War Room: The teenage strategy sessions that built an anti-gun movement out of the trauma of Parkland in one week.
In the moment, the kids looked to their phones for comfort. Sam Zeif, 18, was in Algebra 2, in the freshman building on the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, when the shooting began. His back against a wall in a darkened classroom, Sam was silent, as he’d been instructed to be since elementary school. He was texting. Sam is a guard on the basketball team, and he and his teammates are tight — like brothers, he says. During the shooting, their basketball coach, Manuel Oliver — whose son Joaquin was the captain, a badass from Venezuela whom everyone called “Guac” and who dyed his hair blond like his idol Frank Ocean — kept interrupting their group text: “Has anyone heard from Joaquin? Has anyone heard from Joaquin?” Sam used the group chat’s location-sharing to search for Joaquin. “And the locator said that he was on the other side of the school,” Sam explains. “And I was so relieved.”
The shooting took six minutes, start to finish. At one point, Sam received a text from Matthew, his 14-year-old brother, who was hiding in a classroom upstairs. “Just know I love you forever and you’re the best brother,” Matthew wrote in despair.
“We’re going to get out of here I promise,” Sam replied.
“Sam,” Matthew wrote.
“Are the cops here? My teacher died. And he’s sitting in the doorway.”
David Hogg, 17, was in AP Environmental Science, and while teachers in the hallways shouted, “Code red!,” he and about 60 other students huddled in an internal room attached to the culinary-arts studio, just 200 feet away from the shooter. David is the type of urbane teenager so commonplace in suburban high schools, a film and journalism geek, a stringer for the local Sun Sentinel who also aspires to be an aerospace engineer. As he crouched inside that dim room, surrounded by classmates, he turned his camera on himself and, with video rolling, started to narrate the events in real time. Then he cut to Isabelle Robinson, a classmate whose complexion was gray with sweat. “This shouldn’t be happening anymore, and it doesn’t deserve to be happening to anyone,” she said.
That afternoon, David went home, after maneuvering through the bomb-sniffing dogs and the insane traffic. But just before sunset — and over his parents’ objections — he got on his bike and rode back to campus. He understood how valuable, how important, footage would be later, and he wanted “to get the hell out there and get some B-roll.” When he arrived, he says, “I threw my bike to the side, didn’t even lock it up, and just started filming.” That’s when he saw the Fox News truck parked by the school, approached it, and offered a quote. David did a long interview and then asked for more time. It was 10:12 p.m. “I don’t want this to be another mass shooting,” he said, looking straight at the camera. “I don’t want this to be something that people forget.”
When Sam Zeif got home, his girlfriend was already there, and so were his brother and his mother. (His father, on a business trip, was on his way home.) “We heard rumors that Joaquin was dead, and I didn’t believe it. I screamed. I screamed at the top of my lungs, pounding the couch, hitting walls. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it. I wouldn’t let myself believe it.”
The next day was Sam’s 18th birthday. When he opened his eyes, his girlfriend told him the news was official. The geo-locator had failed. Joaquin was dead. “I lost it,” he says.
At 9:43 that morning, Sam posted on Twitter a screen shot of his exchange with Matthew. “It wasn’t for attention. That was just for — I guess, in a way, empathy or sympathy, because no one should have to have that conversation with anyone. A brother, a father, a daughter, a friend.” The tweet got half a million likes in two days.
In Parkland, in the weeks after the shooting, emotional distance from the actual horror is measured in increments. The teenagers who quickly became the faces of the trauma were not those who had been the closest to the violence or to the dead — the largest portion of whom were in the ninth grade in what’s known as the freshman building. Most of those students and their families are suffering in all the cruel and by-now-expected ways; overwhelmed with loss, they are numb and raging, sometimes to the point of paralysis and surreal disbelief, and, to the public, mostly invisible. But a different cadre of students, spared the worst, has exhibited a very different response: Activated by fury, demanding to be heard, they had the emotional bandwidth to strategize and to give sound bites as needed.
