Some protests don’t work. On October 21, 1967, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam announced that antiwar protesters would march past the Lincoln Memorial, across the Memorial Bridge all the way to the front steps of the Pentagon, and then they would use their massive psychic energy to levitate it – and they didn’t levitate it. The Pentagon is very heavy. It just sat there.
Of course it did. That was the whole point. The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam was making a “statement” of sorts, a statement about the oppressive weight of the military-industrial complex. Their protest demonstrated that. They got what they wanted. All the wire services ran that iconic photograph of that protester placing a carnation into the barrel of a rifle held by a soldier of the 503rd Military Police Battalion. That’s what they wanted. That protester was George Edgerly Harris III, an eighteen-year-old actor from New York who moved to San Francisco in 1967 and performed under the stage name of Hibiscus and co-founded The Cockettes, a “flamboyant, psychedelic gay-themed drag troupe” and who died in the early eighties during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic – or that was Joel “Super-Joel” Tornabene, a leader of the Youth International Party who lived in Berkeley, who died in Mexico in 1993 – but it didn’t matter. No one knew who that was. That could be anyone. That could be everyone.
That was a victory. The Pentagon just sat there. The photograph went everywhere. So the protest did work. But the war raged on for years after that. Symbolic victories are kind of crappy. At least the photographer, Bernie Boston, was nominated for the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for that one shot. Some good came of that. And then the sixties ran out. The music died. The antiwar left had learned its lesson. Symbolic victories really are kind of crappy – and Richard Nixon was the new president.
Everyone learned that lesson. That was then. This is now – and the National Rifle Association may be as heavy as the Pentagon, but there will be no more symbolic victories:
President Trump leaned forward and listened intently for nearly an hour Wednesday afternoon as students, parents and teachers begged him to do something, anything, to prevent a mass shooting from happening at another school.
The group offered a wide variety of suggestions – bolster school security, drill students on what to do during a shooting and raise the age at which someone can buy an assault rifle – but in the end, the president remained focused on the solution he often proposes after a mass shooting: increasing the number of people with guns so they can quickly stop shooters with lethal force.
The answer to gun violence is more guns. The National Rifle Association is as heavy as the Pentagon. That’s what they always say, so that is what the president said:
“If the coach had a firearm in his locker, when he ran at this guy – that coach was very brave, saved a lot of lives, I suspect – but if he had a firearm, he wouldn’t have had to run,” Trump said, referring to Aaron Feis, an assistant football coach and security guard who was one of 17 people killed by a gunman last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida. “He would have shot, and that would have been the end of it.”
Trump has quite an imagination. The coach has a firearm in his locker. The deranged young man storms into the classroom blasting away with what amounts to a machine gun, mowing down student after student. The coach then leaps to his locker, whips out his handgun, and then takes out the shooter with a single shot – and it’s all over – problem solved. The coach would never make to his locker. If he had his gun strapped to his side at all times, the shooter would take him out first. Donald Trump, and the NRA folks, hadn’t thought this through.
But at least Trump is trying:
The 70-minute listening session with students, parents and teachers at the White House was a remarkable event with participants’ raw emotions often on display – at one point, a student openly sobbed after he spoke, his head down as he wiped away tears and those around him rubbed his back.
By hosting the event, Trump signaled he wants to take ownership of addressing the vexing problem of gun violence at American schools. As one parent after another, one student after another, publicly pleaded with Trump to find a solution, the pressure mounted on the president to show that he can move Washington to act on an issue it has failed to confront despite the frequency of mass shootings in recent years.
“We’re going to do something about this horrible situation that’s going on,” Trump said. “And we’re going to all figure it out together.”
It will be a difficult promise to fulfill with Trump’s Republican Party long opposed to making it more difficult to buy a gun and Democrats and gun-control advocates calling anything short of limiting access to firearms a failure. It will require him to use the bipartisan dealmaking skills he promised to bring to his presidency but has yet to show.
The event at the White House, held a week after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz allegedly opened fire at his former high school, was part of the administration’s effort to show it is determined to listen and then act.
It was Trump who was seeking a symbolic victory, even if it personally pained him:
Vice President Pence urged participants to be open, candid and vulnerable – an unusual request on behalf of a president who has tried to minimize his exposure to people who don’t agree with him.
Trump sat quietly for most of the event, often nodding his head as if in agreement. He held notes that told him to ask the participants about their experiences and what the White House could do, along with a reminder to say, “I hear you.”
An enterprising AP photographer got a clear shot of Trump’s “Empathy for Dummies” cheat sheet. That photograph will go everywhere, and there was this:
Missing from the listening session were the teenage survivors of last week’s mass shooting who have become outspoken leaders of a movement focused on banning assault rifles such as the one allegedly used by the gunman. Those students were in Florida on Wednesday to lobby state lawmakers in Tallahassee and participate in a town hall event hosted by CNN in South Florida.
