The surge in migrants at the US southern border has made many recent headlines, as has the Trump administration’s attitude towards unaccompanied migrant children. South of Miami, next to the Homestead air force base, is the nation’s largest temporary shelter for such immigrant children – and last week I took a tour at the invitation of the US department of health and human services.
A million-dollar Balinese-style temple that will be burned to ground in May was a gathering point for students of Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school on Thursday as they remembered their 14 classmates and three teachers killed a year ago today in one of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings.
The Temple of Time, an ornate giant wooden palace designed by the California-based artist David Best, and built with the aid of a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, was erected in neighbouring Coral Springs as a temporary memorial for the victims of the Parkland shooting. By early afternoon Thursday, dozens of MSD students and their families had arrived to write messages on the temple’s plywood walls or lay flowers and other momentos.
The solemn gathering was one of a number of commemorative events in Parkland and neighbouring cities on the first anniversary of the tragedy. Thousands were expected to attend an interfaith service later in the day at Pine Trails Park, site of the official memorials and a vigils one year ago.
In the tradition of many of Best’s other works, including at the notorious Burning Man festivals in Nevada, the Coral Springs temple will be set alight in late May in “the burn”, which the artist says is “a casting off of the demons of pain grief and sorrow.”
“We couldn’t call it a temple of healing, I don’t have that power,” said Best, who was emotional as he hugged many of the students. “The process of healing takes a long time.”
There are still ribbons tied to trees lining the roads towards Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school; familiar #MSDStrong messages endure on the wire fences of neighbouring campuses, the letters spelled out conscientiously by students using plastic cups.
If there remain plentiful visual indications that the nation’s deadliest high school shooting took place in this south Florida community exactly one year ago, the commemoration of Thursday’s first anniversary will confirm that the 17 victims and survivors are anything but forgotten.
What city leaders intend to be a “low-key” occasion of remembrance will be marked by vigils, moments of silence, an interfaith service and encouragement for the public to observe the day – Valentine’s Day – in “service and love”.
Stoneman Douglas students and their families will gather in the city’s largest park to remember their friends following a half-day at school; museums and a local nature centre will open their doors for free; a favourite beach of one of the victims, 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, will be cleaned up by loved ones and former classmates in her memory.
The events are, in the words of the Parkland mayor, Christine Hunschofsky, an opportunity for a grieving but unbroken community to come together in a purposeful celebration of the lives lost and to support those still suffering.
“I had discussions with several of the families, and from what we also learned from places that had experienced these tragedies previously, every day is a tough day but the one-year mark is also a tough day,” she said.
“We wanted to keep it what it’s supposed to be about and remember why we’re here. We’re here because 17 people’s lives were taken, we’re here because 17 other people were injured and a school’s students, teachers and staff were traumatised.
“It’s a respectful way of acknowledging that and who better than the clergy to show us a hopeful path forward? It’s there for everybody, there for everybody to feel sad, there for everybody to feel hope, but to reverently and respectfully acknowledge the loss and what this community has been through.”
A short walk from the Stoneman Douglas campus, Pine Trails park became the site of the memorials for the victims a year ago with thousands from Parkland, Coral Springs and other neighbouring cities attending an emotional candlelit vigil the night following the shooting. On Thursday it will again open its gates to serve a familiar role: a day-long commemoration will take place there, with therapy dogs and counsellors on hand, and events will conclude with the short interfaith service in the evening.
Those who attend are invited to bring a food item for an anti-hunger charity in lieu of cards, flowers or mementoes for the 14 Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and three teachers who were murdered, something Hunschofsky believes reflects the selfless and resilient spirit of her city.
“While we are still healing, while a lot of this is still raw, to see the human spirit that we have here in Parkland, I think that’s the message. We might have been shaken but we refuse to be down for the count,” she said.
“Our residents are collecting for the homeless, doing service projects all year round, helping each other all year round. We didn’t become cynical with helping one another, didn’t say, ‘I’m not going to try and make a difference and be the change I want to see.’ Our community didn’t let this stop them from being the great community it was prior to this.”
Hunschofsky says she is also keen that Thursday’s remembrance focuses on “the human side” of the tragedy and not the firestorm of political controversy that still surrounds its aftermath, including the removal of the Broward county sheriff, Scott Israel, by Florida’s new governo,r Ron DeSantis, and efforts to unseat Robert Runcie, Broward’s superintendent of schools, blamed by some Parkland parents for alleged missteps before and after the shooting.
“When you have mass tragedies it’s easy to kind of make everything about issues,” she said. “I’m not saying there aren’t issues that led to this happening but the humans get overlooked a lot of the time. For me, if we as a community recognise the human side, we will do better going forward because we’ll always remember why we’re here and what we’re working toward.”
Manuel Oliver, whose 17-year-old son Joaquin was among those killed, will spend the anniversary in New York campaigning for gun control legislation.
“Forget about 14 February, it’s not any more in our calendar. That significance of friendship and love is gone,” he said.
“For me it’s another day. I am going to be able to close the loop of special dates, I needed to wait until 14 February to at least understand a little bit how am I going to feel, on my wife’s birthday without Joaquin, on my birthday, on Joaquin’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve …
“So it makes you a little stronger for the next time. Other than that, forever, people will call me and try to find out how I’m feeling every 14 February until the day I die.”
Hunschofsky agrees that the anniversary is just one moment of an ongoing journey of healing and recovery for the victims’ families, the city of 32,000 residents and the wider community in south Florida.
“I don’t think there’s ever closure because this was a traumatic event. This is a lifelong process that people will be going through,” she said.