Most of these kids are juniors and seniors who, in the taxonomy of high school, were the “misfits,” says David. Theater geeks and drama nerds and journalism fanatics, these are the kids who like to perform, who have scrutinized the president’s use of Twitter, who voraciously consume media of all kinds. David is the kind of person who wakes at 3:30 a.m. to study for APs; drives to school listening to NPR; works in the school-community garden dreaming of hydroponics because he has ideas about growing food on Mars; and then after school streams Vox, Philip DeFranco, Al Jazeera, “and CNN somewhat,” until it’s time for bed. Delaney Tarr, 17, a senior, is a “fangirl” of quality photojournalism who loves John Oliver and Jordan Klepper and binges on One Day at a Time. Emma González, who spoke at a Fort Lauderdale rally three days after the shooting, is president of her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. Cameron Kasky, whose living room has become the movement’s headquarters, is an actor.
Photo: Andres Kudacki
Just days after the shooting, Cameron mentioned to his friend Jaclyn Corin, junior-class president, his “grand idea” (her words) to start a movement. The concept was to pull five core people together, “create a march and get in the media and pull the focus onto the politicians who are performing poorly in their jobs,” Jaclyn explains. It was Cameron who pushed out the hashtag #neveragain, encouraging everyone on his feeds to repost and retweet at the same instant: Friday the 16th at 3 p.m. At first, when Cameron floated the hashtag, “we were like, ‘Isn’t that like something the Holocaust survivors used?’ And then we were like, ‘Whatever, it’s fine,’ ” Jaclyn says.
On Friday, a small group of Cameron’s friends, including Jaclyn and Alex Wind, a musical-theater buff, met at Cameron’s house to start making plans.
But for all the student activists, and for a nation watching Parkland, the gun-control rally in Fort Lauderdale, organized by Florida state senator Gary Farmer with help from other groups, was a turning point. There, Emma stood up and became the face and voice of what, it was suddenly clear, was not just a trauma but a student-led movement — her tearful incredulity at what had just happened at her school, her fury at politicians’ complicity with the gun lobby, and her insistence on a strong, rational response to the deaths of innocents instantly an emotional proxy for every American who since Columbine has been observing the political paralysis on this issue with barely suppressed rage. “Maybe the adults have gotten used to saying, ‘It is what it is,’ ” she said from the podium, wiping tears with the heels of her palms, “but if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you do not study, you will fail. And this case, if you actively do nothing, people will continually end up dead. We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks.”
In her black tank top, with raggedy friendship bracelets stacked on her wrist, Emma looked, as the comments said, so relatable — she could have been any teenager you know. For kids raised on dystopian fiction, Emma was the recognizable warrior-heroine. For kids whose political awareness was sparked during #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, Emma spoke in a familiar cadence about power, corruption, and powerlessness: “We are pissed-off millennials who are tired of taking people’s shit,” David says. “When you raise a generation of children telling them they need to be ready for a school shooting, how the fuck does that not change something?” As one of their parents sardonically observes, these are also children of privilege not used to hearing “no.”
More important was what followed. Cameron’s small band grasped immediately that it needed to join forces with the other Douglas students who had become super-visible, and after the rally on Saturday night, about 20 kids gathered at his house for a strategy session. Emma was there. David was there. So were Jaclyn Corin and Delaney Tarr. “The people at Cameron’s house are some of the smartest people in the school,” says Jaclyn. “We just knew what to do to get the job done the quickest and most powerful way.” Ted Deutch, Parkland’s representative in Congress, had been interviewed several weeks before at the high school by David, and he stopped by Cameron’s house later that weekend to see how he could help. Walking up the driveway, Deutch saw Emma on the stoop, sorting through messages and talking with Demi Lovato on her cell. Deutch told the kids to keep doing what they were doing, “that they should continue speaking out in their own voice. They shouldn’t let people tell them what to say or how to say it. They should reject offers of talking points. The reason that they’re so effective, that they’ve caught on, is that they’re so genuine.”
The kids agreed that if they were going to launch a media assault, they needed to present a unified front. They couldn’t seem to be contradicting each other or going off in different directions at once. So they set about establishing “what we needed to say, the things we shouldn’t be saying,” says Delaney. David says he drew criticism — even from his friends — for that first interview on Fox, in which he failed to acknowledge the enormity of the loss for so many of his neighbors. “I still do feel like kind of an asshole for going on there and not being sensitive about the situation and the grieving families, but I knew that I had to because the news cycle moves so fast that if I didn’t get out there, this would be just another mass shooting,” he says.
The most important thing, the group agreed, was to sidestep partisanship, “to avoid straight-out blaming the GOP,” Delaney says, “because this is an issue, a nonpartisan issue, an issue of the NRA and not of ‘Republican.’ We were trying to work that out so that we wouldn’t isolate this entire group of people.”
