Author Dave Cullen On Telling The Story Of The Parkland Activists

Feb 10, 2019
Originally published on February 10, 2019 10:44 am
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This week marks the anniversary of the Parkland shootings. On Valentine's Day last year, a shooter murdered 17 people at a Florida high school. It also marks one year since the survivors of that shooting, teenagers, began a movement to combat gun violence, organizing the March For Our Lives demonstration with hundreds of thousands of protesters across the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DELANEY TARR: I'm here today because I am a Marjory Stoneman Douglas student.

CAMERON KASKY: Welcome to the revolution.

JACLYN CORIN: Our First Amendment right is our weapon of war in this.

EMMA GONZALEZ: Fight for your lives before it's someone else's job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Delaney Tarr, Cameron Kasky, Jaclyn Corin and Emma Gonzalez at the protest. They're some of the Parkland kids that journalist Dave Cullen followed over the past year, watching their ups and downs as they dealt with the terror and tragedy of the shootings and became activists. Cullen is the author of the definitive account of the Columbine High shootings. And he's often one of the first people the media turn to when a school shooting is underway. So on February 14 last year, he looked at his phone and knew something terrible was happening when he saw the deluge of media requests.

DAVE CULLEN: That's how I know how bad it is by how many come in right away. That's how I know also how the media is going to cover it. The media has two speeds, either just wall-to-wall night and day or they kind of ignore some of these things, sadly. And I can tell by my inbox, within the first half hour, what the rest of the week is going to be like.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things you've always advised journalists covering school shootings to do is not to glamorize or name the shooter. And one of the things that you noticed right away with these kids was that they sort of accidentally solved the problem of celebrity shooters by becoming bigger celebrities themselves.

CULLEN: They really did because there's been this whole no-notoriety movement and trying to get the media to get away from glamorizing or spending so much time with these killers. You do that by being more interesting than that jerk who attacked you. And within 24 hours, David Hogg was the first person in the history of these mass murders that was more interesting and more famous than the person who attacked him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In fact, let's listen to some of the tape when he first addressed the media on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEW DAY")

DAVID HOGG: We're children. You guys, like, are the adults. You need to take some action and play a role. Work together. Come over your politics. And get something done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was him on "New Day" - David Hogg. And you got into contact with him the weekend after the shooting. And you write, he was so strategic almost from the get-go about what needed to be done.

CULLEN: There's multiple sides to David Hogg. He comes across really angry. And there is an anger. But he's also this fun-loving, silly, playful guy. But yeah. The kids decided within, I think, the first 24 hours that they had to do a couple of things. One is speak with one voice. They had to choose what they were going to do and all do that collectively. And then also, they had to choose an agenda. They could talk about mental health. They could talk about the media. Or they could talk about guns. Or they could focus on whatever avenue. But they had to pick one and make it count because, otherwise, dilutes the message. And they decided guns are the enemy No. 1. They're the biggest problem. We're going to tackle that. And that's it. And I think that's the smartest thing they did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. These kids - Emma Gonzalez, Jaclyn Corin, Cameron Kasky, the whole Never Again group - they not only focused on guns. But they aimed their comments at politicians.

CULLEN: They did. And they realized right away that to change the legislation, we need to change the legislators because the Democratic Party and a lot of moderate Republicans who quietly supported them had been basically chickening out on this and, in theory, supporting them but not doing anything. And so the kids were basically like, yeah. You need to become real supporters or get the hell out of the way, and we're voting you out, too. And those people got a backbone. A lot of people ran on it for the first time in - you know, at least since Al Gore lost the presidency in 2000, and guns were blamed on it. A lot of Democrats and some Republicans got a spine and really changed some things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they learned a lot along the way. You know, the kids got called out by their black peers about being inclusive. And they thought about that and took that onboard.

CULLEN: They did. And that one hurt because they were really trying to. You know, we got girls and boys. We got straight kids, black kids, gay kids. We've got Latinos and whites. And, like, they thought that was pretty good. And they worked very closely with other African-American groups from other cities. And so they thought, like, you know, we really got that covered. Yeah. But what about African-American kids in your own school? Yeah. You're right. That was an oversight. We should have done better. And we're going to change that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We all were watching this at the time. And we were riveted by these kids and their voice and their quest to really change something after this terrible tragedy. And then you talk about the months after, the toll this took on them, the hate mail, the infighting, the burden.

CULLEN: To me the biggest surprise of these kids is what an odyssey it was because I think most of America sort of saw what they saw on television. And they think, OK. These kids, you know, did this amazing march on Washington in five weeks - the third- or fourth-biggest in U.S. history. That was kind of amazing. What they don't realize is, like, no. It was relentless. It was basically a nine-month marathon sprint doing one thing after another. I mean, they were doing it while sometimes falling apart.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write about this story as one of hope. It's almost the opposite of Columbine in some ways. Do you see these events as bookends?

CULLEN: To me, Columbine and Parkland are totally bookends - or, I guess, I have to say hopefully bookends. Parkland won't be the last one. It's already not the last one. But I think it may be the beginning of the end. Hopefully, 10 years from now, we'll look back and say, yeah. That's the moment where we begin to find our way out of this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So on this anniversary, what are the kids doing? Have you spoken to them?

CULLEN: They are spending time with their family and their friends. Anniversaries are really hard on victims and survivors, I think, in ways that most people don't understand. There are triggers all around us in ways we're not even aware. And so most survivors need to take some time. And I really respect that decision.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dave Cullen's book is "Parkland." Thank you so much.

CULLEN: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.