I was living with my parents in Winter Springs, Florida, a suburb of Orlando, my hometown, in June 2016. My morning tea hadn’t even cooled to a drinkable temperature yet when my father broke the news to me as gently as he knew how: There had been a shooting at Pulse nightclub, and it looked like over 50 people had been hurt. That estimate would go up considerably over the next several hours, until a final count of 49 people dead and 58 others injured was determined.
It hasn’t even been two years, and Florida has seen another shooting on the scale of mass. Not to mention the two that occurred, to less media attention, in 2017.
Parkland, Florida, is one hour north of Miami. It rests on the northeastern border of the Everglades. The suburban neighborhoods are set on a series of man-made islands between canals of swamp water. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is on the town’s southern border. These facts are not irrelevant to my understanding of what happened there, and what the students are doing about it now.
After 17 of their teachers and peers were murdered on February 14, 2018, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have mobilized against the National Rifle Association (NRA), speaking out for stricter gun control laws and advocating to disband the NRA altogether. Their resistance and resilience is their form of mourning. And coming from Florida, that comes as no surprise.
Florida breeds resilience. Lots of things in Florida can kill you, so to live there is to have that resilience baked into you. And to survive there is resistance.
What makes this group of teenagers in Parkland extraordinary is not that they are resisting. It’s that they are doing so by advocating for fewer guns in a state that has the stand your ground law that allowed Trayvon Martin to be murdered with impunity; in a state whose first governor was President Andrew Jackson (whose primary contribution was genocide); in a state where the current governor is speaking at the next NRA convention.
Historically, Florida is not a site of national change. In fact, the precedent set by those with power there is just the opposite: finding and exploiting loopholes in federal legislation, allowing the perpetuation of Florida’s paradise myth and fallacy habitability, and general grifting of all kinds. Florida is also historically, for the rest of the country, a punchline.
Aside from its battleground status, Florida’s national goal seems to be separating itself from the rest of the country — “No, we aren’t the south,” “Palm Beach: where real people go,” “No one is from Florida.”
The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are turning Florida into a different kind of battleground. Against all odds, they have survived in a place where people probably never should have laid foundations, and they are asking those who live on more solid ground to put their feet down.
I am proud to be from the same state as they are. My heart is with them. And most importantly, my actions will back them.
Before I came out and before the Pulse shooting, my mother, perhaps knowing something I hadn’t yet admitted to myself, would drive me by two of Orlando’s gay clubs and gently point them out. One was Pulse; the other I don’t remember the name of because the building is one of the few in Orlando that is as old as it looks. The safer looking one is a memorial now.
After Pulse, the entire country rallied behind the city of Orlando and the LGBTQ+ community. Their rallying cry was one to end hatred, and the violence motivated by it. A radio DJ was asked what he thought would change, and he said he thought now whenever someone said something hateful in Orlando, they would be the ones ostracized. I was skeptical. I’m still skeptical, but businesses, even in the most conservative parts of town, still fly rainbow flags.
The only thing that would make me feel safer is if the gun laws proposed and fought for by the survivors of Parkland were put into effect, not just in Florida, but in the rest of the country too. As I’ve said, lots of things in Florida can kill you; it shouldn’t be easy for other people to be one of them — there or anywhere.
But despite their organization, their political savvy, and their Floridian resilience, these students can’t do this alone. Be impressed, amplify their voices, recognize that their context is not one that makes it easy to stand so firmly, then stand firmly too, wherever you are. You, too, can verbally take down senators who accept millions of dollars from the NRA. You can vote. You can organize.
You can be resilient.