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Three years after Parkland massacre, what has student activism changed?

While some involved in the post-Parkland activism believe there’s been a lot of progress since 2018, they still concede there is a long road ahead to tear gun manufacturers away from politics.
Manuel Oliver, father of Parkland shooting victim Joaquin Oliver, unveils a traveling mural of a Parkland postcard with images depicting the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The event at Pine Trails Park in Parkland, Fla. was part of a “Shamecards” campaign to push for anti-gun violence legislation, three years after the school shooting on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.
Manuel Oliver, father of Parkland shooting victim Joaquin Oliver, unveils a traveling mural of a Parkland postcard with images depicting the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The event at Pine Trails Park in Parkland, Fla. was part of a “Shamecards” campaign to push for anti-gun violence legislation, three years after the school shooting on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. [ Miami Herald ]
Published Feb. 13

TALLAHASSEE — Early last year, Manuel and Patricia Oliver were planning how to unveil their latest campaign to shame lawmakers over inaction to battle gun violence, one of their many actions inspired by the loss of their 17-year-old son Joaquin Oliver three years ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

But restrictions tied to the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to reschedule the event from last summer to early February and move the location outside, to the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Then, on Jan. 6, a violent insurrection by pro-Trump supporters inside the U.S Capitol turned the complex into a military base, with National Guard troops and fortified buildings.

The Capitol riot forced the Olivers to change plans, and on Thursday they unveiled a mural, tied to a postcard-style letter writing campaign to pressure lawmakers, at Pine Trails Park in Parkland. The mural is modeled after Florida postcards, only the beach scenes have been replaced by images from the mass shooting.

The pandemic and the insurrection are related to this “Shamecards” campaign, Manuel Oliver says. School shootings have only dropped because children have not been in school, he says. Gun sales have skyrocketed since the pandemic hit. And at the Capitol rally, some rioters openly carried weapons as they stormed the building.

“We connect whatever is happening to the gun violence issue. Which is not hard, you don’t need to be a mastermind to do that,” said Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin was one of the 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High students and staff killed in the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting.

Oliver and activists with different political goals — some trained on school safety while others seek to influence elections — have made sure that no one forgets what happened at Parkland, despite a pandemic, a presidential election and an insurrection that has tested America’s democracy.

In Washington, an opportunity exists to pass gun control legislation after President Joe Biden’s victory and the Democratic control of Congress. In Tallahassee, new gun control measures are unlikely to pass the Republican-dominated Legislature but there is increased focus on improving mental health services in schools. Despite the prospect of change, the Olivers and others constantly remind communities that as uncomfortable as it may be, their own families can be next.

“I didn’t start this fight,” Manuel Oliver said. “We’re just fighting back.”

The Olivers call themselves the “rebel side” of the anti-gun violence movement. Many other survivors, however, have taken their fights into the state and federal halls of power, pushing for legislation to strip the gun lobby from their hold on politicians’ pockets. And while some involved in the post-Parkland activism believe there’s been a lot of progress since 2018, they still concede there is a long road ahead to tear gun manufacturers away from politics.

“The Republican Party has done a masterful job of conflating gun ownership and the Second Amendment and patriotism,” said Jeff Kasky, the father of Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky, one of the co-founders of March for Our Lives.

“As long as their constituents don’t choose to hold [lawmakers] accountable for it, they’re going to keep doing it,” he added. “I have no confidence in politics or politicians. I have hope.”

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, over 100 students and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High parents descended on Tallahassee to demand new laws.

Sheryl Acquarola, a 16-year-old junior from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is overcome with emotion in the east gallery of the House of Representatives after a bill to open debate on banning assault weapons was defeated. [Associated Press]
Sheryl Acquarola, a 16-year-old junior from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is overcome with emotion in the east gallery of the House of Representatives after a bill to open debate on banning assault weapons was defeated. [Associated Press]

To achieve the kind of change they were seeking meant mounting enormous hurdles. There were only 10 days left in the legislative session and getting legislators to pass any bill would have been an extraordinary feat, unparalleled in state history. Students stayed only one night, sleeping in the Florida State University civic center, and crammed as many meetings as possible into the trip and flooded the hallways in protest at Florida’s Capitol.

