One year and three months ago, the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history took place at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 and injuring 17 others. Within days of the shooting, still-grieving student survivors started Never Again MSD, a movement to end gun violence, vowing that the mass shooting at their school would be the last.
Since then, there has been an average of one mass shooting per day nationwide. But Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, two of Never Again MSD’s most recognizable leaders, aren’t discouraged by that statistic. Although gun violence continues to devastate communities across the country, the two survivors say that Americans are less willing to tolerate the violence, and that the movement against those who enable it—notably, the National Rifle Association and politicians beholden to the powerful lobbying group—is winning.
“I think a lot of people seriously realize that gun violence is an issue that we’re not going to allow to continue to happen without putting up a fight,” Hogg, 19, says during a phone interview with Las Vegas Weekly.
Hogg’s confidence in the success of Never Again MSD and a related movement he helped start, March for Our Lives, isn’t based on sheer optimism. It also stems from his experience traveling the country last year with other Parkland shooting survivors. They visited more than 20 states, in communities as disparate as Chicago and Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, to discuss and learn how gun violence impacts Americans from all walks of life. In addition to giving talks and meeting with local organizers, the group registered young people to vote and educated them about candidates’ ties to the NRA ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. That election year, youth voter turnout soared.
Although their cross-country bus tour is over, the Parkland survivors aren’t staying put. On May 31, Hogg and Gonzalez will be in Las Vegas to speak at Emerge, an interdisciplinary festival that combines art, social justice and music.
It won’t be their first time here; they visited the city last summer to meet with survivors of the October 1, 2017, mass shooting on the Strip that killed 58 people and wounded more than 800.
“I cannot tell you how horrifying it was,” Gonzalez, 19, says of that visit during a separate Weekly interview. “Out of all the experiences that anybody has ever told us, that was one of the ones that sticks out the most in my mind.”
Speaking in communities that have endured a mass shooting is quite different from visiting communities that haven’t, Gonzalez says. In a place like Las Vegas, she doesn’t have to dwell on what surviving Parkland was like. “Maybe you just say to a group of people, say, for example, in Las Vegas: ‘You know what it’s like.’ And that’s all you say, and you move on,” Gonzalez says. “It’s good sometimes to talk about your trauma like that, because it’s healing.”
Healing and self-care have been critical for Gonzalez and Hogg since the Parkland shooting, as they have sought to balance their activism, academic and personal lives with the grief and trauma of the shooting. Since entering the spotlight and advocating for gun control measures, they have also had to contend with attacks from conspiracy theorists and right-wing politicians and pundits.
Hogg, who took a gap year from his studies this year to focus on activism, said he practices self-care by making time for friends and family. When back home in Florida, he enjoys surfing, snorkeling, diving, tennis and frisbee.
Gonzalez took a step back from the movement this year to study at New College of Florida, but with more than 1.6 million Twitter followers, she remains a major face of March for Our Lives and visits often with student leaders. Like many young people, she hasn’t quite mastered the art of balancing her life and priorities. “I’ve done very poorly,” she says, laughing. “There’s no part of me that’s done this well in any way, shape or form.”
Although their lives have been forever changed and complicated since the shooting, the Parkland activist-survivors’ experiences since then have been invaluable. For Hogg, traveling the country and meeting with community organizers has exposed him to the history of diverse, youth-led organizing in the United States. “We’re not taught that in our history books,” he says. “We’re always taught in history that these old-ass white men are the people that changed the country, and that’s almost never been the case.”
Visiting communities that faced gun violence long before it struck predominantly white and middle-class Parkland is not just educational for Hogg and others with March for Our Lives. It’s also key to the movement’s success, Hogg believes.
“Ending gun violence in only the white community is not ending gun violence at all,” he says. “One thing I try to point out is how few people cared about gun violence until white kids started getting shot.”
Hogg, Gonzalez and other student leaders are now trying to use their platform to elevate the voices of other organizers, especially young ones.
“Everybody who is in one or more of those [marginalized] communities has so many valid things to say,” Gonzalez says. “It’s obvious they should have a microphone.”
All the while, the Parkland students continue to inspire young leaders around the world, such as Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg, now 16, started the international School Strike for Climate last year, whereby young people walk out of school in protest of current climate policies and inaction on climate change.
Like the Parkland kids, Thunberg has faced her share of critics, who have called her entitled, misinformed and much worse. But Hogg believes change won’t happen by waiting around for an invitation. Rather, he says, it requires young people like Thunberg and himself to take risks and demand that their voices be heard. “Movements have never been successful by asking for a seat at the table. They’re always bigger than the table,” Hogg says.
Indeed, the influence of youth-led movements from March for Our Lives to the Sunrise Movement (which launched the now-famous Green New Deal campaign) seems to be growing in recent years. Gonzalez noted that it sometimes takes only one leader or protest to create a domino effect of activism.
“It’s like when there’s nobody on the dancefloor; there’s nobody out there even though the music is so good, and you think, ‘I wish I could dance to this song, but I do not want to be the first person out there,’” Gonzalez says. “The first person who does go out there opens a floodgate of people ... and they all start dancing.”
With the 2020 presidential election approaching, the Parkland teens aren’t planning on leaving the dancefloor anytime soon. “I won’t go into the specifics, because [we’re] still working on it,” Hogg says of the upcoming election. “But I can tell you that we’re building a really big f*cking table for a lot of people.”
Emma Gonzalez & David Hogg Protest showcase, May 31, 5 p.m.
EMERGE May 31 & June 1, times vary, $199/weekend, $130/day, $25-$55/show. Hard Rock Hotel, emergelv.com.