Parkland: Birth of a Movement, by Dave Cullen

Nine stars

Dave Cullen is back with another heart-stopping book that depicts the world of gun violence and school shootings. While his first book, Columbine, shook the literary world by depicting the event from two decades before, this piece seeks to encompass the momentum gained after yet another shooting by a group of students trying to neutralise these atrocities. After a shooting in Parkland, Florida, America wrung its collective hands yet again and vowed that school shootings needed to be dealt with once and for all, though this echoed sentiment seems to resonate after each atrocity, vowing to the victims that they will be the last. The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were the latest of those with a spotlight thrust in their faces, seventeen victims dead from another round of gun violence. But this was not just another school with students who wanted to mourn their losses. Cullen explores the power of a movement that began here, to toss off the yoke of ‘victim’ and turn it into something more. Guns and school shootings had peppered America for years and it was time to take the spotlight off the crying and blood, turning it towards a rallying cry for change. A small group in Parkland began organizing walkouts to protest gun violence, first at local schools and then across the country. There was a need to meet with political figures and plead the case for more restrictions on guns and the need to vilify the NRA (National Rifle Association) and all its spinning as it deflected any responsibility for funding campaigns to keep guns on the streets and in people’s homes. The movement grew and a march in Washington became a rallying cry for the world to see. ‘Gun are killing our children’, it sought to say, ‘and we are tired of it’. Cullen explores how the movement grew and put the spotlight on needed change and political action, forcing those who blame mental illness and not guns for all these killings in schools. As the movement gained momentum and people across the country gathered, thoughts of those who had been slain before in places like Sandy Hook, Columbine, and other horrid mass shootings added fuel to the already raging fire. However, as Cullen posits, one can only wonder if the momentum can be sustained and if politicians and those in positions of authority—read: the NRA—will be held accountable when the time comes. The blame game is strong, but it is time for action, serious action. Cullen and many others suffered significant bouts of anxiety and illness by hearing stories first hand, with long-lasting devastation for those who lived the events as well. One can only imagine the collective pain and mental illness that could come by seeing yet another blind eye turned in hopes of ‘never again’, only to be a temporary battle cry until ‘next time’. Brilliantly argued and researched, Cullen pulls the reader in again. Highly recommended for those who enjoyed Cullen’s past work as well as the reader with an interest in this sort of analysis of American culture.

As I mentioned in my review of Columbine, it is hard to rank the best and worst school shootings in America (or anywhere in the world). The pain and suffering that comes from the event leaves many in such dire straits that no one can really understand the depth of all that is going on. In this piece, Cullen seeks to rise above the analysis that he did in Columbine and look to the movement for a change in the conversation. He refuses to give the Douglas shooter any mention and the focus is less on that shooting than the larger movement to stop them in the future. He describes the agony enough to hook the reader, then moves on to show how speedily students worked to begin making a difference, using social media to push for change and to unite the country and speak about such tragedy. Not deterred by the NRA who sought to make it a mental health issue or President Trump who wanted to arm all teachers, these students wanted their voices heard and changes made once and for all. The time to act was prescient and Cullen was there to capture the movement at its inception. He explores the minds of the students, their efforts to argue with political figures as well as link arms with others who wanted to end the violence. Cullen takes on the movement’s core values and matches it to some of the other protests of non-violence in America history, drawing significant parallels. In his own tongue in cheek manner, Cullen debunks the ‘it is not guns, but people who kill people’ and ‘mental illness is to blame’ sentiments, asking at times why it is only America that seems to have this ongoing issue with school (and more generally, all) shootings in the world. There is never an answer for that. One can only wonder why tons of money is not being funnelled into mental health programs IF we are to believe it is mental health and not guns that are killing these students. Cullen’s well-paced piece seeks to make a difference in his own way with stunning chapters that are broken down into more digestible portions for all to see. There is a stunning exploration throughout and the reader will surely learn much from the movement. I can only hope not to read more Cullen if it pertains to new school shootings, but anything he has to say on the topic (or any topic), I will gladly read any day of the week!

Kudos, Mr. Cullen, for another riveting piece of writing. I hope the momentum can remain high as we go into the 2020 election cycle and beyond.

This novel fulfils the May requirements of Mind the Bookshelf Gap Reading Group.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: