Birth of a Movement
By Dave Cullen
I was in the audience at the March for Our Lives last year when Emma Gonzalez, one of the Parkland, Fla., high school students, suddenly fell silent. As the minutes passed, and she stared us down, her big brown eyes filling with tears, I had the same thoughts as probably every other protective adult in the crowd: Did she freeze? Forget her lines? Is she just overcome? Is this poor, brave kid having a public nervous breakdown?
What never occurred to me is what Dave Cullen was at that moment chronicling backstage for his book “Parkland”: Everything about the moment of silence was choreographed, the culmination of weeks of planning by the most intrepid group of teenage survivors ever. These were not a bunch of kids fumbling onstage. Starting within hours after the Valentine’s Day shooting, they had begun to assemble into a semiprofessional roving advocacy troupe, focused on moving the needle on gun control. As one survivor, David Hogg, vowed on TV only hours after 17 of his fellow students were killed: “I don’t want this to be another mass shooting. I don’t want this just to be something that people forget.”
By the time the rally took place, barely six weeks after the shooting, Emma was used to being referred to as “talent,” sitting for countless interviews and profiles noting her shaved head and those big eyes (“intense,” “warm,” “piercing”). She and a handful of kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had already faced down Marco Rubio, raised millions from a GoFundMe campaign, beat back hundreds of trolls on Twitter, fielded legal advice from George Clooney and used their youth to try to silence the N.R.A. and guilt the nation. “We’re children. You guys are the adults,” Hogg said on CNN. “You need to take some action.”
The Parkland survivors emerged at just the right time for Cullen. He wrote the book “Columbine,” a deeply researched and thorough account of the 1999 massacre at a Colorado school that ushered in the era of school shootings. Years of covering shootings, being called as an expert talking head on shootings, writing and thinking about shootings have left Cullen with a diagnosis of “vicarious traumatization,” he writes, and twice in the last seven years he’s found himself sobbing and immobilized for days. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly, following the Parkland kids seems like a form of therapy for Cullen himself, and, he hopes, the nation. “There were no vacant stares from the Parkland survivors,” he writes. “This generation had grown up on lockdown drills — and this time, they were ready.”
With “Parkland,” Cullen aims for a straightforward inspirational story of a group of kids “healing each other as they fought.” They knew one another from drama club, and instinctively understood how to position themselves on a national stage. At a candlelight vigil, one of them introduced herself to the Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who connected her to a state senator, who helped the kids figure out how to get floor time at the statehouse. Another came up with #NeverAgain while he was on the toilet in his pajamas. The hashtag went viral and landed him on “Anderson Cooper 360” and NPR. Basically every time Emma Gonzalez opened her mouth, she went viral. And within a couple of weeks they had ambitions of planning a rally as big as the Women’s March.
How or why these particular kids came to be so rapidly effective is not exactly clear from the book. Cullen partly chalks it up to generational wisdom. They understood news cycles and Twitter, viral videos and memes, and they set out to make themselves as relevant as possible. They understood they would be perceived as privileged white kids who live in gated communities, so they made alliances with groups that focus on urban school violence and shared the stage with them. They understood that no politician wants to be seen dismissing a kid who just saw his or her friends shot, so they staged as many showdowns as possible. In retrospect it seems extraordinary that all the pieces came together so effortlessly, yet even after reading the book I’m not exactly sure why this group of kids, at this particular moment.
In “Columbine,” Cullen punctured the lazy media narrative that the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were goth vigilantes, crusaders against bullies and mean girls. They were, he concluded, a psychopath and a depressive, and should be viewed through the lens of mental illness, and not school cliques and revenge — a point he’s repeated about many school shooters since. And partly thanks to Cullen, the rules of covering shootings have shifted. It’s become something of a taboo to spend too much energy on the psyche of the shooters, and definitely a taboo to glamorize their motives in any way.
In his new book, Cullen spends barely three pages on the Parkland shooter, giving just the barest biographical details, mostly about his depression, and referring to him only as the “mass murderer.” It’s a noble goal, to refuse to feed our fascination with the deranged teenage killer or provide the convenient horror movie plot. May every journalist follow his example so fewer mentally ill teenagers get the idea that shooting up their school will make them famous. But that commitment also presents a separate narrative challenge, which is how to create a story with drama and tension.
Cullen spent the 11 months after the shooting following the kids, which is enough time to plot the stages of their crusade but not necessarily enough to understand their internal struggles. He hints at possible tensions: parents worrying whether their suddenly energized kids were just suppressing trauma, kids getting used to their sudden fame, kids getting hammered by internet trolls, facing death threats, losing their friends who were jealous that now they had thousands of followers on Twitter. He mentions a mother who went to a support group and was chided because her son wasn’t at school at the time of the shooting — part of what Cullen refers to as the “weird hierarchy of victimhood.” But Cullen breezes by these moments and quickly returns to the ticktock of organizing the big rally.
Maybe it’s unfair to place even more burden on this group of teenagers to become our perfect heroes. After all, at the time they were facing down congressmen, they were still not old enough to vote. But I did find myself wishing for some more depth, detail or psychological complexity, something to cement these extraordinary kids in the public imagination so that we’d never forget what they somehow managed to pull off.