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Parkland activists heal over years while pushing gun reform

By The Associated Press
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — When the shooter in the 2018 Parkland school massacre finally pleaded guilty last month, it briefly revived attention and donations for the anti-gun violence March For Our Lives student movement birthed by the tragedy.

It also dredged up personal trauma for many of young activists, though most are now hundreds of miles away at college.

Jaclyn Corin, 21, one of the group’s original organizers and now a Harvard junior, stayed off social media the week of the shooter’s court proceedings to avoid painful memories. But well-intentioned loved ones texted constantly to provide support, unwittingly making it impossible for her to ignore.

“I try my best not to think about him and the violence that he inflicted, but it’s incredibly hard to do that when someone who ruined your life and the lives of literally everyone in your community is trending on social media.”

In the initial months after the shooting that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the teenagers amassed one of the largest youth protests in history in Washington and rallied more than a million activists in sister marches from California to Japan. They made the cover of Time magazine and raised millions to fund March For Our Lives. They testified before Congress, met with the president, won the International Children’s Peace Prize and launched a 60-plus city bus tour to register tens of thousands of young voters.

March For Our Lives has evolved into a 300-chapter organization that has had a hand in helping pass many of the 130 gun violence prevention bills approved across the country since 2018 and regularly files amicus briefs in gun-related lawsuits.

Yet some of the original founders, including Emma Gonzalez, have left or taken a step back — or moved on to other issues. One of them is running for Congress in Florida.

Corin was so burned out from activism when she started college that she said she needed a year for herself.

“A lot of our trauma from the shooting is inherently linked to the organization,” she said.

Nearly four years after the shootings, the twenty-somethings have managed to keep the organization going and youth-led. Still, they’ve struggled to achieve sustainable financing. The organization has raised over $31 million to date, but its operating costs were slightly higher than funds in 2020.

David Hogg, one of the most recognizable faces from the group and still one of its most active members, said the organization is much more stable now than in the early days

“When you get a bunch of traumatized teenagers together and say, ‘It’s up to you to fix this,’ ... the weight that puts on a 17-year-old mind or a 14-year-old mind like my sister’s after she lost four friends that day is enormous.”

Hogg, also a student at Harvard, delayed college for a year to help grow the organization. He was in Washington last week for a Supreme Court case about the right to carry a firearm in public for self-defense where the organization filed an amicus brief supporting a restrictive New York state law.

“There are days when I want to stop. There are days when I am exhausted. But there are days when I realize I am not alone in this work,” Hogg said in a recent interview.

Hogg, who has drawn persistent scorn from conservatives including Georgia’s Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Fox News personality Laura Ingraham, said March For Our Lives is focused on the long game. It hopes to spur youth nationally to run for office, become judges and draft policies.

Volunteers in the organization made over 1 million texts and phone calls leading up to the 2020 election.

Maxwell Frost, one of the group’s founders and its former organizing director, is running for an open congressional seat from Orlando. Another founding member, Charlie Mirsky, took a year off to work full time as the organization’s policy director before before enrolling at Lafayette College. Last summer, he helped the organization form a judicial advocacy branch to write amicus briefs.

While gun control remains the group’s chief mission, the students said they consider issues like racism, poverty and voter disenfranchisement to be intertwined and have focused extra efforts on communities of color affected by gun violence.

Many of the students rallied for Black Lives Matters last summer in the wake of the George Floyd protests, including Aalayah Eastmond.

Eastmond, now a junior at Trinity Washington University, was in her Holocaust history class when the gunman killed several students inside. The now 20-year-old took part in March For Our Lives’ bus tour, though she is not a formal member of the group.

“I wanted to make sure we were addressing inner city gun violence that disproportionately impacts Black and brown youth," Eastmond said. “I felt like that was a huge part of the conversation that is overlooked."

And now, as a jury will decide in January whether the Parkland school shooter will spend life in prison or receive the death penalty, the student activists find themselves grappling yet again with the human toll of gun violence. The organization does not have a formal position, but the students said they support whatever the victims’ families want.

“I think it’s a really difficult scenario,” Corin said. “I struggle with the morality of the death penalty often, but I do know that it could give victims’ families peace, specifically in this case where we know the person is guilty.”

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