Photo: Andres Kudacki
The kids also understood that the media would soon tire of the same three or four faces and that they had to have a deep enough bench to offer up “a couple handfuls” of students who were good on-camera, says Jaclyn. That night, “we established splitting up the media. It was very organic. We knew our places.” They agreed to limit their group to about 20 — large enough to appear on many different media outlets at once. Within the group, each person has taken on a particular role. “David focuses on the hard facts. Cameron is sarcastic and witty. Emma’s strong. I’m more of an organizer,” Jaclyn says. “Alex is the emotional remembrance of it all. Alfonso”— Calderon, comparatively conservative — “does all the Spanish interviews.”
As in the gun-reform community at large, there are differences of opinion about the extent of the reforms members of the group wish to see — and the kinds of changes they believe are politically possible. “The thing is, we have to come to a consensus within the group, and that’s okay,” says Delaney.
“We know that dramatic change can’t happen, obviously, all at once. We are focusing on taking steps. We know the ban isn’t going to happen outright. We have to work toward something like that. That is where age limits, a waiting period, the bump stocks, that type of thing, comes into play.” But after a recent visit with congressional leaders of both parties in Washington, the group developed a clear five-step agenda: Congress should lift funding limits, enacted in 1996, on CDC research into gun violence; records of gun sales should be digitized, so they can be better tracked; then universal background checks should be enacted; then limits on the sale of high-capacity magazines and, ultimately, all assault weapons.
The goal of limiting assault weapons has been, for a generation, politically toxic. And so, like campaign operatives, the kids began to strategize, starting with lists of words to use in public. “Literally, we all sat together in a circle and we wrote down on a piece of paper ‘no-nos’ and ‘buzzwords,’ and we were like, ‘Okay, so what about this word? Can we say this word?’ ” says Delaney. The buzzwords the group agreed to were “Reform, change, safety, the children, innocents.” In the same meeting, the kids talked about the questions they anticipated from opponents and planned their responses.
The next day, Sunday, the kids fanned out across national and social media and announced, as Cameron had envisioned, a march in D.C. The date, March 24, was chosen, Delaney says, to keep the media on the hook — proximate enough to keep them interested in the story. News organizations “can’t stay here forever, although Parkland is a really nice place,” says Delaney with a laugh.
The next night, David crashed at Cameron’s house, and when he woke up in the predawn he saw what looked like a crumpled blanket on the floor. “I’m like, why is there a blanket on the floor?” David remembers. “And, like, two hours later it moves. And I’m like, Oh, wait. That’s Emma! Emma was sleeping on the floor right next to me.” Emma and David were scheduled to do an early-morning spot on New Day With Chris Cuomo, but the Town Car driver couldn’t get through the security gate at Cameron’s house, so at 5:30 a.m., David and Emma sprinted to the cameras themselves—Emma in a Beatles T-shirt and David in button-down black. Behind them, as they’re doing the spot, you can see the pink sky dawning.
Sam Zeif has no idea why he was one of the few to be invited to the White House to talk about gun control — though he guesses it has something to do with his texts to Matthew, which went viral on Twitter. When the White House called, he thought it was a prank. But by 7 a.m. the following morning, he was en route to D.C. Later that afternoon, he found himself in the White House State Dining Room, sitting in a circle that included the survivors of shootings and parents mourning their children as well as the president, the vice-president, and the secretary of education. With Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old, Dylan, was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, by his side, Sam exposed his broken heart to Donald Trump. “I lost a best friend, who’s practically a brother, and I’m here to use my voice because I know he can’t. I don’t understand why I can still go in a store and buy a weapon of war. An AR. Let’s be strong for the fallen who don’t have a voice anymore, and let’s never let this happen again. Please. Please.” After the event, Sam gave six interviews, and the next day he did 16 more. Then he flew home and invited a buddy to stay awake with him until 2 a.m., when he did Good Morning Britain.
