Dave Cullen is no stranger to the labyrinth of grief. He’s the author of “Columbine” (2009), a decade-long project about that school shooting that left him reeling from “secondary traumatic stress, or vicarious traumatization.” Understandably, he’s apprehensive arriving in Parkland in the days after the killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. When he finds himself standing inside a “spontaneous memorial” in a local park, “A wave of sadness knocked me to my knees, and all I could feel was Columbine.”
Cullen has written “Parkland” for the kids, the victims and survivors of the mass shooting on Valentine’s Day, 2018. This week marks the first anniversary of the South Florida bloodshed that took 17 lives, so it’s not a book about the distant past.
Neither is “Parkland” about the killer, whom the author refuses to name. He regards the shooter as “irrelevant … of little significance himself,” though, he adds, “his mental issues are not.” In “Parkland,” Cullen laments the media’s creation of Hero Narratives that often accompanies “spectacle murders,” and he fears their influence as an inspiration for possible future mass shooters.
“Parkland” is a moving petition to America that it not look away from the catastrophes at Columbine, Newtown, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and, yes, Parkland. It succeeds as an in-depth report about the “generational campaign” in the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy, a bi-partisan movement advocating serious gun reform.
Cullen reports that the main Douglas High players, all in their late teens, become sophisticated political actors overnight. The appear within 72 hours on most American TV news/talk show outlets and take to social media, which didn’t exist when the “school-shooter era” began at Columbine 20 years ago.
He focuses on the students who form “the core team”: Emma Gonzalez, a charismatic leader skeptical of her own celebrity; David Hogg, news director of the school’s student-run TV production program MSD-TV, who interviews the kids trapped with him in lock-down; Cameron Kasky, a young actor whose initial Twitter plea becomes “the single most significant moment of the movement”; and Jackie Corin, the revolution’s first-rate organizer.
Within a week, they launch a jumbo-motor coach juggernaut to Tallahassee, Fla. Crash-tutored by Parkland’s state representatives on the Florida capitol’s stodgy ways, they miraculously extract “a modest gun proposal” from then-governor Rick Scott, a so-called “Second Amendment warrior.”
Searching for a “name that captured what they were feeling,” they settle on the March for Our Lives (MFOL). The new organization raises several million dollars with an assist from celebrities such as George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, and they mount a Washington rally of nearly 500,000 people five weeks after the shooting that is accompanied by hundreds of “sibling marches” across the United States and around the world.
The speakers rise to the occasion, maturing into vibrant orators on an international stage, and the reader is conquered by the seismicity of teenage people power. There’s no more momentous rebuttal to kill-crazy madness than the burst of human solidarity when the banner unfurls, “Newtown High School stands with Stoneman Douglas.”
The city of Parkland arose from the eastern Everglades in the mid-20th century. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem much different from the edge cites and bedroom communities that surround metropolitan Atlanta. With 3,200 students, the high school has a balanced racial mix consistent with the rest of the country. But the town’s image, according to one student, is “just the most stereotypical white suburban, rich, perfect place.”
From the outset, the MFOL’s movers understand the implications of perceived privilege, which is why they reach out to Chicago’s Peace Warriors, young African-Americans who are wry veterans of the struggle against urban gang violence.
In the days after the Douglas shooting, several of the March for Our Lives students are overcome with animosity toward the National Rifle Association and its compliant politicians. But the Peace Warriors instruct the MFOL on Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence, the philosophical discipline that encourages the embrace of one’s opponent as a friend, not an enemy.
It’s a transformative moment. The MFOL refines their master plan, forbidding ad hominem attacks against Republicans and formulating a prime directive: Never endorse any political candidate. “The long-term strategy,” summarizes Cullen, “was taking [the gun] issue out of the red-blue brawl.”
They support the Second Amendment, yet advocate sensible gun restrictions, issuing a series of demands, including universal background checks; a searchable database for the ATF; support for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study firearms-related violence; prohibition of “high capacity magazines … and semiautomatic assault rifles.” To that list, Cullen would add “a targeted approach to mental health in the form of screening for teen depression every semester, in every high school in the country.”
The Parkland crusade has been a consequential influence. Georgia’s political solar system was knocked off-axis with the 2018 election of Democrat Lucy McBath in the 6th Congressional District, a seat held by Republicans for 40 years. McBath, whose 17-year old son was shot to death in Florida in 2012, cited the Parkland teen movement as an inspiration, and she unapologetically made gun reform a primary focus of her campaign. In her first official effort, five days into her term, she co-sponsored a bill that would expand background checks for the sale and transfer of firearms.
by Dave Cullen
385 pages, $27.99
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.