Parkland's politics of pain

An outpouring of grief and anger always follows a deadly mass shooting. But in Parkland, Florida, students and parents are turning rage into activism.

On a day when Parkland began burying its young dead, a dozen people stood on a street corner holding up "More Gun Control" signs as passing drivers honked and shouted in support.

"Look what we started," said Carlos Rodriguez, 50, who was on his way to work when he stopped to join the protest last Friday. "Look at all these people. One match started a whole forest fire."

This most peaceful and orderly of places has been devastated by the most violent and chaotic of acts. And amid the horse trails, bike paths, and gated communities of a city that prides itself on "country elegance," the response to a shooting last week that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been a raw, growing, and furious burst of activism and demand for change.

Hundreds of people filled the terrace of the Broward County federal courthouse over the weekend, where their echoing chants of "enough" and "not one more" weren't solemn — they were seething. None, perhaps, more so than Emma Gonzalez's.

"If the president wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a terrible tragedy and how it should have never happened and maintain telling us that nothing is going to be done about it, I'm going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association," Gonzalez declared. "To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you! If you actively do nothing, people will continue to end up dead."

In a nearly 10-minute address — her black tank top and tightly cropped haircut barely visible behind podium microphones that stood nearly as tall — Gonzalez slammed by name senators who have proposed softening gun laws. Every few moments, the Stoneman Douglas High senior raised her bracelet-covered right arm to wipe tears from her eyes. In her left hand she clutched her speech, written out by hand on a stack of college-ruled paper.

She led the crowd in chants of "No more BS!"

Gonzalez was one of half a dozen student speakers at the rally, many of whom noted that despite years of disciplinary issues, Nikolas Cruz, their former classmate who police say has admitted to carrying out the shooting, was able to purchase a gun.

"This isn't just a mental health issue!" Gonzalez said, her voice breaking into a scream. "He wouldn't have harmed that many students with a knife!"

Grace Solomon, a city commissioner, said there's been a palpable shift in the nature of her community.

"We're not a politically charged community — this is new, because we've had enough," Solomon said.

"Parkland families have really involved parents; they are not going to take this sitting down," she continued. "We have an army of moms who are tired of having their kids assaulted. Democrats and Republicans are coming together to find common ground we can bring to Tallahassee."

Parkland, founded in 1963 on the swampy fringe of the Everglades, has long been a place of gentle ease, with great schools and a well-educated and affluent population of about 32,000 people. It had no stores until the 1990s and still has only four stoplights — including one that just got left-turn arrows in the past couple of months.

Its violent-crime rate is a tiny fraction of the statewide rate, and city spokesman Todd DeAngelis said police are more likely to be called for a trespassing alligator than for a murder.

Even its politics have a scrupulously fair balance: Although officials said the city, like all of Broward County, tends to lean Democratic, President Donald Trump won one local precinct by 16 points in the 2016 election and narrowly lost four others.

But one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history has hit this city with a ferocity that has changed the calculation.

Every community responds differently to the mass shootings that have become so frequent in the United States. Dancing showgirls and chapel-wedding newlyweds were back in the streets of Las Vegas soon after a gunman sprayed bullets across a music festival in October, signaling a quick return to normalcy. In small-town Texas, a somber religiosity defined the aftermath of a church massacre that killed 26 in November.

But Parkland has responded with a call to activism — angry teachers, parents, and teenagers demanding stricter gun laws, more government money for school security, and better treatment for mental illness.

"This is going to energize a lot of people to vote this year," said Carl Hiaasen, a best-selling novelist and journalist who grew up in Plantation, just south of Parkland. "People are angry."

At a vigil in the palm-lined heart of Parkland, people broke into a spontaneous and enraged chant of "No more guns! No more guns!" Many were students, who are organizing on social media and calling for young people to lead the political charge.

Annabel Claprood, 17, was in Spanish class when she looked down at her phone. It was 2:32 p.m. — the moment, she says, she became a lifelong advocate of gun control and new campus safety laws. At that moment, the shooting started. She took shelter in her classroom and heard every shot.

"They said every time something like this happens it's not going to happen again, but it's happening again and again, so we obviously are doing something wrong," Claprood said.

"You should not have a gun at the age of 18," said Claprood, adding that it makes no sense that at 18 you can buy a gun but not drink alcohol.

Florida has relatively few restrictions on gun ownership. Unlike California, for example, Florida does not require background checks for private gun sales. It does not regulate sales of assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines (although federal law requires assault-weapon buyers from a licensed dealer to be at least 18). State laws also prohibit cities from passing gun restrictions.

Ashley Kurth, a culinary-arts teacher at the high school, said her cooking class had just finished deep-frying shrimp when the gunfire began. She quickly locked the doors to her classroom and huddled with 65 students on the floor for two and a half hours until a SWAT team broke a window to rescue them.

Less than 24 hours later, Kurth was consoling grieving teachers and students before a vigil at Pine Trails Park, a public recreational facility with turf playing fields, an amphitheater, and high-end playground equipment. Many people arrived on bicycles or golf carts, using the community's winding network of paved paths.

Kurth, 34, said she woke up the morning after the shooting wanting to sever her lifelong ties to the Republican Party.

The shooting "opened my eyes and changed my views in a lot of ways," she said. "Before, I used to think, 'Okay, let's be moderate.' But living through that, and experiencing that, and seeing the aftermath of what that was, something has to be done."

Asked about Trump's response to the shooting, Kurth sighed.

"You know, I know he does his best with what he can, but at the same time, I am disheartened a little bit to hear, once again, we are going to focus on the mental illness and getting these people help," she said.

"What are you going to do about the people who are sane and out there with their right to bear arms that decide one day they just had enough?" she added.

Sarah Lerner, 37, an English teacher, said she believed young people were going to force change on the gun issue.

"Whether you are a right-wing Republican or a super-left liberal, we all want the same thing," she said. "No one should be afraid to go to school, and we all want to live in a safe community, and I believe this community is going to unite to make that happen."

Beam Furr, the mayor of Broward County, which includes Parkland, said he was eager to give young people a chance to push for new gun legislation.

"Those students who were at Douglas, they're good kids, smart students. They don't want this shooting to be their most enduring memory of high school," he said. "Several of them have told me they want the memory to be something that they helped change. To let that be their legacy."

Since the shooting, many people in Parkland who never expected to be involved in politics are suddenly finding themselves jumping right in.

"I am not a politician. [But] this made me angry. This happened in my backyard. I didn't know how easy it is to get a gun in Florida," said Caesar Figueroa, 43, who had two children at the school during the shooting. They lost a teacher and two friends.

"I really want to make a difference," he said, calling for more stringent background checks for gun buyers. "I want to get involved and speak out."

Jim Weiss, who has written a book about Parkland's history, said Parkland's activism comes from anger and confusion about how something so horrible could happen in a place so proud of its gentle nature.

"People are outraged that something like this could happen in the safest city in Florida," said Weiss, 72. "This puzzle is missing some pieces. You know the way it should look, but you can't find those last pieces. And those pieces are about weapons and dollars for treating mental health."

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.


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