“We are called the laziest generation, but we’re here! Are you listening?”
It was the voice of a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student at a massive noon rally at the Florida State Capitol on Wednesday. It was a rhetorical question. She and her fellow students were done asking.
The students had come seven hours from Parkland, Florida, where on Valentine’s Day 17 students were murdered and 14 injured by Nikolas Cruz, a shooter with an AR-15 rifle. The survivors’ mission: Knock something loose. Get some kind of change in state gun laws.
Wednesday’s centerpiece was the rally outside the historic Old Capitol, with an estimated 5,000 in attendance. The speakers included Florida politicians, clergy, and some gun control advocates from out of state, like Mark Kelly, husband of gun violence survivor and former Rep. Gabby Giffords. Stoneman Douglas students were peppered throughout the program, and the crowd fell into a hush when one arrived at a microphone. The more emotional the speaker, the quieter the amassing crowd became.
Robert Disney, vice president of organizing from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said it was all about letting the students have their say. “Trying just to stay out of their way,” Disney said before the big rally began. “These kids are the most important thing to happen to gun violence prevention in a generation.”
It was a stunning reversal of students teaching parents how to be outraged again. If the #NeverAgain movement started by Stoneman Douglas students leaves any legacy other than marginal gun control reform in Florida, let it be this: activism as a high school prerequisite. Teens taking road trips for hours on charter buses to pound the pavements of their state capitol grounds for a cause, a crash course in grassroots politics. The ultimate government or civics class. Where only the Florida State Capitol’s cabinet meeting room is big enough to be your cafeteria, scattered with box lunches, phone chargers and lively conversation.
Inside the Capitol the day before, an uglier sort of lesson was being learned, or perhaps unlearned. It was in the horrified face of Sheryl Acquaroli, a Stoneman Douglas junior reacting to the Florida House declining to bring a bill banning assault weapons to the floor midday Tuesday. This is what a teenager suddenly disillusioned by their government looks like.
Wednesday, it looked like Tyra Hymans, a graduating senior from Stoneman Douglas, who asked Florida Senate President Joe Negron in a committee meeting before the big noon rally to “look me in the eyes and tell me right now because of guns I can’t walk these streets again” to his face. Her voice quavered with a trauma still fresh. Hymans lost three people close to her, including her best friend.
“Look me in the eyes and tell me how you feel,” Hymans pressed Negron. She wasn’t being rhetorical. “No, how do you feel? Tell me right now. I just wanna know.” The senator gently elided her broadside of a question to move on to other speakers during the committee hearing.
Maybe this disillusionment—this up-close look at the detached wheels of government turning—is what’s needed to learn How A Bill Becomes A Law, not just the step-by-clean-step textbook diagram, but the reality of it. Maybe a harsh lesson in the legalized corruption and pay-to-play politics of state legislatures, where the NRA and a handful of 500-pound-gorilla lobbies really run shit, is in order. Sorry, kids.
For the record, Stoneman Douglas High sophomore lacrosse player Alex Moscou hates it when he and his fellow students or student activists—terms he seems to prefer— are called “kids.” They know what they’re getting themselves into. They just want to be taken seriously, and not treated like children. In fact, they’re demanding it.
“It’s an interesting environment, it’s really professional, because they have to be,” said Moscou about the Wednesday morning Senate committee meeting where he, Hymans, and his fellow students pressed the Senate President. He said he’d never been to Tallahassee before, much less a committee meeting. “We’ll sit there [in front of elected officials’ officers] until you decide to come out. Because, clearly, someone has to talk to you and make sure that you’re on board with what have to say. And if you’re not on board, we wanna hear why you’re not on board.”
Here, high school sophomores can endure the slow, frustrating process of policy change and still keep pushing, even remain talkative and upbeat to news media and, mostly importantly, each other. They’re not the caricature of fragile and idealistic teenagers, the ever-dismissive “kids,” not so easily bored or defeated by what is objectively mind-numbing and defeatist political process.
The cause just has to be personal.
Gun control is sure as hell personal for Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, too. Rep. Smith was elected to the Florida House in 2016 on a wave of political determination that arose after the tragedy of Orlando’s Pulse nightclub shooting in June of that year: a hate crime, terrorist attack and, at one time, the most lethal mass shooting in modern U.S. history (until the Mandalay Bay sniper attack in Las Vegas last year). It was a huge gut punch for Orlando’s Latinx and LGBTQ communities. And the lacking institutional responses that followed—like a dearth of English-to-Spanish translators working with medical and law enforcement institutions—added to the urgency of Smith’s already progressive campaign.
