Gun control's newest activists aren't backing down. But true change will be a long haul
Updated 10:31 AM ET, Wed February 21, 2018
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(CNN)No one wants to be here.
No one wants to be in front of a camera, or on some media call list under the title "mass shooting survivor" or "family of mass shooting victim." It means someone they love has died or been broken. It means someone has experienced a trauma so deep it's not clear if the rest the world truly understands.
It means there was a day when everything changed.
For a group of high school students in Parkland, Florida, that day was February 14, 2018. Since that day, their presence and their anger, their grief and their message has been a constant force, roaring from every television and social media platform and rally stage.
Before that day, students like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez were high schoolers, but now suddenly they also are activists, bound together by tragedy and buttressed by the work of generations of other activists who came to the cause in the very same way.
The ones who came before them -- who turned down this path on April 20, 1999 or December 14, 2012 or any number of dates since -- they know what comes next. Gun control work, like lots of advocacy work, is an ugly, polarizing business. Strangers and enemies will smear your name. They'll cast doubt on your pain. The victories will be hard fought and far between. And in the meantime, the grief still lingers.
But there's something that feels different about Parkland, and gun control activists can sense it. Decades of their work and pain and persistence, combined with the intimacy of modern media and a recent groundswell in activist culture, have allowed Parkland students to stand taller and yell louder than ever.
"Every major movement in the United States, it starts at the state level," 16-year-old Alfonso Calderon told CNN. He was one of about 100 Stoneman Douglas students who piled into buses headed for Tallahassee, their state capital.
"Then we're going to have to apply it to the rest of the country, because this country needs to change, and it needs to happen now."
Hope, a viral notion
Coni Sanders has lived a life marked by gun violence for almost two decades. Her father, Dave Sanders, was a teacher at Columbine High School. He, along with 12 others, died in the 1999 massacre. It wasn't the first shooting at an American school, but it was the first time a school shooting really gripped the country.
"The whole nation stopped. The world stopped," she says. "Everything stopped, and for years it was a focus of attention."
As the school shootings piled up, after Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook in 2012, Sanders says, "the grieving became faster and the attention became shorter."
Sanders is now a mental health counselor who works with violent offenders. Her choice of profession isn't an accident. Activism comes in many forms, and while she regularly speaks out about gun control, the real puzzle Sanders was drawn to was how two young men reached a point where they wanted to murder classmates and blow up their school.
When she looks at the Parkland students, she sees hope.
"Things really change at light speed now, and I don't think people can continue to hide from the issue," she says.
When Sanders watched Columbine unfold live on air, the constant and immediate coverage was a fairly new concept. Reality shows hadn't taken hold yet. The age of ultra-sharing that shaped Parkland's youth were years away.
"These kids have grown up on camera and are very comfortable speaking their mind," Sanders says. "I think people are going to get on board with them and stay on board."
If it feels like they are too polished, remember that these teenagers came of age with platforms like Youtube and Vine and Instagram, where they became not only content consumers but content creators. For them, recording their lives, sharing their stories and being "camera ready" is as simple as turning on a phone.
The things no one wants to hear
For the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaking their minds means sometimes saying things people want to hear. Students shocked social media when they started tweeting their anger and outrage before the scene at their school had even been cleared.
When President Trump tweeted his condolences and when some politicians and pundits began to muse about the ineffectiveness of gun control, tweets from Parkland students went viral. But it wasn't just their anger that caught people's attention. It was their sheer, unvarnished grief.
Morgan Williams, one of the most outspoken and influential Parkland students on Twitter, shared heartbreaking thoughts the night of the shooting.
"I cannot stop hearing the sound of the gun as he walked down my hallway. I cannot unsee my classmates who were shot get carried out by police," she wrote. "I cannot unsee the bodies on the floor. Please keep in mind the horror of what we've gone through today."
"The tactic the Parkland students are using right now, they are unapologetically sharing their stories," Sarah Clements says.
Clements was a sophomore at the nearby Newtown High when the Sandy Hook massacre happened in 2012. Her mother taught second grade at Sandy Hook. From the school's entrance, her classroom was the second one in the corridor to the right. When Adam Lanza entered the school that December day, he turned left.
By the time it was over, the country was haunted by 20 little bodies. Slain children are hard to imagine. Clements says it's up to survivor-activists to make it real.
"These kids (in Parkland) are sharing stories about having to walk by their classmates lying in pools of blood," she says. "That is what people need to hear, because that is what mass shootings are. That is what trauma means. I think there's a feeling among survivors that people don't actually know what they're like."
Facing newfound notoriety on social media, Stoneman's student leaders have evolved rapidly with the cause. Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old junior, now has a verified Twitter account bearing all of the slick marks of a serious activist. And yet, his responses are deeply authentic. He spars with trolls, signal-boosts support and documents the constant work of his fellow students.
"I promise I will stop responding to trolls when it stops amusing me," he told someone concerned about the online abuse he and his classmates were receiving. "Times are hard right now and people like this really keep me going and keep me in the best spirits I can find all things considered."
