctory mentions of health care,
climate change, or the tax cut that Republicans had passed earlier that
year. There was no mention of the resignations and allegations plaguing
the Trump Administration, which had shared the headlines with the
shooting and its aftermath for the past two weeks.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz spoke of “the three-legged stool
on which future generations can build and thrive: faith, hope, and
courage.” Congressman Ted Deutch, at whose behest the students had
visited Washington, said “Never again can we fail to take action.”
Philip Levine, a candidate for governor, referred to to the students in
attendance as “a new greatest generation right here.” Cynthia Busch, the
county chairwoman, said that the Broward County e-mail list had tripled
in the last week.

“No more deals, no more compromises,” she promised. “We are here to

The keynote speaker was Congressman Joseph Kennedy III, of Massachusetts.
Kennedy is a ginger who speaks in the short staccato bursts of his
great-uncle and grandfather. At thirty-seven, he has been tapped by the
Party as a rising star, not only because of his dynastic connections and
his relative youth but because of his ability to speak about important
things without sounding phony. Earlier in the year, he was selected to
give the Democratic Party’s response to Trump’s State of the Union
address. Now he issued a statement on an issue that, thanks to the
relentless activism of the students, was going to be decisive in the
midterm elections.

Kennedy began with acknowledgments and a joke about his family’s love of
Florida. (“From what I can tell, President Kennedy didn’t get that winter
tan ice fishing on Cape Cod.”) But he soon moved on to the heart of the

“Our children wake up every morning in a country where nearly a hundred
lives will be lost to guns by the time they go to bed, and they hear a
Republican Party say that that is the price of freedom,” he said.

Kennedy recalled other instances of youth activism in American history:
the mill girls of Lowell in the mid-nineteenth century; the Little Rock
nine, in 1957; the children who marched for civil rights in the
“children’s crusade” and were arrested in Birmingham, in 1963; the four
students killed by the National Guard at Kent State, in 1970. “From
Stonewall to Selma to Seneca Falls, America’s youth forces us to
confront where we have fallen short,” he said.

He concluded with a promise that this time the adults would try harder.
“Broward, have no doubt: our nation will follow you,” he said. “We will
be better than we were in Little Rock, and in Birmingham, and in Kent.
We will not force our kids to march alone. We will not tell them to do
our government’s job.”

Was the government doing its job? In Florida, the state legislature
passed a bill—which now awaits the signature of the Florida governor, Rick
Scott—raising the age at which a person can buy an assault rifle to
twenty-one. It also allotted sixty-seven million dollars to train and
arm teachers, despite opposition from students and lawmakers who
predicted that the policy would put more children, particularly African-American students, at risk. (There was also the opposition of Florida
state representative Elizabeth Porter, who asked, “Do we allow the
children to tell us that we should pass a law that says no homework?”)
In the U.S. Senate, Jeff Flake, a Republican, and Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat,
co-sponsored another bill raising age limits. The President expressed
support for the idea, saying at a meeting with lawmakers that “It
doesn’t make sense that I have to wait until I’m twenty-one to get a
handgun but I can get this weapon at eighteen.” I thought back to what
Ryan Deitsch, the Never Again activist, had told me while sitting in the
Pine Trails Park rec center the day before: “Until the politicians vote
and pass something, all of their words mean nothing. As soon as they’re
shot down, it just means that everything we talked about, everything we
did in Washington, everything we did in Tallahassee amounts to nothing.
And we choose to refuse that reality.”

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