Listening to Emma not speak

We came to hear Emma speak.

No one seems to know exactly how many of us came to the nation’s capital for the March For Our Lives. I’ve seen news reports estimating the crowd I was part of at anywhere from 200,000-800,000 people. I know that when the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas came to the dais to speak and we all put our signs down, I could not see an end to the packed crowd on Constitution Avenue.

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Jeff Elder photo

It was a vast sea of people. A vast sea of very nice people. When an elderly lady teetered in the crowd (where we all stood, rather than marched, for hours) adolescents rushed to help her. This was their event, and a more juvenile attitude might have been to sneer at an adult who did not belong. As someone in his 50s who flew from California to take part, I looked for youthful exclusivity, but saw saw none of that.

A few guys sold knock-off T-shirts capitalizing on the crowd, but very few people were there trying to make a buck.

We showed up to listen.

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Jeff Elder photo

The Stoneman Douglas students have been extraordinary in their powerful eloquence since 17 of their classmates were killed on Valentine’s Day in yet another in a series of mass shootings at schools, massacres that have haunted the nation. The students can seemingly do no wrong when addressing crowds and cameras. One nervous student threw up in the middle of her talk Saturday with her huge image broadcast on movie screens across Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues. (Imagine being an adolescent exposed to that vulnerability!) Yet Samantha Fuentes, who was wounded in last month’s shooting, bounced up and announced, laughing, “I just threw up on international television, and it feels great!”

No student has been more spellbinding in her statements than Emma González, the 18-year-old with the shaved head and powerful gaze whose “We call B.S. speech did as much as anything to bring attention to the #NeverAgain movement. After the other speeches, the performances by Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus, the video messages urging voter turnout, González walked to the dais, and the crowd roared.

And then, as anyone knows who has watched news of the marches (for there were reported around 800), Emma didn’t speak. For four minutes. It is not true that she just stood there for six minutes, as she pointed out later on Twitter.

In fact, her introduction to the silence was so moving and powerful that many in the crowd seemed to wonder if she was overwhelmed. Because we were.

“Six minutes and twenty seconds with an AR-15 and my friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice. Aaron Feis would never call Kira, ‘Miss Sunshine.’ Alex Schachter would never walk into school with his brother Ryan. Scott Beigel would never joke around with Cameron at camp. Helena Ramsey would never hang out after school with Max. Gina Montalto would never wave to her friend Liam at lunch. Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan. Alaina Petty would never. Cara Loughran would never. Chris Hixon would never. Luke Hoyer would never. Martin Duque Anguiano would never. Peter Wang would never. Alyssa Alhadeff would never. Jamie Guttenberg would never. Meadow Pollack would never.”

The crowd was silent and attentive throughout all the speeches, occasionally breaking into chants such as “Vote them out!”, but mostly we listened. And never more than at this moment. The entire crowd waited, and watched, transfixed. You have probably seen news video of some of the silence, but I want you to know what it was like in the crowd. I took a video of it, here:

We wondered:

Is she overwhelmed? Is she making a point? Is this moment as powerful as it feels? How will it be resolved? How will this whole event be resolved, summed up, remembered? Will this issue ever really be addressed? Is this speech by an 18-year-old as important as some of the other talks that happened here? We are all here, in this hushed silence, hanging on the import of this moment at this strange time in our nation. Will this fraught moment somehow be a zeitgeist, an answer, some hope?

And then, she released us from the spell by noting that her speech was the amount of time the mass shooting at her school lasted. It made sense. The point sank in. The event ended. The crowd dispersed. We moved on.

Or did we.

What Emma González gave us is what was denied to the march, which could not take place on the nearby National Mall because another youth group previously reserved it for… a talent show video shoot. So one of the biggest protest events ever in the nation’s history was not by the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Monument, where history seems to be cast before us, a reflection of ourselves.

How have we reached a place where gun violence is a high-stakes debate involving politics and money and the grief of thousands of Americans every year. (At least 15,549 people were killed by guns in the United States in 2017, according to data collected by Gun Violence Archive (GVA), a nonprofit organization.)

Who are we that this would seem to be an intractable problem? Who are we that high school students born into mass shootings have to rally huge crowds in order to bring attention to this issue? Who are we that zero politicians stuck around Washington during their break to take part or even attend?

I don’t know that this was a moment of historic oratory. I would hate to put that expectation or weight on an 18-year-old, but I hope we see much, much more activism and speaking and work from Emma. She has so much to offer that the country needs.

But the echoes of the past seemed to surround her. Martin Luther King Jr.’s granddaughter, 9-year-old Yolanda Renee King, led the crowd in a cheer for her generation, and charmed the country. D’Angelo McDade, an 18-year-old from the West Side of Chicago, and a survivor of gun violence, told the crowd: “Dr. King once said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.’ Which now leads me to say that violence cannot drive out violence, only peace can do that.”

That moment – those four minutes of silence – when Emma González held the country in her hands, will remain forever etched in my memory. After all the fractious debate and caterwauling this nation has gone through over guns, she had the last word. She stood there and didn’t say:

Former WSJ reporter and syndicated columnist working in the blogosphere. Once sold books to Johnny Cash. My Medium post about that was praised by Paris Review.

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