Last Thursday evening, I arrived at Pine Trails Park, in Parkland,Florida, just as the candlelight vigil to honor the dead was ending. Thecars were still arriving, in long lines that gleamed under halogenstreetlights, waved through intersections by officers of the BrowardCounty Sheriff’s Department. Flashlights and phone lights bobbed alongthe sidewalks that bordered the road as families passed on foot or onbikes. It was just past eight o’clock, darkness had fallen over the palmglades and cul de sacs and strip malls of this city at the edge of theEverglades, and, if you hadn’t known the circumstances, you might haveexpected a Fourth of July celebration.
Instead, the people here had gathered for a different kind of nationalritual. After the fatal shootings at MarjoryStoneman Douglas High School, on Valentine’s Day, the aftermath atfirst had a familiar pattern: the initial news alerts; then thepsychological profiles of the killer; the repetition of “thoughts andprayers”; the news scrum; this vigil. The funerals would begin the nextday, but the long-term prospect was of another lull in the debate untilthe next act of spectacular violence—a routine so predictable that acouple of days later I saw that someone in Fort Lauderdale had drawn itin imitation of the Krebs Cycle and printed it on a T-shirt. The firsthint that something might be different this time came the morning afterthe shootings, from a Douglas High School sophomore named SarahChadwick, who informed the President of the United States, via hisfavorite medium, in words that quickly went viral, “I don’t want yourcondolences you fucking piece of shit, my friends and teachers wereshot.” In the hours that followed, others joined Chadwick in rejectingthe platitudes. On social media, and on live television, the victimswere not playing their parts. They were not asking for privacy in theirtime of grief. They did not think it was “too soon” to bring up theissue of gun control—in fact, several students would start shouting “guncontrol” within the very sanctum of the candlelight vigil. What wasalready becoming clear that night, less than thirty-six hours after theshootings, was that the students were going to shame us, all of us, withso much articulacy and moral righteousness that you willed the newsanchors to hang their heads in national solidarity. It was a bad weekfor a lot of reasons, but at least we had evidence of one incorruptiblevalue: the American teen-ager’s disdain for hypocrisy.
Most of the grownups had departed after the vigil. In the hours untilthe county sheriff’s officers made their rounds in golf carts askingpeople to leave, the students sat in clusters on the floodlit crabgrasstalking, crying, and praying. Many of the students were seeing theirfriends for the first time since the shooting, and were now telling thestories of what they had seen over and over, still mapping out thechronology of the event. They gathered around crosses placed in theground or stood in twos and threes in front of the amphitheatre stage,which had been turned into a vast altar decorated with seventeen angels.
I introduced myself to three students who were standing in a circle andtalking. Rebecca Bogart, a senior with curly brown hair, wore a tie-dyedschool T-shirt and running shorts. As she recalled the previous day’sevents she leaned against her friend Josef Bagiv, a junior, in momentsof agitation. Bogart and the third student, Ashton Boukzam, had beentogether in a class on the history of the Holocaust when the shooter hadbegun his attack down the hall. The students had run together with theirteacher and several others to hide behind the teacher’s desk, where theyhid holding hands. As Nikolas Cruz passed by, spraying bullets throughthe door, two students, Nicholas Dworet and Helena Ramsay, were killed.
“We were all doing our homework, just doing work in the classroom,everything was fine, it was a fun day so far, just Valentine’s Day,”Boukzam, a tall seventeen-year-old who wore several stud earrings,said. “Then we heard shots behind us and everyone didn’t even think itwas real.”
“Right now I just keep replaying the scenes in my head and just, like . . . ,”Rebecca said.
“Seeing Nick and . . . ,” Ashton said, leaving the thought unfinished.
Rebecca started to cry.
“We could just keep hearing his footsteps walking,” Ashton continued.
“You could just hear screaming, us holding hands, on the phone with911,” Rebecca said.
“After he shot up our classroom he just kept going down the line,”Ashton said. “Thank God he didn’t go in many classrooms.”
