Some Parkland students have taken their movement national
It was the evening of Valentine’s Day, but any plans Cameron Kasky had to celebrate had been obliterated a few hours before when a former classmate came to his high school to spray the hallways with bullets, leaving 17 dead bodies behind when he departed. Now, as darkness descended, Kasky shut the door to his room and plotted a revolution.
Five months later, it is well underway. March for Our Lives, the little band of teenagers Kasky lashed together that night over his cellphone to demand new gun laws, has swollen into a hydra-headed nonprofit corporation with a multimillion-dollar budget, offices in South Florida and Washington, and even its own lobbyist.
The group, headed mostly by students from Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the Valentine’s Day massacre, has staged one mega-protest in Washington D.C. in March that drew hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, and hundreds of smaller protests across a broad swath of the country from Tallahassee to Bismarck, N.D.
Two busloads of March for Our Lives activists have been crisscrossing America, sowing the seeds of discontent over current gun laws, and they’re starting to sprout: Scores of loosely affiliated groups that share a name and a political agenda with March for Our Lives have popped up across the nation, even in such scarlet red-states as Arizona.
In Florida and on the road, the students have made one of their central missions encouraging young people to register to vote. In Florida at least, the numbers are encouraging. This past week, an analysis by TargetSmart, a data firm that works on behalf of Democrats, found that the share of newly registered Florida voters between the ages of 18-29 had increased by eight percentage points in the two and a half months after the shooting.
The political acumen of the Parkland students has left even some of their allies agape. “As remarkable as we acknowledge their leadership has been, we’re still not giving them enough credit,” U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, told the Miami Herald.
The students understandably feel a certain giddy pride that their organizing hasn’t succumbed to apathy, torpor or the onset of summer vacation (and, for some of them, the end of high school). In the estimation of many skeptics, the big March 24 demonstration that drew somewhere between 200,000 and 800,000 would be their high-water mark. Instead, the footprint of March for Our Lives is still growing.
“The march was multiple months ago, and we’re still moving,” said Charlie Mirsky, 18, MFOL’s Washington lobbyist.
The momentum of political movements is under perpetual challenge, and veteran organizers say it will be a long time before MFOL can be judged a real success. “Guns are a hugely divisive issue in American politics and culture,” said Todd Gitlin, an NYU sociologist who in the 1960s headed Students for a Democratic Society, one of the major groups opposing the Vietnam War. “That’s not a battle that will be won, or lost, overnight, and it could be years before we can really evaluate the role of the Parkland students.”
A movement lasting years was hardly on Kasky’s mind when he started calling friends on the night of Valentine’s Day. His close-cropped hair and acerbic wit were well known in the Stoneman Douglas drama department. Though never particularly politically active, he was opinionated and had once attended a rally for then-candidate Barack Obama. It wasn’t clear to the friends he called that night what, exactly, Kasky wanted from them.
“He had no idea what I would be doing or what anybody would be doing,” said Mirsky, who, though he isn’t a Parkland student — he attended Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton — was among the first to get a call. “He just knew he needed me on the team.”
Four or five students showed up the next morning. They met first at Kasky’s mother’s home, then in a Coral Springs park. Using Twitter, they issued open invitations for anyone at all to join them; they volunteered op-ed pieces to the media (CNN used one written by Kasky); Kasky invited the Florida Democratic Party and NPR’s “Morning Edition” show to chat with them.
Within a few days, what would come to be known as the “core group” numbered around five — the bunch appeared on a Time magazine cover — but there are around two dozen key players in the movement. The Stoneman Douglas administration inadvertently boosted their organizing efforts by canceling classes for two weeks, allowing the planning meetings to stretch into something like an endless slumber party.
“Some of us didn’t even go home,” David Hogg, a member of the core group, wrote in a short memoir released last month. “We just stayed at Cameron’s house, sleeping on the couch or the floor and jumping up in the middle of the night with another idea.”
It wasn’t all work. Sometimes they compared who had gotten the most heavy-hitter celebrity retweets. (Their lists of Twitter followers were burgeoning into the hundreds of thousands.) Sometimes they left to attend funerals for their schoolmates. Sometimes they cried. Nobody’s parents seemed to mind.
“It was never gonna be any other way,” said Cameron’s father Jeff Kasky, who was doing his own organizing. (He’s now the president of the Families vs. Assault Rifles PAC, which he started with fellow Stoneman Douglas parents.) “I knew that he needed to do this. Everybody grieves in their own way.”