David Hogg, a survivor of the shooting who has passionately argued for stricter gun control measures, declined an invitation extended by the White House, according to his mother.
Everyone really does know that symbolic victories are kind of crappy, but it was good to stick it to Trump:
Carson Abt, a Parkland student, said all public schools need to regularly do drills to prepare for a potential mass shooting. Cary Gruber, who texted with his son during the Parkland shooting, said he doesn’t understand why teenagers who are too young to buy a beer can purchase an assault rifle.
“In Israel, you have to be 27 years old to have a gun,” said Gruber, whose son survived the shooting. “You’re only allowed one. They tax the guns. You have to go through significant training. We got to do something about this. We cannot have our children die. This is just heartbreaking. Please.”
Samuel Zeif, the student who sobbed after speaking, said he doesn’t understand why teenagers like him can “go in a store and buy a weapon of war, an AR.”
Trump looked a bit depressed, as he should have been:
On Wednesday, an NRA spokeswoman said the group would oppose putting age restrictions on firearms, saying that it would punish “law-abiding citizens for the evil acts of criminals.”
Trump was trapped:
Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky read aloud messages for the president from the parents of two high school students killed last week. One of the fathers, an airline pilot, said he supports the Second Amendment but not ownership of assault rifles. Another parent urged the president to “publicly acknowledge the role of guns” in these shootings.
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter was killed last week, said that it made him angry to visit the Education Department on Wednesday and see armed security guards everywhere, even in the elevator. He said this is not a gun issue and is instead a matter of better securing and guarding schools.
“Fix it,” said Pollack, who was wearing a red “Trump 2020” t-shirt as he searched for his daughter last week. “It should have been one school shooting, and we should have fixed it. And I’m pissed, because my daughter, I’m not going to see again. She’s not here. She’s not here. She’s at – in North Lauderdale, at whatever it is – King David Cemetery. That’s where I go to see my kid now.”
And he’s a Trump supporter. Damn. But Trump had to say something:
He reflected on how many mental hospitals and institutions have been shut down over the years, adding that the alleged shooter in Parkland was “a sick guy, and he should have been nabbed a number of times.” He mentioned how first responders often cannot get to schools quickly enough when a shooting begins, and he endorsed the idea of arming teachers and other school employees. He said that gun-free zones like those at schools attract maniacs who want to harm others – a reversal from the campaign when he said that he didn’t “want guns brought into the school classroom.”
He was towing the NRA line. Gun-free schools are magnets for maniacs. They become free-fire zones. That wasn’t his position before, but it is now, and he was called out on that:
A parent who lost a child at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Mark Barden, said his wife is a teacher and does not want her job to include using “lethal force to take a life.”
“Nobody wants to see a shootout in a school,” he said, as some in the room applauded.
That applause was deadly, and Little Marco fared no better:
There appeared to be little room for nuance at a town hall televised by CNN Wednesday evening that brought survivors, lawmakers and a gun lobbyist together for the first time since the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Little room for discussing whether a ban on ‘bump stock’ devices – which allow semiautomatic guns to fire faster – could have prevented a 19-year-old from entering the school last week and killing 17 people and wounding dozens more with an AR-15 rifle. Little room for questioning whether raising the minimum age to purchase that gun could have stopped him.
When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) brought up a concept that would allow police to temporarily seize a gun-owner’s weapons, Stoneman Douglas student Ryan Deitsch told him, “That feels like the first step of a 5k run.”
No one wanted a symbolic victory like that:
Judging by their applause and boos, what the heartbroken parents and classmates of the victims wanted was a commitment to more-immediate action. They wanted a clear directive that guarantees children won’t ever fear being murdered in their school’s halls.
Rubio was trapped too:
Many asked Rubio – who has recently become the face of lawmakers’ inaction on stricter gun regulations – questions they felt should have clear-cut answers seven days after one of the nation’s worst school shootings.
“Look at me and tell me guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids in the school this week,” Fred Guttenberg, who lost his 14-year-old daughter Jaime in the shooting, asked Rubio. She had been running down the hallway when she was shot in the back, Guttenberg said.
“Were guns the factor in the hunting of our kids?” Guttenberg asked.
“Of course they were,” Rubio responded. But he said a “better answer” than banning assault weapons is to “make sure that dangerous criminals, people that are deranged cannot buy any gun of any kind.”
His better answer was this:
Rubio said he would support a law that makes it illegal for 18-year-olds to purchase rifles, as well as the banning of bump stocks and expanded background checks. He said he pushed for a $50-million-a-year threat-assessment fund so states could identify people who could potentially commit mass shootings, and stop them.