The funerals began the next day, a Friday. At 10 A.M., the policeofficers were again directing traffic, this time into the Star of DavidMemorial Gardens Cemetery and Funeral Chapel. Golf carts shuttled theelderly or infirm to the entrance of the chapel, teen-agers inglittering black formalwear and prom heels picking their way behindthem. The mourners were too many for the chapel, and spilled out intothe atrium, the stairways that flanked it, and onto the sidewalkoutside. They stood for the duration of the service, some sobbing as thefriends and family of the fourteen-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff recalled asoccer player and honors student who loved the movies and summer camp, athoughtful girl who would call her grandfather when he was sick withouteven being asked. Outside, a teen-age girl fainted; plastic bottles ofwater were passed back. The final eulogy was delivered by Alyssa’smother, Lori. I had watched Lori Alhadeff being interviewed on CNN fromthe breakfast room at a Best Western in Boca Raton, where a room full ofpeople suddenly forgot to chew their waffles as the grieving mother,distraught and furious, had trained her eyes directly on the camera,addressed the President and yelled, her voice breaking, “This is notfair to our families, that our children go to school and have to getkilled! Do something! Action! We need it now!” Now, as she recalled herdaughter, her voice stayed steady. She asked those of Alyssa’s friendssharing stories with one another on social media to share the memorieswith her, too. “Honor Alyssa,” she said. “Breathe for Alyssa. Dosomething good with your life.”
After the service, the mourners parted and Alyssa’s coffin was silentlywheeled out, the traditional pine box draped in a black shroud with awhite Star of David, followed by her family, whose members clung to oneanother. The other mourners closed ranks and proceeded behind them to theburial site, forming a dark line that snaked out across the flatness ofthe land in the brilliant midmorning sun.
I returned to Pine Trails Park, which had become the central gatheringplace for media, students, and members of a disaster-activated nationalconsolation machine: volunteers from the Red Cross; a van of therapeuticgolden retrievers and their owners from Christ the Shepherd LutheranChurch, in Alpharetta, Georgia; the television anchors as lurid asexotic birds. It was now midday and eighty-five degrees. Few people werein the park. The self-appointed consolers stood around beaming withcompassion and turning down offers of pizza. I introduced myself to Rayand Betty Bombardieri, two members of the Billy Graham Rapid ResponseTeam who had come to do what Ray Bombardieri described as “prayingpeople up.” They now stood chatting with Nancy Veile, a localrepresentative of Therapy Dogs International, whose two rat-terrierrescues, Birdie (“a jailbird who flew the coop”) and Breezy (“shesneezes a lot”), sat at her feet wearing harnesses labelled “EMOTIONAL SUPPORT.” Veile was a local, and in addition to the dogs she had alsohad the experience of losing a child. As she spoke to me, two teen-agegirls in Douglas High lacrosse uniforms came up to lay flowers on theamphitheatre’s stage. They paused to pet Birdie and Breezy, whoresponded with gentle nuzzling. “This is what they do,” Veile said,watching from a slight distance with approval. “They’re doing theirjobs.” After pausing a minute to contemplate the altar, the girls andtheir mother departed for the family-support center.
The second funeral began in the early afternoon, at the Kol TikvahSynagogue. The student being memorialized was Meadow Pollack, aneighteen-year-old senior. As her friends and family spoke, what stoodout was just how much happens between Alyssa’s age (again: fourteen) andMeadow’s. Meadow Pollack had been granted enough time to fall in love.She had grown close with members of her high-school class and theirfamilies. She had planned to attend a local college, Lynn University, inBoca Raton, in the fall.
The synagogue was next to the police station, which was next to theParkland library, where a dedicated family-support center had been setup for the staff members of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. As I crossedtheir parking lots after the funeral to reach my rental car, which I hadparked on a grass embankment, I passed more students holding one another,and a student in black hurrying toward the library carrying a bouquet ofwhite chrysanthemums. The neighborhood was saturated with symbols ofgrief—I had not known about Meadow Pollack’s funeral but had simplyhappened upon it while driving, hitting the fringe of an automotivesnarl that I had come to associate with an act of public mourningoutside the artificial waterfalls and plaster rock walls of the ParklandGolf & Country Club.