Parkland, with its palm trees and man-made waterways, is an unlikely home base for a teen revolution, but that’s what it’s become, drawing like-minded rebels from across the county and the state to demand an accounting. Kids from Douglas and from neighboring schools gather at all hours at the 17 heaps of flowers by the school’s chain-link perimeter, weeping and hugging and holding banners. Anna Crean, 15, wrote an open letter that was picked up by NBC: “We aren’t going to be silenced,” she says. Nicolle Martin, 14, wrote one that was posted on ABC. Samantha Deitsch, 15, went to Tallahassee with her synagogue’s youth group to lobby legislators. And at West Boca High School, when the teachers announced 17 minutes of silence, one for each victim, the kids organized a protest through text messages, stood on tables and shouted, then walked out of school and headed for Douglas, 12 miles away. “When I heard they were on their way, I was just so happy. I was smiling for the first time,” said Chad Williams, a Douglas student, 18, who was Joaquin’s best friend. A thousand kids came, “half of them were barefoot,” Chad says, who organized, along with his team, a run that same day in honor of their slain cross-country coach, Scott Beigel. “And when I asked, ‘Why are you barefoot?’ they said, ‘Because we want to feel the pain you felt on February 14.’”
Not everyone is yet ready to enlist in this army. Brooke Harrison, 14, was in honors English in room 1216 in the freshman building, one of the first rooms entered by Nikolas Cruz. She had no time to even think about composing a text. “I have never dropped for cover so fast in my life,” she says. When she tried to reach for her phone, to call 911, a classmate instructed her to stay motionless, so as not to become a target. Seven people in her class were shot; three — Alex Schachter, Alyssa Alhadeff, and Alaina Petty — were killed. So although Brooke recognizes the older activists from the halls and thinks they’re “amazing” and hopes to join them in the future, “I feel like my friends at home and family need me right now. I just need to be home with the people I love.”
All the kids dealing with the press onslaught have a slightly manic affect. They talk too fast, they’re hyped up, sleepless. Activism, says Delaney, is really addictive. “For the first many days, I wasn’t eating, but now, like, I’m not hungry and I forget to eat a lot, but then I’ll be really voracious. It’ll be 11 p.m., and I’ll be like, I need to eat all the food in the world.” The parents look on cautiously, proud of their children and worried for their safety and health. Already they have been the targets of death threats and conspiracy theories. When Emma went with the rest of her schoolmates to Douglas on February 25, her father was her bodyguard. “No interviews,” he said. Outside the school, Emma encountered members of Gays Against Guns, a group founded in the aftermath of the Pulse shooting whose members promote change through emotional and sometimes impolite protests. “We told them it was okay to curse,” says Brigid McGinn, a GAG leader. “I gotta say hi to my gays,” said Emma, and the GAG people gave her a pin.
The permit for the march in Washington projects an attendance of 500,000. To handle the logistics alone, the kids desperately need grown-up help — even as they guard the specifics of what help they’re getting. “Like, we’re organized to a degree, but we’re also teenagers, so we’re not that organized,” says Delaney. In the first days, the kids themselves were answering their own texts and calls, but soon many of their phones became flooded, and thereafter they referred those calls to a couple of Douglas alumni who were home from college offering support and to a mom friend with a background in PR. Deena Katz, an organizer of the Women’s March, submitted the permits for March for Our Lives in D.C., and Everytown for Gun Safety, backed by Michael Bloomberg, is funding marches in other cities. 42West, a PR agency with a celebrity client list, signed on to represent the march itself as well as, informally, Emma, David, and some of the other kids.
Trickier than logistics is the longer-term project of navigating the tripwires within the reform movement itself, mostly about just how much reform to push for. More difficult, maybe, is the question of how these well-off, telegenic kids will use their new platform to help amplify the voices of inner-city kids for whom gun violence is, statistically, a far bigger problem. They already understand this issue.
“We know that the reason that we’re getting this attention is because we’re privileged white kids,” says Delaney. “We just try to make a difference so that those who are not as affluent, as wealthy, as we are won’t have to deal with this either. Because if you look at Chicago, there’s such a high level of gun violence. But that’s not getting the attention that this is getting because we’re in such a nice area.”
The ghastly irony is that for some of these newly minted activists, as for many of their generation, viral exposure has been a youthful ambition. “I mean, my dream has been to be an on-air news reporter or anchor, and it’s literally, like, I’ve been on-camera so much these past few days it kind of feels natural, because I’m used to it. But then seeing myself get verified on Twitter, seeing celebrities following me … There are times when you kind of become self-aware.” Delaney stops to consider what her life has become, a kid who once collected oversize spectacles and whose spangled prom dress is hanging in her room. “But this is about a much bigger thing here.”