Within three weeks, the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature passed landmark legislation that raised the gun purchasing age in the state to 21, extended the waiting period for all gun purchases and banned bump stocks — the first gun restrictions approved in Florida in two decades.

“We stopped the NRA’s progression. This notion that we were the Gunshine State, we paused all of that stuff,” said Jared Moskowitz, the director for Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, a Parkland native who was a state representative at the time.

“That is the cause that the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas have picked up and their mission is not complete,” he added. “We made tremendous progress here in Florida. But there’s more that needs to be done here.”

Parkland-inspired proposals have been considered by the Legislature every year since, though none have been as sweeping as the first. The third school safety package bill proposed since the shooting died in the last hours of the 2020 legislative session.

Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a proclamation on Thursday directing all U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff at all local and state buildings on Sunday, to honor the lives lost and law enforcement who responded to the carnage.

This year, Republican leaders have signaled that school security will be addressed in a broader context because of the pandemic, with a larger focus mental health services.

However, Florida Rep. Dan Daley and Sen. Shevrin Jones, both Democrats, introduced a bill ahead of the third anniversary of the shooting that would require schools to notify parents and staff of any threat or incident on their campuses within 24 hours of the incident.

State Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, has filed Jaime’s law in honor of Jaime Guttenberg, a 14-year-old killed in the Parkland shooting. If passed, it would create restrictions on ammunition sales.

“Gun violence is still going to exist, whether or not we are in a pandemic, and we have to keep those kids safe. We can’t relax on safety,” Book said.

‘Movement building’

Alyssa Ackbar, the 19-year-old state director of March for Our Lives, devotes countless hours a week to mobilizing organizations and teenage activism into legislative action.

Alyssa Ackbar, 18 center, meets with fellow members of Florida's March For Our Lives on Nov. 14, 2019 at the state Capitol in Tallahassee. Ackbar serves as the state director for the group.
Alyssa Ackbar, 18 center, meets with fellow members of Florida's March For Our Lives on Nov. 14, 2019 at the state Capitol in Tallahassee. Ackbar serves as the state director for the group. [ Courtesy of Emilee McGovern ]

Gun violence, she said, remains the focal point for young people who have joined her chapter.

“This movement is very much born from not just the Parkland shooting, but the connections that were made after with youth that wanted to make a better world for ourselves and for others,” Ackbar said.

Her own political awakening happened when she was a junior at Robinson High School in Tampa, shortly after the Parkland shooting.

She had no connection to students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, but the event made her angry at politicians who were turning a “blind eye” to gun violence. She started organizing, and set up meetings with members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor.

When it was time to go to college, she chose Florida State University mainly because it was located in the state’s capital.

Two years into her college career, Ackbar says the organization is focused on state legislation that addresses the “root causes” of gun violence, such as a proposal that would set up a task force to study gun violence in urban communities.

“Ultimately, this is what I am passionate about and continuing to do the work is something I want to keep doing throughout my entire life. I don’t see it ending anytime soon,” she said.

A wave of national action

Parkland sprung a wave of young gun control advocates, sparked hundreds of student-led demonstrations in the United States and internationally, and brought awareness to the shudder-inducing reality that mass shootings could happen anywhere.

“As a high schooler back then, I was the same age as a lot of the victims. I couldn’t help but think that this could have happened at my high school,” said Ackbar.

Some of the activists have already come of age, voted in their first presidential election and found their own niche in the movement (or outside of it). Last year, March for Our Lives activists focused on youth voter registration, and getting young students engaged in politics and social movements.

Emma Gonzalez, another co-founder of the movement who was quickly thrust into the national spotlight, has been featured in the documentary “Us Kids” along with David Hogg, Jaclyn Corlin, Cameron Kasky and Samantha Fuentes. Another survivor of the shooting, Kyle Kashuv, has built a solid base of followers on social media, in addition to a podcast where he shares support for conservative causes.