But the grief had not stalled the protest, which, if anything, wasgrowing louder in tenor over the course of the day, as more of thepolitically active students saw their messages go viral on social mediaand shared their opinions on television. I had read earlier that dayabout students at nearby South Broward High School staging a solidarityrally to advocate for gun control earlier in the afternoon. Now, as Ileft the funeral, I saw a group of eight or ten people standing on astreet outside a Walgreens waving cardboard signs in support of guncontrol. I spoke with the founder of the protest, a thirty-two-year-oldnamed Robert Lopez, who had no personal affiliation with Douglas Highbut had simply arrived at the street corner at eight-thirty that morningwith poster supplies, a case of bottled water, and several snack-sizedbags of Doritos in assorted flavors. The other protesters had joinedafter driving by. “We’re not going to wait until it happens to our ownkids,” Emily Pratt, who has two children in a local elementary school,said.
As we spoke, a sudden commotion interrupted us, as a fleet of policecars screeched to a halt in the middle of the intersection and blockedtraffic. “It’s the President!” several of the protesters cried. (Trumplanded in West Palm Beach on Friday.) But it wasn’t the President; itwas the funeral procession of Meadow Pollack—three stretch limos and ahearse—bearing her body to the committal ceremony at the same cemeterywhere Alyssa Alhadeff had been interred earlier that day. Upon realizingthat it was a funeral, several of the protesters burst into tears. Asthe cortege passed, they lifted their fingers into peace signs,sobbing.
As I left, a man walked up carrying two boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts. “I sawyou guys doing an awesome thing,” he said, setting the boxes down in theshade. “I have to go back to work, but here’s some doughnuts.”
As he walked away, a red S.U.V. pulled up and its tinted window rolleddown. A hand reached out bearing a gift: more doughnuts.
Parkland is affluent—at one funeral, I had parked in front of a Tesla.While students come to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High from all overBroward County, the immediate communities served by the high school tendto be landscaped and gated, their waterfalls and fountains floodlit atnight, their names evoking flora (Banyan Trails), fauna (Heron Bay), andwealth (Chateaux at Miralago), a sprawl that somewhat betrays the idealsof the high school’s namesake. (Stoneman Douglas was a conservationistand author whose advocacy helped preserve the Everglades.) While thestudents and parents speaking up were no more passionate than the youngpeople of, say, the Black Lives Matter movement, it was clear that thepolitical establishment was going to receive them a different way.
By Saturday afternoon, three days after the shooting, localpoliticians were helping the affected students amplify their message. Ata rally in the shade outside the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale,several hundred people who supported the movement gathered to rally forgun control. It was the students and teachers of Douglas, however, whoprovided the moral center of the event. Their grief was raw, their ragepalpable. Emma González, a senior at Douglas, had the most searingindictment:
“The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us.And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to callB.S.
“Companies, trying to make caricatures of the teen-agers nowadays,saying that all we are are self-involved and trend-obsessed and theyhush us into submissions when our message doesn’t reach the ears of thenation, we are prepared to call B.S.
“Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded bythe N.R.A., telling us nothing could ever be done to prevent this: wecall B.S.
“They say that tougher gun laws do not prevent gun violence: we callB.S.”
The crowd was now joining in.
“They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun: we call B.S.
“They say guns are just tools, like knives, and are as dangerous ascars: we call B.S.
“They say that no laws would have been able to prevent the hundreds ofsenseless tragedies that occur: we call B.S.
“That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too youngto understand how the government works.” The crowd was now in a frenzyof anger and sadness, the people around me tearing up as theyyelled, “We call B.S.”
And then, in unison, the people gathered began to chant, “Vote them out,vote them out, vote them out.”
On – 18 Feb, 2018 By Emily Witt