Why you should care
Because this time might be different.
There is the slightest tremble as Emma González reads from the small scrap of paper, taking center stage at a CNN-hosted town hall Wednesday night. The cameras are trained on her, carrying with them the eyes of millions, along with an emotional and supportive crowd of 7,000, as González stares down National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch.
González is 18 years old and not long removed from unspeakable horror, when 17 of her classmates, teachers and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were cut down by a young man with a semiautomatic rifle. In the span of a week, González has gone from a Beatles-loving teen worried about AP Government class and looming graduation to a leader of a national movement of mass shooting survivors who are fed up with the usual political script — from the “thoughts and prayers” phase through the tired debates to the inevitable end: The laws don’t change.
“We call BS!” González yelled into a microphone at a rally held three days after the shooting — and right then she assumed a national presence powerful enough to make singer Demi Lovato call her up.
Does anyone know how to get in touch with Emma Gonzalez? https://t.co/e9qr1evKAn— Demi Lovato (@ddlovato) February 18, 2018
The Parkland, Florida, massacre has taken us beyond the tears and candlelight vigils that America usually lingers on for a span of days before moving on to the next news cycle. Instead, we’ve been greeted with the righteous fury of the kids who recorded their reactions in real time and refuse to play by the normal rules in the aftermath.
At Wednesday’s remarkable CNN-moderated town hall, González begins by thanking the teacher who helped her write the “We call BS!” speech and … blanks on the second thing she was going to say, in a typically forgetful teenage moment. But then, stone-faced and controlled, she lashes out at Loesch: “I want you to know that we will support your two children in a way that you will not,” referring to gun control. Then she asks whether Loesch believes the government should limit access to the kind of high-powered rifle the shooter used to gun down her friends.
Loesch, 39, a conservative radio and television commentator who once had her own TV show, is a pro at this. And she knows she’s in a hostile room. She tries to disarm González, applauding her for standing up and saying no one should seek to silence or demean students who have chosen to speak out. “I want to thank you for that,” González replies, her dead-eye stare unbroken.
The Parkland kids come off more mass media– and internet-savvy than the adults. Next month, they’re planning a march on Washington, with #MarchForOurLives offshoots organized around the country to demand changes to gun laws — a made-for-TV moment that surely will draw President Donald Trump’s attention. Some 100 of them boarded buses to Tallahassee to confront state lawmakers — and brought the national media along for the ride.
Their principal target is the NRA and its power in American politics. The kids — and left-leaning adults — talk a lot about campaign money, even though it’s the mobilization of gun enthusiasts in Republican primaries that matters most. Yet brick by brick, these teens are building a political base just as fixated on restraining gun rights.
González started tweeting @Emma4Change two days after the shooting and had piled up more than 300,000 followers as of Thursday. In one selfie video she posted, she uses clippers to shave her head while listening to the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita,” fierce and whimsical at once. Her feed is tamer than those of classmates who gleefully cut down political foes like Bill O’Reilly.
— Emma González (@Emma4Change) February 21, 2018
Still, she faces the same vitriol as anyone rallying to limit gun ownership. Conspiracy theorists on the right declared on social media that González and classmate David Hogg, the school’s student news director, were “crisis actors” paid to gin up public support for gun control. González responded to BuzzFeed: “We haven’t had such a good laugh in what feels like years.”
Perhaps the debunked charge gained traction because González and her classmates seem so poised in their repeated, raw television appearances. In one, González tells a CNN anchor that she will return to school as soon as it reopens, before adding, “unless we have interviews or somewhere to be.”
The crowd starts to boil when the NRA’s Loesch talks about how she’s fighting for all kids. González — it’s her room, after all — interjects before her foe is drowned out. “You guys, if I can’t hear her statement, I can’t come up with a rebuttal.” Silence returns, and Loesch continues, saying that Florida should improve its crime reporting to the FBI’s background-check database.
“I’m just going to interrupt you real quick,” González jumps back in, “and remind you that the question is actually: Do you believe it should be harder to obtain these semiautomatic weapons and modifications to make them fully automatic such as bump stocks?” Loesch parries, saying that the NRA supports a study to determine whether bump stocks are illegal. The conversation pivots away, and González does not bother interrupting again. There’s no point in engaging further with the gun-rights group she’s seeking to bring to its knees.
Emma González already knows the answer to her question.