17 lives were lost as a result of the MSD shooting. It affected many people in our community, including you. You stepped up as a community organizer. How would you reflect upon this now, almost 3 years later?
The day of the shooting began as a beautiful morning. It was Valentine’s Day and my dad’s birthday and I surprised him at his office for lunch. Shortly after I left his office, I received a text from a friend that said “Is your mom okay?” I thought, what a strange message. Time seemed to slow down after that text and soon everything changed. My phone was bombarded with texts, calls and breaking news that there was an active shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, where my mom teaches, where I graduated from, in the city of Parkland where my parents still live and my dad serves as a commissioner. I rushed to another room and saw the live news unfolding. When I saw first responders, caution tape and stretchers taken out of school, that’s when it really hit me – this is actually happening – this is real. I immediately called and messaged my mom, who responded that she was hiding in a closet with 40 of her students. It was terrifying.
The rest of that day was a blur. We still couldn’t fathom that anyone had actually died until we started hearing about victims or people we knew that still weren’t located. Later that evening, I found out Jaime Guttenberg, a student volunteer with the nonprofit organization I lead and a beautiful soul, was one of the victims. There was also a rumor that a beloved teacher of mine, Mrs. Schamis, who I’ve known since 4th grade, was a victim as well. I later heard that Mrs. Schamis survived without physical injury but that her classroom was shot into and two of her students were killed.
Soon, we learned that 17 were murdered and 17 were injured. It was beyond comprehension. Another wonderful, kindhearted student volunteer, Gina Montalto, lost her life – as did Coach Feis, who drove us to our school soccer games when I was a student. The names and pictures of lives lost are forever engrained in my mind — many whose friends and family I would soon come to know and love.
The days after the shooting brought grief beyond what I’d ever known before. It was a strange phenomenon – it seemed like the color and vibrance of our community had been taken away and the whole world was suddenly painted gray. I felt deeply helpless, angry and heartbroken. How could this happen?
The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas quickly stood up and led the way. Emma Gonzalez delivered her impactful “We call BS!” speech and Never Again MSD / March For Our Lives formed. The young people immediately spoke out against the catastrophic failures and injustices that made it all too easy for yet another act of gun violence to happen, this time in our small hometown. The students decided they wanted to have marches around the country to demand action and change – to ensure that never again becomes a reality. Mrs. Schamis, who taught Holocaust Studies – talks of being an “upstander” – not a bystander. The student activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas are upstanders.
Between attending funerals and shiva calls, I organized a meeting at a local library with other people in our community who felt the same way I did. We sat in a circle, we cried, we held each other and we discussed actionable ways to support our community’s healing and channel our grief toward meaningful change. We invited Jaclyn Corin, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas who was one of the founders of Never Again MSD, to our meeting. Jackie shared that the students were organizing marches around the country (which ultimately ended up becoming marches around the world!) called “March For Our Lives” and that they wanted there to be a march and a large presence in Parkland. She asked if anyone wanted to support the students. I raised my hand.
Later that day, I received a call from Casey Sherman, a bright, engaged and passionate student who said she was going to lead the Parkland March For Our Lives. We met at Parkland City Hall soon after. The Parkland March For Our Lives student organizers, led by Casey Sherman and Sari Kaufman, banded together. I supported them throughout the process in any way I could. We all learned and navigated the chaos together. It was quite the endeavor – planning a peaceful demonstration for 30,000 people in a matter of weeks while we each endured our own grief. Through the support of our community and other gun violence prevention organizations – we made it happen. It was an incredibly meaningful way to demand justice and change while honoring those we’ve lost – and all lost before – to gun violence.
I’ll never forget the day of the march. A sea of people holding each other, holding signs, walking past Marjory Stoneman Douglas in silence. Hearing the speeches of the students and families who lost loved ones – standing before the crowd and sharing words myself – feeling the energy of all who stood with us – it was powerful.
Reflecting now, I continue to find hope for a brighter tomorrow from our young people. In all that we do, we honor the 17 lives who were taken through acts of love and kindness in their memories. It is devastating and unacceptable that your generation has to face these atrocities and that active shooter drills are now part of growing up in America. Many of those who planned the march are continuing in their fight toward justice and change.
