Part III of The Passions of a March–and of Gun Culture
Seventeen students’ lives were taken at the Parkland school shooting and they could have, after the customary eulogies and testimonies to their lives, ended up as only as statistics. However, the aftermath of the massacre has made the story of the Parkland school shooting somewhat unusual in contemporary American experience. Rather than turning the gun upon himself in one final act of desperation as most shooters have done, Cruz allowed himself to be taken captive; perhaps, “his story” will be heard, though it is doubtful that anything particularly striking will emerge beyond the by-now familiar narrative of a white boy in his late teens or early twenties who routinely engaged in slurs against Muslims, black people, and Jews, sported swastikas and was drawn to neo-Nazi videos on the internet, and appears to have thought of white women who had entered into inter-racial relationships as traitors to their race. The shooters, whether at school or elsewhere, have been, as I have pointed out previously, predominantly white; their admirers, drawn from the ranks of those who harbor a fascination for guns and are evidently advocates of racial purity, are also overwhelmingly white. In another piece of Americana, as Cruz remains confined in prison while awaiting trial, he is being inundated with fan mail from across the country, with a few stray pieces from Europe, mostly from girls, women, and grown men. His interlocutors include mature women who have sent Cruz photos of themselves in lingerie, as well as young women who have written him love letters or are solicitous of his welfare [Flores 2018].
More significantly, however, it is the resolve of the students of the Parkland school to bring the subject of gun control to the attention of the nation that has differentiated this shooting from many others. Just days into the shooting, some of the school’s students had already become emissaries for a cause, appearing as spokespersons for gun control at other schools, on news channels, in town hall meetings, and at community forums. Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas who was raised in Parkland, emerged three days after the shooting as the face of the student-led gun control movement. At a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, she ended her speech with the rallying call, “We call B.S.” Emma, like the other students, had had enough of politicians informing families of victims and traumatized students that their “thoughts and prayers” were with them. She had heard far too many politicians piously vowing, time after time, to make the country’s schools safe from gun violence, and then unabashedly proceeding to collect donations from the NRA for their re-election campaigns. She now knew what it meant to have to cower in fear: on the day of the shooting, she was in the school auditorium when the alarm sounded; though she sought to make good her exit, she and other students were held in the auditorium for two hours before the police arrived and unlocked the doors. On February 20th, Emma and other students met with state legislators in Florida at Tallahassee and watched them vote down debate on a gun control bill. The day after, Emma let the NRA and the politicians who stand by it have an earful: “You’re either funding the killers, or you’re standing for the children.”
On March 14th, one month to the day the massacre of the innocents took place, students from across the country staged a school walkout termed “Enough!” They would be assisted in this endeavor by some of the organizations and activists in the “Women’s March” that had descended upon Washington the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as President on 20 January 2017. Timed at 10 AM, students in perhaps as many as 3,000 schools quit their classrooms, while staying within the school grounds, for 17 minutes in memory of their 17 peers who were killed in Parkland and to signal their impatience with prevarication by legislators in initiating gun control measures. But all this served as a prelude to the far more ambitious and purposeful “March for Our Lives” on March 24th, when a million students gathered in Washington, and several hundred cities across the country, to demand legislative action in Congress, and state legislative assemblies, that would put into place more stringent measures to regulate the sale of guns; some, taking a more complex political view of the matter, called attention to the gun violence that has blighted urban communities around the country and taken an especially heavy toll of African Americans, Chicanos, and even bystanders. There, again, was Emma Gonzalez, this time standing forth, mostly in heavy silence, for 6 minutes 20 seconds—as long as it took for Cruz to snuff out many lives and maim as many—before concluding her speech with a call for action before “someone else is shot.”
The day belonged not to Emma Gonzalez alone. Seventeen-year old Edna Chavez recalled how, one evening three years ago, she heard what sounded like fireworks outside her South Los Angeles home, not realizing that her older brother had been gunned down in gang violence. “I lost more than my brother that day,” she told the Washington crowd, “I lost my hero.” At eleven years, fifth-grader Naomi Wadler took the podium and spoke forcefully for nearly four minutes on the disproportionate impact of gun violence upon black women. Let us pause over her remarks: “I am here to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news. I represent the African American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential.”
Wadler displayed, for someone her age, remarkable poise; and she evidently has more political awareness and acuity than one encounters among most politicians. Much more so than school shootings, it is the violence on American streets that has destroyed families, decimated entire neighborhoods, and condemned generations of black men to prison terms and lives of destitution. Once the gunfire has died down, it is largely women—mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends—who are left to mourn, pick up the pieces of their lives, and—as they say—carry on. America has little interest in resolving addressing gun violence: it makes some streets unsafe, but the rigid segregation that is pervasive around the country ensures that, for the most part, this violence does not spill over into white neighborhoods. In any case, much of white America has long been reconciled to the idea that a slight degree of discomfort can be tolerated, so long as gun violence does not begin to tear apart their own communities. School shootings have, we may say, broken that barrier.
(to be continued)