The students soon learned that, after their cannily directed social media accounts, their most potent weapon was their romance with the cameras that feed the cavernous maw of 24-hour cable news. The whole world was watching, and the students knew it. They would go on camera anytime, anywhere, to demand that lawmakers do something about school shootings.
And the cameras loved them, too; the students had extraordinary poise on the air. Hogg, whose work at the Stoneman Douglas campus TV station made him uncommonly self-assured on camera, quickly became one of the most-recognized faces among the students. He became a lightning rod, sparking an advertiser boycott of Fox News talker Laura Ingraham and fronting a die-in at Publix that prompted the supermarket giant to cease its political contributions — this after it was revealed that Publix had donated $670,000 to Adam Putnam, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who called himself a “proud NRA sellout.” His home was “swatted,” which is when trolls call in a false threat and send SWAT teams swarming.
Another recognizable personality was Emma Gonzalez, the charismatic, buzz-cut president of the high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, whose looks were striking, her words pugnacious: At a demonstration in Fort Lauderdale a few days after the shooting, tears rolling down her cheeks, she declared that “the people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us,” then added: “And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call BS.” Her speech went viral, her Twitter followers zoomed past one million.
The photogenicity of Hogg and Gonzalez might have started jealous quarrels in some groups. But among the Parkland students, it just spurred more extensive organizing. “Very quickly, people on the TV news who mattered became Emma and David,” said Mirsky. “So for everyone else it was very important, including Cameron, to have specific jobs.”
One committee took over the task of outreach to other groups of young activists; another managed the logistics of meet-ups and rallies; a third was devoted to keeping in touch afterward. As the outreach effort grew, the Parkland group decided a national rally and demonstration was an obvious strategy. And money, they realized, was no problem.
MFOL has always been somewhat vague about its finances. But in the early days of organizing, a number of Hollywood celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, as well as the fashion company Gucci all publicly pledged donations of up to a half million dollars. (Other anti-gun activists, however, caution that funding promises — especially from Hollywood — often come with fingers crossed behind the back.)
Other donors have provided free legal services and office space. A GoFundMe appeal has brought in $3.6 million, and MFOL has also pursued money through The Action Network, a nonprofit corporation that does fund-raising for left-of-center groups.
Sorting out how much money has come in, and what it’s been spent for, is impossible for anyone outside MFOL. It’s incorporated as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, which means it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. It can also engage in lobbying and other political activities as long as they don’t become the principal point of the organization.
So March for Our Lives probably had something well in excess of $5 million to spend this year, but pinning down an exact number is difficult. So is what it’s been spent on — though the group will eventually have to file some financial disclosure forms, they aren’t due for months.
Some of the money has been distributed to Parkland victims, some was spent on rallies and demonstrations, and some has gone to paid staffers. This last is a sensitive point with the students, who bridle at any suggestion that they’re figureheads for professional organizers and lobbyists who do the real work.
“We work with people who do the bare-bones logistical things,” Kasky said. “Other than that, it’s all in-house.” Adds Mirsky: “You’d be very surprised how much is done without the help of adults.”
The Action Fund money is administered through a board composed mostly of adult political activists and chaired by Nina Vinik, program director at The Joyce Foundation who leads the nonpartisan foundation’s grant-making machine to reduce, among other things, gun violence. Matt Deitsch, a 20-year-old Stoneman Douglas alumnus, serves as a senior board member on the Action Fund, and relays Kasky’s requests about money, which have never been denied, Mirsky said.
“They approve it and they vote on it,” Mirsky said. “The only reason we have them is because we don’t have enough 18-year-olds to legally serve on our board. ... In the end, Cameron has the final say.”
After the big March protest, which coincided with countless others on the same day in other cities, MFOL mostly turned to much smaller-scale activities, organizing rallies and demonstrations around the country with other groups. Since June, when the two busloads of MFOL activists began traversing the country, the pace of the small rallies has picked up.
They raise small sums of money, from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, most of which stay with the local group, along with some extra from MFOL’s GoFundMe stash. They register voters in roughly the same numbers. (Most popular gimmick: T-shirts bearing QR codes that can be scanned by cellphones, which are directed to a voter-registration website.)
Many of the local groups that have hooked up with MFOL for the demonstrations speak pretty glowingly of the experience. At a June rally in Bismarck, N.D., the presence of a Parkland contingent helped bring out 200 or so gun-law-reform supporters, with perhaps 100 or so conservative and libertarian counter-protesters outside. The atmosphere stayed calm, and the local mayor — no fan of gun-control — even came in to talk to the kids and their hosts.