Your question is so thoughtful and I think the label of “community organizer” is generous because really, it was the students and teachers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the families of the victims who led – and continue to lead – the way. While planning the march, we listened to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat. We would constantly say to each other, “history has its eyes on us.” I truly believe that. We are living history and we all must make a choice where we would like to be as it unfolds. The day of the march, we reflected on how special this moment was. We then thought, as they say in Hamilton, “this is not a moment – it’s the movement.”
This year, there have been more protests and riots in communities everywhere. Can you share your feelings on the topic of gun violence as related to the increases in community unrest and violence across the country?
I think our country is experiencing a turning point in history, as our deep-rooted racist and violent foundation is being exposed and called out. This false narrative of “us” versus “them” or the belief that any group of people is “bad” or “lesser than” has historically led to tragic outcomes. In order for us to thrive as a society, diverse representation is essential. Gun violence shatters lives. The attack on our nation’s capitol exemplifies the manifestation of hatred and easy access to firearms.
In a world affected by a global pandemic, where many self-isolate and stay home, what makes gun violence still a relevant issue? Why?
Gun sales have increased during the pandemic. People are afraid and seeking “protection.” However, the combination of depleted emotional wellbeing and firearms is catastrophic. The majority of deaths from guns are actually due to self-harm. If someone is at a critical moment in which they falsely believe that no other options exist and have access to a gun, that person is far less likely to have time to stabilize from that overwhelming state of mind, seek support and recognize that life is worth living. I’ve heard the expression, “hurt people hurt people.” If hurt people have guns, hurt people can and do kill people. It also must be noted that many gun fatalities are unintentional and safe storage laws are necessary to preventing these tragic accidental deaths. As we’ve seen at the recent capitol riots, people are becoming more and more extreme and radicalized in their views. Violence is not the answer – whether self-inflicted or inflicted upon others. Violence starts within – beginning with the way we speak to and treat ourselves, our neighbors and the countless others who we are directly and indirectly connected to – manifesting outward into the world. Peace also begins within. This has been a really challenging time. There is a beautiful quote by Valerie Kaur that says “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor?” With the birth of the peaceful, equitable nation we imagine, we must each take care of ourselves and each other. Together, we will work toward a brighter, safer and kinder future.
As the president of The Friendship Journey, and someone who does a lot of volunteer work, you see children and young adults often. What are you hearing from these young students? And what are young students doing now to combat gun violence?
I have had many devastating conversations with young people. I remember soon after the Parkland shooting, a six year-old asking me if she needed to wear a bulletproof backpack to school. I also remember a seven year-old asking, “What’s an AR-15?” The kids are listening.
As heartbreaking and unfair as it is, the younger generations bring me hope. Students today are more engaged than ever. They are wise and compassionate, with a desire to create an equitable world in which we all belong and can all live peacefully. Students today have grown up during a very turbulent time in our nation and our world. I am so inspired by student leaders, activists, philanthropists and journalists — like you!
What can people in the community do to help combat gun violence? For those who want to show support, are there any current programs, events or initiatives that we can share with our readers?
After the shooting happened, I realized how pervasive gun violence is in our society and how embedded gun culture is in America. It should not be so easy for someone who intends harm to go out and purchase a weapon of war, but because of the NRA and their grip on legislators, our lawmakers often choose money and power over the lives of the citizens they serve. We have many regulations and rules to keep communities safe, yet shootings continue to plague our society – why? Other nations do not face school shootings, so why do we? We must choose leaders who have the courage to put legislation in place to protect us. The best way to make an impact is to register to vote, vote in every election and choose candidates whose intentions are to serve the people. Choose candidates who are committed to implementing commonsense gun legislation and become involved and learn from others who are passionate about these issues and making a tremendous impact in this space.
We often hear about mass shootings in the media, but don’t often hear about the lives taken each day in cities like Chicago, Baltimore and Liberty City. It is so important to understand the roots of these issues and the many ways gun violence devastates communities, even beyond the shootings.
Here are a list of organizations who I am honored to support that are doing incredibly meaningful work in this space:
March For Our Lives
Orange Ribbons For Gun Safety
Change the Ref
Scott J. Beigel Memorial Fund
Purpose Over Pain