Smith has been a dedicated advocate for gun control, his communities, and his 49th district since. It’s indicative of perhaps a wider culture shift in Orlando, increased awareness of an LGBTQ community, embraced by Disney, the area’s largest employer, with Gay Days in the ’90s. The school shooting in Parkland and the political reckoning that’s followed the Pulse shooting and its cultural awakening has redoubled Smith’s efforts.
“I know so many of the individual personal stories of the 49 angels from Pulse,” he said. “Parkland reminded me again, in this pivotal moment, the reason why I’m here serving.”
Immediately following the noon rally on Wednesday, the crowd made up of mostly high school and college students from around Florida shouted at the double doors of the Florida House on Wednesday afternoon. Some students chanted “219,” Smith’s bill on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
Smith exited the House chambers for a thank you and to greet protesters.
The first thing he saw when he walked off the floor was a memorial flyer of couple he knew in Orlando, the late Drew Leinonen, 32, and Juan Guerrero, 22. “It was just so symbolic of everything that we’ve all experienced leading up to this moment,” he said.
The woman holding the memorial flyer was Patricia Jenkins, grandmother to a Pulse survivor.
“I’m here today because my grandson is gay, I got a niece that’s gay, I got a daughter that say she’s gay,” Jenkins said. “They should have rights. They shouldn’t have to be gunned down because they do these other things. And I’m here for the students, because I have grandkids in school.”
An Army veteran with 32 years of service, she added a somber final thought. “I served two tours in Iraq, I know what them weapons can do. And I think they [the legislature] need to gain some control over the weapons.”
A day after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum sent out an email blast with something of a greatest-hits gun control platform: ban assault weapons, large capacity magazines and bump stocks, strengthen and expand requirements for universal background checks for all gun sales, close private-sale loopholes, restrict gun access for the mentally ill, restrict gun access for known foreign and domestic terrorists, ban the purchase and possession of armor-piercing bullets, and close the Boyfriend Loophole, which would prohibit gun possession for those with felony and misdemeanor domestic violence and stalking convictions.
Before the noon rally on Wednesday, Gillum told Splinter he’d go even further, saying he’d favor creating a statewide registry of convicted domestic abusers, if elected governor.
“I think they’re common sense reforms, and I think a majority of Democrats and I think a plurality of Republicans would agree,” Gillum said.
Gillum’s comprehensive platform is the wonky flip side to the leaderless and collectivist Stoneman Douglas #NeverAgain movement, which so far has given little in the way of policy specifics. So far they’ve advocated for “change,” to “do something” and sometimes AR-15s or semi-automatic weapons come up, or upping age restrictions. At the CNN town hall, a student got Senator Marco Rubio to waver on high-capacity magazines. But in the nascent stages of the movement, raw emotion is the priority.
There’s only one uniform answer gun-control advocates seemed to share on Wednesday: Defer to the students. That seems to be where the momentum is, the spirit. A tremendous amount of faith is being placed in them.
“People keep calling them ‘kids’ but they’re not kids anymore,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said. “I don’t think they realize their [full] power. And I don’t think the adults—the lawmakers— realize their power either.”
As 5 p.m. and the end of the legislature’s workday neared, a sit-in of about two dozen had already formed in the only Republican legislative leadership office that hadn’t met with Stoneman Douglas students yet, the Office of the Speaker pro tempore Rep. Jeanette Nuñez. Security from the House Sergeant At Arms amassed on the back wall, giving them stony looks. The students chatted and sang together to pass the time.
The witching hour came and went, and student leaders—Stoneman Douglas alums, with their informal advisors, including Robert Disney from the Brady Campaign—had to make a decision: Would they leave on their own accord, be escorted out by security, or get arrested and dragged out of there?
The descent on the Capitol was so impromptu, just a week after the shooting itself, that it hadn’t given anyone time to raise money for a bail fund. So arrests were out. They also didn’t seem to think being escorted out sent the right message, either. Their #NeverAgain movement is brand new and, after all, it was law enforcement who got Stoneman Douglas survivors out safely and arrested the shooter.
So they would leave on their own, posing for a photo with fists up in front of leadership offices before filing out. One student offered a leftover pack of three turkey sandwiches to a law enforcement officer on the way out. It was a way of saying: “I know we kept you here a little late. No hard feelings?” The officer politely declined, but seemed genuinely pleased.
This final group of students walked down to the ground floor, out of the Capitol to meet an Associated Press reporter with a camera. Destinee Campbell, a Stoneman Douglas alum and Florida State University freshman, led the group’s informal statement to the AP.
“We’re not going to back down,” Campbell said. “They can hide all they want but they have to come out someday. We’ll be here when they do.”
Paul de Revere is a freelance journalist based out of Florida and New York. He has contributed to NPR, Rolling Stone and other media outlets.
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