The Parkland students' efforts also seem to be aligning with a recent surge of activism. 2017 was the year of the #MeToo movement, the #TimesUp movement, the #TakeAKnee movement, the Women's March, all packaged and hashtagged to be shared and spread, discussed and remixed.
Sanders believes the emergence of these cultural and social movements may have emboldened Parkland's teens.
"Social media is a powerhouse. We see changes in our culture and our belief system can be disseminated quickly," she says. "With things like the #MeToo movement, it caught on. We saw consequences, we saw people stepping forward and saying, 'This also happened to me.'
"That leaves people feeling hopeful, and they are able to spread that hope."
The rocky road ahead
What happens next will not be easy, and only part of that has to do with gun control. Yes, the road to new gun legislation in any form will be a slog. Already, in Alabama and Florida, legislators and officials have put forth proposals to arm teachers and beef up armed security around schools — a method that is a popular answer from gun rights activists and an impotent endeavor in the eyes of gun control activists.
On Tuesday, as survivors from MSDHS looked on, a group of Florida House Republicans voted down a Democratic motion for an assault rifle ban.
The students' visible grief was a subject of ridicule from some far-right figures online. "Adults 1, Kids 0," tweeted a popular talking head. Along with a photo of children weeping, he added, "Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs."
It's a small sliver of the abuse and smear campaigns the teens will face — and have faced already.
On Tuesday evening, an aide to Florida state Rep. Shawn Harrison was fired after he sent an email to a reporter calling the Parkland students crisis actors and linking to a YouTube conspiracy video when asked to back up his claims.
In his tweeted apology, the aide, Benjamin Kelly, merely stated that he "tried to inform a reporter," which was "not his responsibility." Kelly also favorited a tweet making fun of a Parkland school survivor, calling her a "brown bald lesbian girl."
Students like David Hogg, one of the teens at the forefront of Stoneman's activist group, are being targeted by fake reports saying he and other students are being coached by the media.
Sanders and Clements know this kind of abuse comes with the territory.
"Not only are (Parkland students) going to be dealing with trauma, they will be experiencing hatred from politicians, and there will be horrible people in the world who will say and do horrible things," Sanders says. Even now, 18 years after Columbine took her father, Sanders recently had to take out a restraining order related to the shooting.
Sandy Hook, too, was a particularly vile crucible for conspiracies, and Clements says she still receives ad hominem attacks calling her a crisis actor.
"The harassment is so frightening," Clements says. "It makes you want to be more behind the scenes, or stop altogether. And you can absolutely stop [public activism]. No one will judge you. But just know these people will always exist."
The great gun debate, disrupted
Meanwhile, gun-rights leaders are sticking to their most reliable arguments: That the solution to school shootings is more armed teachers and enforcement, and that gun control doesn't stop gun violence.
Richard Martinez, who lost his son Christopher in a 2014 mass shooting near UC Santa Barbara, has some advice for Parkland's new activists.
"They should tell these legislators that they know more about mass-shooting drills than the legislators they are talking to," he told CNN's Brooke Baldwin this week.
"When I was growing up, no little kid in America thought about being shot and killed in their school. Today little kids are doing mass-shooting drills and they know why. They know other little kids have been shot and killed in our country. And the gun lobby is going to tell us the solution to gun violence is more guns? It's ridiculous."
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting survivors are keenly aware of their place in this history, and why they may be the ones to finally break through the gun debate.
"I think the difference between us and Sandy Hook is that those kids weren't old enough to speak their experiences and their tragedy," Sofie Whitney told CNN on Tuesday. " But here we are, 100 of us about to go to Tallahassee to talk to our government. We're running the 'Never Again' movement, we're running March For Our Lives, all student led. And I think it's really symbolic that we're doing it because we're the ones who experienced it."
The last mass shooting
It's hard to fathom, but when Columbine happened none of the victims of the Parkland shooting were even born. Cell phones were rare luxuries, and the impact of social media was an incalculable dream.
So much has changed. And yet, the Parkland victims were delivered into a world that that would stay the same until they left it: A world where school shootings are a matter of fact, a reality to live and die by.
Maybe that's why there's so much foresight in the words of Parkland survivors. They know history is watching, waiting; begging the question.
Eighteen years from now, what will their school be remembered for?
"We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks," Gonzalez said during a speech in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday. "Not because we're going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because... we are going to be the last mass shooting."
The last mass shooting -- that's what Gonzalez and her classmates want their school's legacy to be. There's a lifetime of work to be done, but for now the near future looks promising: A town hall with CNN on Wednesday night, meetings with Tallahassee lawmakers, a walkout or two. They've also organized a nationwide gathering on March 24th, called March for Our Lives. They call their body of work the Never Again Movement.
It's a good name, a memorable one worthy of a generation where social media can foster serious activism, and a hashtag can become a rallying cry. It's a name worth shouting, over and over again, for as long as it takes.