“There will be many bumps along the way. Even in healing, there will be many bumps. People who feel they’re kind of doing a little better as a the one-year mark approaches, a lot of the feelings that were there right after 14 February are coming back.
“So it’s better for people to look at this, as in any life experience, as something you keep working on and focusing on moving forward and doing the best you can. As a community it’s important to realise and acknowledge the trauma and that it still exists and that we need to keep working on it.”
It will be no ordinary Valentine’s Day tomorrow for the people of Parkland, Florida. The last time it came around they began the day with their hearts full but ended it with them broken.
Overshadowed by the still-raw grief of the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School last year, in which 17 students and staff were killed and 17 injured, it is now a day of jarring dilemmas as the community struggles to walk the line between mourning and moving on.
“There’s so much to consider and a lot of balancing to be done,” said Christine Hunschofsky, the mayor of Parkland, where residents have even debated whether hanging a Valentine’s decoration outside one’s home is acceptable or offensive.
“The best thing we can do is to reserve judgment on one another and be respectful that there are many ways to heal. There’s no right way or wrong way,” she added.
The tragedy has both unified and divided. Even in the face of one of America’s worst modern-day mass shootings, not even the victims’ families all consider guns and gun laws the problem. Some have instead focused their efforts on the issues of hardening security in schools, and on holding to account those they feel failed in their duty of care that day.
“Within any family you have disagreement. For the 17 families, we are part of this miserable club that has forced a bond among us that can’t be broken. We’re able to hold each other up and support each other without this mandate that we have to agree with each other,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime, 14, (pictured below) was killed. He is now a leading activist against gun violence.
“Clearly we don’t all agree with each other — but maybe all of us pushing for the things we want to fight for, all our different views and ways of doing it, can lead to enhanced public safety.”
Lawsuits continue to fly in all directions over the shooting — against the school authorities, law-enforcement agencies and school security officers. Bitterness and finger-pointing abound. Heads have rolled, including Scott Israel, the sheriff of Broward county who clung to office for 11 months amid controversy over his handling of the incident before he was suspended by Ron DeSantis, the new state governor.
Post-traumatic stress syndrome lingers. Grief counselling, support groups and mental wellness programmes are part of the “new normal”. Therapy dogs and a miniature therapy pig that rides around in a pushchair are now part of the fabric at MSD. Some schools have banned balloons, not wanting the “pop” of an accidental burst to be mistaken for gunfire and cause panic or trigger flashbacks.
Parents of students at Broward county’s 220 public schools have been sent printed guides this week coaching them on how to help their families to cope with the anniversary. “Many children and adults are still having reactions to the tragedy … They may appear ‘back to normal’ but still at times be feeling sad, scared, anxious or angry,” it advises.
Students have been encouraged to spend tomorrow engaging in community and charitable projects, such as packing food for the homeless or providing meals for first responders.
“The overall feeling in the school is that once we’re through Thursday, it’s OK to start to move on — not to forget but to really start the healing and growing,” said Amanda Marty, 16, an MSD student.
Many parents, however, are planning on keeping their children home for the day, fearing copycat attacks. Under new state legislation every school in Florida now has an armed officer on campus; tomorrow in Broward county, they will have more due to “the potential for people who might seek attention to harm others on that day,” said Robert Runcie, the county’s superintendent of schools.
Mr Runcie has been a polarising figure in the shooting’s aftermath, blamed for mis-steps that allowed the gunman – a 19-year-old former student at MSD with mental health problems — to slip through the cracks of the sprawling school system, and for poor leadership since the massacre.
Protesters demand his resignation at every school board meeting and have bumper stickers on their cars urging: “Oust Runcie.”
“Our community is in trauma and we need you to step up or get the f*** out of the way,” Rebecca Hogg, a mother of two, urged him at a heated parents’ meeting last week.
Her children, David, 18, who graduated from MSD in August, and Lauren, 15, who is still a pupil there, are co-founders of the March for Our Lives campaign against gun violence and vocal opponents of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Rebecca learnt to cope with the death threats and hate mail they receive by getting a friend to read them out loud in an exaggerated British accent over a glass of wine. “We fell about laughing. Better than falling apart crying,” she said.
Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa, 14, (below) was killed, was so aggrieved at the slow pace of progress in hardening school security that she ran for election to the Broward school board in August and won.
In an emotional letter written to her late daughter, published this week by Dearworld.org, Mrs Alhadeff wrote: “As I remember you, grief washes over me. But that grief emboldens me to fight for change. I wish I could take all the bullets for you…I just want you back.”
Most of the families now have non-profit-making groups set up in their loved ones’ memories whose purposes range from providing free swimming clinics for children and funding academic scholarships, to building a butterfly garden and a playground, helping children with special needs and empowering future young leaders.
“As a community we can’t allow people to steal our hope,” said Ms Hunschofsky. “That in itself is a sign of resiliency.”
Mr Guttenberg said, however: “Thursday comes and goes and I still don’t have my daughter . . . Thursday comes and goes and I’m not teaching her to drive, or planning her Sweet 16 [party], or seeing her with her first boyfriend or looking forward to walking her down the aisle.
“Thursday might be a turning point for some, and that’s a good thing. But not for me — and not, I suspect, for the other 16 families. It’s just another day to get through.”
It’s been very nearly a year since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings. I interviewed one of the most inspiring people I have ever met for this feature, Manuel Oliver, who suffered the heartbreak of losing his best friend in life, his 17-year-old son Joaquin, known as Guac.
The idiot comedian Louis CK took a pop at the teenage survivors of the shooting. Senor Oliver would not let that stand…