That may seem like small stuff compared to a chanting crowd of hundreds of thousands in Washington, but 18-year-old Taylor Toso, one of the Bismarck organizers, said it was a major triumph to get people to listen to arguments in favor of gun-law reform in a state as conservative as North Dakota.
“A lot of the people in the audience have lived in North Dakota their entire lives and don’t have a lot of exposures to bigger cities,” he said. “Living in a bubble doesn’t expose you to new ideas.”
Local groups have been impressed, too, that the Parkland kids don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to the politics of gun-law reform. When MFOL went to Naperville, Ill., for a rally that included a lot of black kids from inner-city Chicago, the gun-murder capitol of America, the contrasts were many and massive. The Parkland students were concerned about guns getting inside their school; the Chicago kids were petrified about what could happen to them outside on the sidewalk.
But when it came time to start the rally, the Parkland students who were scheduled to talk decided to listen instead. They turned the microphone over to the local kids, a move that one of the Naperville organizers called “incredible.”
“They wanted to keep the focus on Chicago — they didn’t want it to be about them. I really think that was awesome,” said 17-year-old Emily Gornik, a recent graduate of Downers Grove North High School. “We all made super close connections with them. It was super awesome to be connected and brought together as one.”
And, Gornik added, MFOL has stayed in touch with her and even offered to come back for another event. “They still want to support us. Even though they’re so busy they’re always willing to help out,” she said. ”The worry was it’s going to be a moment-type thing; but actually it’s a movement.”
It was not the group’s first brush with racial politics.
Like the Stoneman Douglas student population in general, the MFOL leadership is mostly white and suburban. (Much less understood than their lack of ethnic diversity: Not one member of the MFOL core group was present in the Stoneman Douglas freshman building where the shooting took place.) They faced some sharp criticism at first from black classmates who thought their political program was focused too narrowly on the problems — and perceptions — of white students.
One proposed solution in particular, putting more armed police in schools, did not sit well with some black students.
Those tensions seem to have waned since the Chicago rally. “It took some time. It took awhile, but they’re becoming very inclusive,” said Mei-Ling Ho-Shing, 17, an Afro-Asian Stoneman Douglas student who was one of the most outspoken critics. Relations warmed enough that she was invited to join the MFOL bus tour, but she turned it down.
She thinks that the solutions to the problem of gun violence are going to be found in the Democratic Party, not some mythical middle of the road.
“The March For Our Lives movement is kind of hard for me to be a part of because they’re nonpartisan,” she said. “I’m not a big fan of that. You need to endorse politicians. They always say ‘vote them out,’ but who do we vote in? ... They say all politicians are liars, that it doesn’t matter whether you’re Republican or Democrat. Well, it kinda does.”
And, anyway, she adds, the group’s claim of non-partisanship is absurd in that it is almost exclusively composed of liberals.
If MFOL’s affinities are mostly on the left, the group has kept its policy proposals from veering too far in that direction. The organization did convince the firearm-friendly Florida Legislature and governor to pass and sign the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Gun Safety Act, but the measure is a modest step, raising the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21, and specifying a three-day waiting period for long guns. (The National Rifle Association sued to block the legislation.) Like most groups working for stricter gun laws, members rarely use the phrase “gun control,” which even the staunchest anti-firearms warriors concede has become a turnoff for many American voters.
Instead, they describe themselves as “anti-gun-violence.” Their policy proposals — more background checks, more gun-ownership databases, more measures to keep guns out of the hands of the obviously crazy — often strike serious leftists as suspiciously squishy.
But other gun-restrictionist organizations say the value of the Parkland teenagers to their movement isn’t as policy wonks but as authentic survivors who can tell of their terror during the shooting and their pain afterward. Unlike the 6-year-old survivors of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut six years ago, the Parkland kids could stand in front of cameras and tell what they saw and suffered.
“We have never really seen victims who have been able to harness energy and poise so quickly in the aftermath of a shooting,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the cluster of groups working for tougher gun laws founded by former Arizona congresswoman (and gunshot victim) Gabby Giffords.
“These kids are stunningly articulate. They express themselves so well it’s hard to ignore them. They’ve changed the conversation.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Hollywood producer Deena Katz was the board chair of the March for Our Lives Action Fund. While Katz played a key role in organizing the March for Our Lives rally, Joyce Foundation program director Nina Vinik serves as board chair of the Action Fund.