‘We don’t mind the spotlight. We like the ability to change the world,’ student activist says
Students from a Florida school targeted in a mass shooting last month have been front and centre in a renewed debate around gun control — so it’s no surprise that a student from that same school fit right in when he took the stage alongside a seasoned Broadway star this week.
The Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland left 17 people dead and prompted heated arguments, activism and even some legislative action around guns.
But for a group of Parkland students, it’s not enough.
“We’re learning how to speak for the people who can’t,” Parkland senior Cameron Kasky told Mandy Gonzalez, who is touring Florida on a break from her star turn in the hit musical Hamilton.
Kasky made headlines after the shooting when he confronted Republican Sen. Marco Rubio during a CNN town hall on gun control.
“For a while, I didn’t know why I was on this planet, I liked to act, and I liked to be an idiot, but I didn’t know what any of that was coming to,” Kasky told the audience at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach on Monday night. “I guess I forgot that using my voice is something I can always do… and us speaking together, we’re unlimited.”
Gonzalez had asked students from the school to take part in her performance as a way of paying tribute to their effort in the fight for gun control. It was the latest event in a whirlwind month for the students.
Their activism has taken them to the Florida State Assembly and the White House to lobby for stricter gun control measures. It’s also taken them to studios in New York and California for countless media appearances, including on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.
On Wednesday, thousands of high school students in cities around the U.S., including students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, walked out of their classes to advocate for tougher gun control laws.
“We’re here for the long run,” said 18-year-old Diego Pfeiffer, who pointed out that many of the core organizers in the student-led #NeverAgain movement are theatre and drama students.
“We don’t mind the spotlight. We like the ability to change the world. And I think that’s something that everybody wishes for and right now we have it, and we’re trying to empower the people so that they can have it too.”
Their main goal right now is organizing the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. They’re hoping for half a million people to descend on the city for the March 24 event and already have the endorsement and financial backing of celebrities like Oprah and George Clooney.
The students’ calls for change have been all over the media, and seem to be resonating with some politicians. Rick Scott, Florida’s Republican governor, recently signed a contentious bill that raised the age limit to buy firearms to 21 from 18, banned the sale and possession of bump stocks, and created a mandatory waiting period for gun purchases.
While Pfeiffer said he sees the governor’s move as a good first step, he thinks more is needed: “We know that this is just something so that you can say that you did something. It’s nothing. It’s fluff.”
He was also highly critical of the White House proposal on guns, released this week, which follows Florida’s lead and advocates for arming more teachers across the country. It does not, however, raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm.
Pfeiffer is part of the core group of students behind the #NeverAgain movement. They’re calling for a ban on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and a tightening of background checks.
For these students, activism has become almost a full-time job on top of school, homework and extracurricular activities, so alumni like Brendan Duff have been stepping in to help. He graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 2016 and is using skills he learned in college courses in strategic communications to help the students.
One of his roles?
“Just reminding them to eat and sleep,” he said. “Anything I can do to help because they’re teenagers and they still need to live their lives.”
Keeping busy has been a way for some of the students to cope with the tragedy, he said.
“I think they just turned their anger and their passion and their grief into this momentum and into inspiration.”
And while the students may not have achieved everything they wanted at the state and federal level, it appears there’s a possibility of some change at the local level.
In at least four small cities in southeastern Florida, officials are looking at openly defying state laws which prohibit municipalities from adopting local gun control measures. In Weston, 30 minutes south of Parkland, Mayor Daniel Stermer is looking at an ordinance that would prohibit guns on city-owned property.
“People believe they’re safe when they come to a city facility, when they come to a public park. And right now we can’t do anything,” said Sterner, who under state law faces a $5,000 fine US, removal from office and no protection from litigation if the ordinance passes.
Sterner said he’s tried to bring in a similar ordinance in 2013 and 2014 but it didn’t get anywhere. He said it may have a chance now because the efforts of the Parkland students have changed the political climate in Florida.
“The students’ activism really has been the driving force behind this. They are an inspiration and should be an inspiration to anyone and everyone that cares about this issue.”
Pfeiffer said the students are already looking ahead to November’s congressional midterm elections, with voter registration drives, lobbying and more.
“It’s a family that we kind of created, a family that runs a movement.”