Even as they rode buses to Tallahassee on Tuesday as the newest and most powerful political voices for gun control in America, an outspoken group of students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school shooting found themselves under attack again.
This time, it came on social media.
Conservative pundits, outlets and social media posters on Tuesday hit airwaves and social media hard. Some raised absurd conspiracy theories that kids who just endured a horrifying assault are actually “crisis actors” trained to stage “false flag” events. Others questioned the motivations and political backing of students who have been praised by mainstream media, Democratic politicians, gun control groups and television stars like HBO’s John Oliver.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that an aide to Florida Rep. Shawn Harrison, a Republican from Hillsborough County, used state email to send a photo of two students with this message to a reporter: “Both kids in the picture are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.” That’s false.
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Harrison immediately distanced himself. “I was just made aware that my aide made an insensitive and inappropriate allegation about Parkland students today,’’ he tweeted Tuesday afternoon. “I have spoken to him and placed him on leave until we determine an appropriate course of action. I do not share his opinion and he did so without my knowledge.”
By early evening, Harrison’s aide Benjamin Kelly tweeted that he’d been fired.
“I’ve been terminated from the State House. I made a mistake whereas I tried to inform a reporter of information relating to his story regarding a school shooting. This was not my responsibility. I meant no disrespect to the students or parents of Parkland,” he wrote.
A blogger at Gateway Pundit, a far-right, pro-Trump website, wrote a piece calling one of the leading student voices “a plant.” It included a picture of student David Hogg with a circle around his head and this statement: “Son of FBI agent.” Hogg was among the first Stoneman Douglas students to appear on networks and cable news demanding tougher laws from state and federal lawmakers.
Former U.S. Congressman Allen West, a Republican who served a single term in South Florida as a Tea Party star, also joined in. In one Twitter post, he lumped shooter Nikolas Cruz with five Americans of Middle Eastern descent who claimed connections to terrorist groups. There is no indication that 19-year-old Cruz, who state records show has lived much of his life in Broward County, was a follower of any Muslim terror group.
Jack Kingston, a former U.S. Representative from Georgia who is now a CNN contributor, doubted the students’ intentions, questioning their motivation on his Twitter account and opining that they’re being led by “left wing gun control activists.” On CNN’s New Day Tuesday morning, Kingston said the students’ “sorrow can very easily be hijacked by left-wing groups who have an agenda.”
Conspiracy theorists, like the ones who still claim that the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., never happened, also chimed in casting doubts about the Parkland shooting.
At least a few Republicans pushed back. By day’s end, U.S. Sen Marco Rubio was fed up, tweeting “Claiming some of the students on tv after #Parkland are actors is the work of a disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency.”
The students began raising their voices almost as soon as the smoke cleared from the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, when former student Cruz shot 32 people, killing 17 of them with an AR-15 assault rifle he had legally purchased.
Within a few days the names David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez and Cameron Kasky were being celebrated as the new vibrant voices of activism.
Hogg, a senior with a younger sister who also survived the attack, has been a constant presence on national television. Gonzalez, an 18-year-old senior, caught the nation’s attention with a blistering speech in front of the Broward County Courthouse in which she lambasted President Donald Trump and pleaded passionately for gun control. And Kasky, 17, who has raised more than $1 million on a GoFundMe account, uttered the now twice-famous line, “You’re either with us or you’re against us.”
Parents and teachers of the teens say the movement is organic and that they’ve chosen to just step aside and let the kids lead. Jeff Kasky, the attorney father of Cameron, told the Miami Herald that parents are reminding their kids to “eat and drink and sleep,” but that they’re mostly staying out of the way.
He did say that a group of parents will meet Monday to strategize, that there was talk of bringing in a nonprofit that focuses on gun safety to help organize things and that he had suggested his son set up an account to keep the money in order and that they post it on a website. The kids are also being helped by Florida state Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat from Plantation who is hosting the group Wednesday in Tallahassee and helping to pay for their bus trip up there.
The students are arguing for tougher gun control laws and the banning of high-powered assault rifles.
Still, as they did after shootings in Aurora, Colorado, Sandy Hook, Connecticut, Orlando and Las Vegas, the far-right and pro-gun advocates have quickly mounted a counter-attack against the latest group of mass shooting survivors to call for gun reform.
On Tuesday, even as the students were busing up to Tallahassee to confront state legislators, disgraced former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly decided to join the critics. O’Reilly asked this on his Twitter account: “The big question is: should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases?”
None of the attacks seemed to faze the students, though.
Diego Pfeiffer, an 18-year-old senior at Stoneman Douglas who survived the attack, was on one of the buses with a bunch of friends headed to the state capitol Tuesday afternoon.
“There are people who are going to be putting us down. It doesn’t matter. Everything we’re doing, it can’t be stopped,” Pfeiffer said. “We are children and we have a message. They are bashing survivors of a school shooting. You can go ahead, but our message is going to be heard loud and clear.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Rob Wile contributed to this story.