Parkland: The way ahead

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From grieving survivors to outspoken advocates for gun reform, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas captured the world’s attention in the aftermath of the deadliest high school shooting in the United States.

In between funerals for 14 classmates and three adult teachers, memorial services, and vigils by candlelight, the teenagers, and some of their parents, faced off with elected senators on national television, travelled more than 800 miles to confront Florida’s lawmakers in the state’s capital and directly challenged the powerful National Rifle Association, fervent upholders of the constitutional “right of the people to keep and bear arms”.

Tens of thousands of students at high schools across the country walked out of lessons in solidarity. Celebrities including George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey donated millions of dollars to support a nationwide March for Our Lives next month to protest against gun violence. And Stoneman Douglas students and their families joined parents of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting to meet with Donald Trump at the White House and renew calls for action on gun reform.

On Wednesday, exactly two weeks after the Parkland tragedy, students will return to their classes and attempt to rebuild lives and futures shattered by what what one teenager called “17 shots right to the heart of this community”. But the young adults who have sparked a youth protest movement in the US drawing comparison with the revolt against the Vietnam war are steadfast in their determination to press forward with their campaign and bring an end to school shootings.

These are the stories of five people whose lives were changed forever by the massacre in Parkland.

Cameron Kasky

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Kasky is the forthright 17-year-old who seized the microphone during a live televised discussion on gun control and demanded of Florida’s Republican senator Marco Rubio: “Can you tell me right now you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?”

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As a founder of the school’s #NeverAgain movement, Kasky has also been its most vocal, his bluntness cutting straight to the sole objective of the students’ campaign: ending gun violence in schools.

“I appreciate thoughts and prayers from anybody who can’t do more, but there are people in the legislature who are sending thoughts and prayers who are doing less than my freaking grandmother,” he said.

“I want to think there’s some greater power in government that for some reason wants this to stop, but the truth of the matter is the only power comes from us.”

Kasky points out that he and his classmates will be old enough to vote in the 2020 presidential election, and he will use the time until then pressing for gun reform. “We are on the cusp of our adulthood and ready to knock out the people who are not with us,” he said.

“If you ask anybody about me, it’s Cameron Kasky doesn’t know how to shut his damn mouth. I need to put that to good use now.”

Fred Guttenberg

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“My house is broken, and honestly I don’t know how we fix it,” Guttenberg said of the death of his 14-year-old daughter Jaime, a talented dancer. “She created the laughter in our house, everywhere she went people loved her and loved being with her.”

The grieving father was another to call out Rubio, calling the r politician who has taken more than $3m from the NRA in campaign contributions as “pathetically weak” in his response to the shooting.

But Guttenberg is determined to find purpose in Jaime’s murder and has pledged himself to joining his daughter’s classmates in campaigning for a nationwide ban on assault weapons such as the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle the Stoneman Douglas killer used.

“I don’t want to hear people say they got shot. They got hunted and this was the only weapon that could do it,” he said. “My house is changed forever because she got hunted at school. These kids were killed by a weapon of war in our schools and these weapons need to be removed from our streets. We need to make it impossible for people to get those guns.

“I will not stop. I’m going to be relentless. This must never happen again.”

Alfonso Calderon

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Calderon, 16, was dismayed at what he saw as a brush-off by Florida’s lawmakers when he and 100 Stoneman Douglas students took buses to Tallahassee to challenge them on gun reform. With survivors of the shooting watching from the gallery, the politicians voted to not even debate a proposed assault weapons ban in the state.

“We aren’t being taken seriously enough,” Calderon said. “People think that maybe because we’ve been through a traumatic experience we don’t know what we’re talking about, we’re speaking irrationally. But trust me, we understand.

“I was in a closet for four hours with people I’d consider almost family, crying and weeping, begging for their lives. I understand what it’s like to text my parents, ‘Goodbye. I might never get to see you again. I love you.’ I understand what it’s like to fear for your life. I don’t think we should ever be silenced because we are ‘just’ children.”

Calderon, an eloquent speaker and #NeverAgain leader, told why he thinks the Parkland shooting will be the tragedy to bring change.

“Finally it happened to a school in a high end neighbourhood with well educated, articulate and affluent people. This time for once, instead of grieving, we got straight to the point about how gun laws need to be changed,” he said.

Emma Gonzalez

emmaWith her striking buzz cut and no-nonsense demeanour, Gonzalez is the most recognisable face of the Stoneman Douglas student survivors. Her passionate speech at a gun control demonstration in Fort Lauderdale three days after the shooting was widely applauded and spawned the “I call BS” rallying call of the #NeverAgain movement as she denounced the gun lobby.

At 18 and a high school senior, Gonzalez is also among the oldest of the survivors and until the shooting was visiting colleges she hopes to attend after graduation this summer to study theatre. Now she is fully focused on removing from office politicians who take money from the NRA or who refuse to support the stricter regulation of guns.

“We don’t want these people in charge of us any more. We have to be the politicians in this instance,” Gonzalez said in an interview with People.

“We have to be the people calling for change, demanding change.”

One of the most powerful and memorable moments of the week following the shooting came when Gonzalez stood up to Dana Loesch, spokesperson for NRA, during the televised debate. Gonzalez told her: “We will support your two children in a way that you will not,” referring to the students’ determination to outlaw the same assault weapons that the NRA insists are a constitutional right to possess.

Florence Yared

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Yared’s stirring speech to thousands of activists and gun reform supporters on the steps of the state capitol building in Tallahassee might prove to be a defining moment of the campaign. The 17-year-old Stoneman Douglas junior was composed but determined as she tore into Washington politicians for their inaction.

“To Congress, you are directly responsible for every community that has lost people to gun violence. You have the power to change this and if you don’t we will change you. We will vote you out,” she said.

“No, this is not too soon. No, this is not the wrong time. If we wait your children might become victims too.”

Yared, whose 15-year-old sister also survived the massacre by hiding in a classroom, revealed why her words were so heartfelt.

“My parents are from Lebanon. They grew up in war and had to change high school because theirs was completely destroyed by bombs,” she said. “And they always had to leave their classes to shelter from bombs.

“They moved to America to give me and my siblings a better future so we won’t have to deal with the difficulty they went through. This is very similar. That’s why we want to make sure this never happens again.”

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