Hogg, the 20-year-old March for Our Lives co-founder and Parkland shooting survivor, is launching a pillow company to compete against MyPillow, which is led by staunch Trump supporter Mike Lindell.

David Hogg, a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., raises his fist after speaking during the 2018 March for Our Lives rally in support of gun control in Washington.
David Hogg, a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., raises his fist after speaking during the 2018 March for Our Lives rally in support of gun control in Washington. [ ANDREW HARNIK | AP ]

Hogg announced Wednesday that he is also stepping down from the March for Our Lives board of directors because he says “some of his recent actions have undermined my peers within the movement.”

“I want you all to know that I am still, and always will be, committed to ending gun violence,” Hogg said. “With some time and space, I know that I’ll come back to this work more engaged and aligned with the movement as a whole.”

Since the March 24, 2018, student-led rally in Washington D.C. that gathered an estimated 800,000 people, the movement has created a lobbying presence in Congress.

All but two of the 17 victims’ families belong to Stand With Parkland, a group that advocates for school safety measures in Congress and was instrumental in passing gun control legislation at the state level in the months after the 2018 shooting.

Last week, Stand With Parkland opposed Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s appointment to the House Education Committee by GOP leadership, arguing that Greene’s past statements agreeing that the attack was a “false flag” fake event to build up support for gun control made her incapable of crafting education policy.

“All different families have all different opinions but as a group and as an organization we chose to be targeted on what we worked on together and we try to, you know, keep politics out of it,” said Stand With Parkland President Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was one of the victims. “We reached out to Ted Deutch [the Democratic congressman who represents Parkland] to express our displeasure with her.”

Eleven House Republicans, including Miami Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Gimenez and Maria Elvira Salazar, voted with Democrats to boot Greene off her committees.

A day before the Greene vote in the House, Diaz-Balart re-introduced the Luke and Alex School Safety Act, a bill named after Parkland victims Luke Hoyer and Alex Schachter that would codify into law a federal clearinghouse for school safety measures.

In addition to Diaz-Balart’s school safety bill, which was also re-introduced in the U.S. Senate by Florida Sens. Rubio and Rick Scott, Rubio recently re-introduced a bill that incentivizes states to pass risk protection orders, which allow law enforcement or individuals to get a court order to temporarily take away someone’s firearms, similar to the one signed into law by Scott when he was governor after Parkland.

But a federal “red flag” bill has faced some opposition from conservatives in the formerly GOP-controlled U.S. Senate and has yet to become law. That could change with Democrats controlling Congress and the White House.

Fred Guttenberg, a gun control advocate whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed in the shooting, said he’s hopeful that Democratic control of Congress and the White House will lead to significant changes in federal gun control legislation in the next two years, particularly a federal background check law.

On Thursday, Guttenberg said on Twitter that he and other Parkland families met with White House Domestic Policy Adviser Susan Rice, Cedric Richmond, a former Louisiana Democratic congressman and now a Biden adviser, and Stefanie Feldman, policy director for the Biden campaign, to discuss “February 14th & the work we are all doing.”

“We need to re-frame this conversation into what it actually is, a public health, public safety conversation,” Guttenberg said. “In Florida we passed gun safety. The Second Amendment is intact and we’re saving lives.”

Moskowitz, a Democrat who grew up in Parkland and attended Stoneman Douglas High, remembers how important it was for him for Republican leaders to see the crime scene first-hand and the wounds of the community in the immediate aftermath.

Only then, he thought, they would know how to respond.

“I needed them to see this,” he recalled ahead of the three-year anniversary. “I needed people to see what a school looks like when there are backpacks in the parking lot, when there is homework scatted all over the sidewalks because people had to flee for their lives.”

After the visit, he said, “You could tell that they realized that doing nothing was not an option.”

“We had to meet the moment. I think we did,” he said. “But I can tell you more needs to be done, not just here but in the country.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.