Reviewed by Debbie Bandy, who recently moved to the area after teaching English in Charleston, South Carolina for 25 years. She enjoys reading science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction and non-fiction, and books about travel.
On February 14, 2018, 17 people were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It was the latest of the mass school shootings that began 20 years ago at Columbine High School. Would this be another chapter in the grotesque American scene where thoughts, prayers, and tears —not action—were promised to shattered lives? The students of MSDHS emphatically said, "No!”
Dave Cullen chronicles the events following this mass shooting in a book simply titled “Parkland.” Cullen also witnessed the aftermath of the Columbine shooting, which he documented in "Columbine." Experiencing that shooting, even secondhand, was so harrowing for him that he suffered from secondary traumatic stress. As a journalist he followed the subsequent shootings, but from a distance. He planned to cover this latest atrocity in the same way.
But then Cullen heard what was happening at Parkland. He saw the faces of the activist survivors interviewed across the media, survivors who, just 48 hours earlier, had run or hid, fearing for their lives. Now these same students were determined that their murdered classmates would be remembered and honored with a call to action. Cullen decided to go to Parkland.
What he found there was a core group of students meeting under the name and hashtag #NeverAgain. This name would morph a few times and finally solidify as #MarchForOurLives (MFOL). The students planned and executed a wide range of events. The first was a nationwide walkout on March 14th, a mere month after the shooting.
Thousands of students from Maine to California walked out of their schools for 17 minutes to honor those killed and to demand gun policy reform. In the weeks following that event, students met lawmakers in Tallahassee, criss-crossed the country appearing on talk shows, met with Chicago activists who have been lobbying for gun safety for many years, registered young voters at every opportunity, and planned the mammoth March For Our Lives rally to be held in Washington, D.C. on March 24, less than six weeks after the shooting.
The demands of MFOL are specific: universal, comprehensive background checks; a digitalized, searchable database for the ATF; funding for the CDC to research gun violence; a ban on high-capacity magazines; and a ban on semiautomatic assault rifles.
The group hammered away on these points and were committed to not being political. No candidate would be endorsed or vilified. Was the March successful? Over 470,000 attended the national march in Washington. Between 1.4 to 2.1 million people engaged in other march locations nationwide, and there were 84 uncounted marches abroad.
And the students were not finished. Over the summer of 2018, they traveled tens of thousands of miles by bus on the Road to Change bus tour, talking to lawmakers, registering voters, keeping the issue of gun safety in the foreground of the news cycle. MFOL is still working for gun safety today. The Parkland students may have gone on to college and made other life decisions as they move into their futures, but they understand that this is generational work, slow and steady work, and they will not give up.
Cullen wrote "Parkland" with the same sense of urgency that the students have. His straightforward style is never patronizing to the young people he interviewed. He is in awe of their courage and stamina while at the same time reminds readers that these young people are just that—young.
When the group received the International Children's Peace Prize, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, "I am in awe of these children, whose powerful message is amplified by their youthful energy and an unshakeable belief that children can—no, must—improve their own futures. They are true change makers who have demonstrated most powerfully that children can move the world."
All Americans should read this book and reflect: how do I take action to save our children's lives?