the mass shooting on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida
, in which a former student of the school killed seventeen students and staff with a legally acquired semiautomatic rifle, several of the survivors have become veteran public speakers. At the March for Our Lives
, on Saturday, in Washington, D.C., speaking before thousands of people from a stage that framed the outline of the Capitol, they delivered remarks at least as articulate as those generally heard on the Hill. David Hogg gestured with disdain as he called on his fellow first-time voters to turn out for the midterms in 2018, and told lawmakers who were funded by the N.R.A. to “get your résumés ready.” In a moment of unscripted eloquence, Samantha Fuentes, a senior who was wounded in the attack, was so overcome with emotion—“Lawmakers and politicians will scream, ‘Guns are not the issue,’ but can’t look me in the eye,” she said—that she broke off and vomited behind the lectern. The Stoneman Douglas students shared the stage with several other impressive young people, including Naomi Wadler
, a fifth grader who had previously organized a walkout at her elementary school, in Alexandria, and who spoke in honor of young black women whose lives have been taken by gun violence without making headlines; and Yolanda Renee King
, the nine-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., who gleefully led the crowd in a chant, “We are going to be a great generation.”
But it was Emma González, a Stoneman Douglas senior, who provided the afternoon’s most memorable moment
. Only days after the attack, González offered a potent combination of composure and fury when she delivered a speech at an anti-gun rally in Fort Lauderdale, her refrain of “We call B.S.” swiftly cemented as one of this nascent movement’s slogans. On Saturday, González, who is small and compact, and who wears her dark hair cropped close to her skull, spoke
for just a couple of minutes, offering an emotional name-check of the students who had died. Then, lifting her eyes and staring into the distance before her, González stood in silence. Inhaling and exhaling deeply—the microphone caught the susurration, like waves lapping a shoreline—González’s face was stoic, tragic. Her expression shifted only minutely, but each shift—her nostrils flaring, or her eyelids batting tightly closed—registered vast emotion. Tears rolled down her cheeks; she did not wipe them away. Mostly, the crowd was silent, too, though waves of cheering support—“Go, Emma!” “We all love you!”—arose momentarily, then faded away. She stood in this articulate silence for more than twice as long as she had spoken, until a timer beeped. Six minutes and twenty seconds were over, she told her audience: the period of time it took Nikolas Cruz to commit the massacre.
In its restraint, its symbolism, and its palpable emotion, González’s silence was a remarkable piece of political expression. Her appearance also offered an uncanny echo of one of the most indelible performances in the history of cinema: that of Renée Maria Falconetti, who starred in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic silent film from 1928, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Based upon the transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial, in 1431, Dreyer’s film shows Joan as an otherworldly young woman—she is nineteen, to the best of her limited knowledge—who, in the face of a barrage of questioning by hostile, older, powerful clerics, is simultaneously self-contained and brimming over with emotion. Falconetti, who never made another movie, gives an extraordinary performance, her face registering at different moments rapture, fear, defiance, and transcendence. Joan’s defense in the face of her inquisitors is largely mute: when she is asked to describe Saint Michael—who, she blasphemously claims, has appeared to her—she mostly refrains from verbal response
, her silence bespeaking holy understanding greater than theirs. In the final phase of her life, when Joan knows that she is to be martyred, Dreyer’s camera lingers on closeups of Falconetti, with her brutally close-cropped hair, her rough garments, and her anguished silence. Her extraordinary image in that sequence could be intercut almost seamlessly with footage from Saturday’s rally
The consonance is, presumably, accidental: González has said she cut her hair short because longer hair gave her headaches and made her neck hot, not because she was aiming to embody a cinematic interpretation of one of the heroines of history. But the parallel is striking, because González, with her fervor and her charisma, has already been claimed as this moment’s Maid of Orléans. “Getting serious Joan of Arc vibes from Emma Gonzalez,” Summer Brennan, the author, tweeted
a couple of weeks ago; Victoria Aveyard, the author of the “Red Queen” series of Y.A. novels, told the Cut
the same thing. Meanwhile, González and the other teens and preteens who have been spurred to action by the atrocity at Parkland are being heralded as future leaders by former leaders, and former would-be leaders, at the highest levels. Hillary Clinton tweeted that the march was “a reminder of what is possible when our future is in the right hands, and when we match inspiration with determination.” President Obama tweeted, “Michelle and I are so inspired by all the young people who made today’s marches happen. Keep at it. You’re leading us forward.”
The desire to cede authority—even if it is only rhetorical authority—to these young representatives whose passions are not compromised by practicalities, is understandable: “Naomi Wadler is my President,” tweeted the actress Tessa Thompson, giving voice to the feelings of many. In the weeks since the teens of Parkland have become known to the nation, it’s become conventional to point to the paradox that they are “the adults in the room,” just as it has become a popular trope to describe the President, who responded to the demonstrations with a defensive and uncharacteristic silence, as a big baby, or as a tyrannical toddler. But such characterizations of the President seem to me misguided, a slur on the developmental progress of a small individual through the necessary stages of childhood. Trump’s habitual petulance, small-mindedness, aggression, self-involvement, entitlement, mendaciousness, and vanity are not the behaviors of a child. Rather, they more closely resemble the characteristics of an elderly autocratic monarch of a feudal realm—King Lear without the poetry. The speakers on Saturday were, on the other hand, genuinely childlike, in the best sense of the term: uncompromising, passionate, forward-looking, fearless.
In the iconography of “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Joan has authority not because she is wise but because she is innocent. She has the privileged knowledge of the inspired, not the earned knowledge of the experienced. The young people of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have already experienced more than their elders would wish upon them; their innocence is lost. Yet, like all young people, they’ve retained faith in their generation’s unique ability to challenge and rectify the failures of their elders. “Maybe the adults have gotten used to saying, ‘It is what it is,’ but if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study you will fail. And in this case, if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something,” González said in her speech in Fort Lauderdale, in February. “We’re going to be the kids you read about in textbooks.” If they muster in sufficient numbers in November, 2018, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that, unlike most young people, they may be correct in this assessment. In the meantime, our urgent need for the illumination that they seem to offer—for the blunt, righteous conviction they uphold—is another indication, were it needed, that a new kind of medievalism is upon us. Our potential saviors gleam all the more brightly against the pervasive political and civic darkness of the moment.
A previous version of this article incorrectly described the weapon used in the Parkland shooting. [Editor’s note: No doubt, since it appears to have been done firing simunition from a sim gun. In vintage Hollywood style, they used mannequins and fake blood:
And they weren’t choosy about the actors they cast as “Emma’s parents”, which would have made a more worthy subject for discussion by this author in once-great magazine. But their gaffs are giving the game away and revealing the reality beneath the illusion.]