By Chris Unterberger
The tragedy that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day 2018, was horrific, dark, and seemingly meaningless. The 17 young lives lost that day (and the many others that were forever tainted) served as the backbone of the New York Times Bestseller “Parkland: Birth of a Movement” by Dave Cullen, the same author who extensively covered the Columbine school shooting in 1999. The book, chosen as the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Go Big Read book for 2020-21, provides a roadmap of quality activism for societal change. Catalysts for Science Policy members discussed this book on March 11, 2021.
Cullen follows the young leaders who took up the responsibility to lead their fellow survivors, Floridians, and Americans in pushing for gun reform in the hours, days, weeks, and months following the slaughter of their classmates. Using the momentum of the moment and spinning it into something meaningful, these kids fertilized a movement and paved a road to real change.
Momentum is a powerful thing in politics and activism. The Parkland students who created March for Our Lives (MFOL) recognized this and quickly used it to their advantage to capture the attention of news outlets across the country. The tragedy garnered national attention which the MFOL group played perfectly. They waged war on a diverse set of fronts: social media, television news, newspapers, and state and national political offices. With different voices, perspectives, and talents—natural to a large group of high schoolers—they tantalized various audiences. They recognized that peculiarity; one student was baffled by the fact that she was a seventeen-year-old girl sitting in a state senator’s office. “That’s just not normal,” according to her. But attention is finite. Between the media and the legislature’s attention, the MFOL group fought an uphill battle to make lasting change beyond a few weeks. Through catchy slogans like “we call BS”, art, shared publicity with gun reform groups in other cities and states, and large and loud rallies, the gun reform debate stayed at the forefront of America’s mind for longer than they could have hoped. They effectively fought the battle over momentum, catching a large percentage of the national spotlight for a duration unseen in past school shootings to shed light on the message they creatively spun out of tragedy.
Spinning tragedy into an opportunity was a challenge that MFOL gladly accepted. Gun rights advocates are good at spinning school shootings into mental health problems rather than gun ownership. To oppose that talent, MFOL was precise and careful with how they framed their fight, repeatedly acknowledging that most voters agreed with sensible gun reform. Because their grassroots campaign aimed at identifying common ground with gun owners, MFOL leaders hammered home the message that gun reform doesn’t need to be drastic or brash. To do so, activists preached consistent, credible, and specific demands that everyone supported and ensured that nobody within the group second-guessed themselves. As one member of MFOL stated: “You need to take these opportunities and just change it. Flip them.” And flip it they did. They spun the tragedy into a useful opportunity to change.
The driver of change is voting. MFOL drove change by showing potential voters the tangible results of electing leaders who advocate for gun reform and how to hold them accountable. They believed that anger was a quick conversion tool, but love and compassion were the real drivers of change. To reap the rewards of sowing compassion in voters, they led get-out-the-vote efforts in the younger voting population that agreed more with their mission more than older voters. These efforts were mainly antagonized by the fact that young Americans vote when they believe their efforts have tangible results. MFOL combatted this by showing them that voting matters and by finding candidates who could win skeptical voters over with promises of change.
Their efforts immediately following the tragedy were built towards sustainability. Their get-out-the-vote campaigns and rallies persisted for months through the 2018 midterm elections (and continue to this day). MFOL sustainably created a strong organizational structure with precise goals mapped out months in advance. These goals maintained excitement for the movement and guided them to register voters and turn them out to vote. This robust infrastructure was just as crucial as the aggressive, direct, and repeated messaging that the activists conveyed on the road. By taking charge and being 100% certain of their values, MFOL initiated a movement from which future generations will benefit.
The story of the months following the horrific tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas is an inspirational example of what activism can be. This small group of high school kids may not have sparked the sweeping change to national legislation for which they hoped, but it undoubtedly began a movement. Cullen expertly follows and examines the group during these momentous months and, by doing so, provides a story from which other activists can draw inspiration and guidance. “Parkland: Birth of a Movement” is a collection of lessons of how momentum drawn from spinning tragedy into opportunity can lead to change. The book appropriately concludes with Bruce Springsteen’s addendum to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice…[but] that arc doesn’t bend on its own.”