Rubio also said he’s reconsidered his position on magazine-clip size limits, saying that they might not help prevent a shooting but could lower the number of lives lost in one.
But when asked by Stoneman Douglas student Cameron Kasky if he would stop accepting donations from the National Rifle Association, Rubio answered indirectly. The NRA has spent more than $3 million on Rubio’s behalf through its political arm, and has given Rubio an A-plus rating from the organization…
“I will always accept the help of anyone who agrees with my agenda,” Rubio said.
Presumably he’d take money from the KKK and Nazis. He didn’t say that but he was moving into dangerous territory, along with suddenly reversing his previous NRA-approved positions on this and that, and then the NRA got trapped:
Emma González, a Stoneman Douglas student activist who is among many who’ve captured the nation’s attention since the shooting, was in an AP Government class about an hour before the shooting. At Wednesday’s town hall, she confronted NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch.
“I want you to know that we will support your children in a way that you will not,” she told Loesch, before asking her if the NRA believes it should be more difficult for people to obtain semiautomatic weapons.
Before responding, Loesch commended González for being so outspoken about gun control.
“I was a very politically active teenager and I’m on this stage as a result of that,” she said. “Think of how far you all could go as a result of voicing your beliefs.”
Someone in the crowd then shouted, “If they live to do it.”
This was not going well:
Loesch said that the NRA does not support people “who are crazy, who are a danger to themselves, who are a danger to others, getting their hands on a firearm.” She criticized “flawed” background check systems, though the NRA on its website states that it opposes expanding those systems.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel interrupted her: “You just told this group of people you’re standing up for them. You’re not standing up for them until you say, ‘I want less weapons.'”
The sheriff should have said “fewer” weapons of course, but grammar wasn’t the issue here. Dead kids were the issue. And these folks didn’t want to use their massive psychic energy to levitate the National Rifle Association. That’s a sixties thing. They wanted it gone.
The nonsense came from the other side:
David Hogg, 17, went from Florida high school student to mass shooting survivor to telegenic advocate for gun-control laws in a few days. And just as quickly, online conspiracy theorists began spinning viral lies attacking the teenager’s credibility.
By Wednesday – a week after a gunman wielding a semiautomatic rifle killed 17 people at Hogg’s Parkland, Fla., school – online media sites including YouTube swelled with false allegations that Hogg was secretly a “crisis actor” playing the part of a grieving student in local and national television news reports.
Hogg was not the only one targeted by an online campaign that flared up on anonymous forums such as 4Chan and Reddit before it reached conservative websites, Twitter, Facebook and Google’s video platform. Collectively the posts questioned the honesty and credibility of the grieving students as they spoke out against gun violence and in some cases publicly challenged President Trump, the National Rifle Association and lawmakers opposed to gun control.
And there was this:
The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. was among the many people who “liked” a tweet criticizing Hogg. On YouTube, a video featuring one conspiracy theory reached the top of the service’s “Trending” clips list and was viewed more than 200,000 times before the company admitted that its filtering of news had not functioned as intended and it blocked the video. A search for Hogg’s name on YouTube on Wednesday turned up eight conspiracy videos and only two legitimate news reports in a top-10 listing before YouTube intervened.
That’s one way to fight back and Paul Waldman understands that:
There are two critical reasons the right is having this reaction, one more obvious than the other. The plainer reason is that as people who were personally touched by gun violence and as young people – old enough to be informed and articulate but still children – the students make extremely sympathetic advocates, garnering attention and a respectful hearing for their views. The less obvious reason is that because of that status, the students take away the most critical tool conservatives use to win political arguments: the personal vilification of those who disagree with them.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying liberals don’t often vilify their opponents, too. But that technique lies at the absolute core of the right’s rhetoric, and you can tell by how conservatives react when it gets taken away from them…
On the more extreme side, you have the social media trolls, the conspiracy theorists, the more repugnant media figures, who are offering insane claims that the students are paid agents of dark forces, and can therefore be ignored. On the more allegedly mainstream side, you have radio and television hosts who are saying that the students are naive and foolish, and should not by virtue of their victimhood be granted any special status – and can therefore be ignored.
Waldman sees that happening here:
Former congressman and CNN commentator Jack Kingston tweeted that students planning a nationwide rally were being used by “left wing gun control activists” in the “wake of a horrible tragedy,” and bizarrely linked this to George Soros and Antifa. When asked about it on the air, he said, “Do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?” again mentioning Soros, the supposed puppet-master of a thousand right-wing conspiracy theories.
NRA board member and frequent Fox News guest Ted Nugent used Facebook to promote the theory that the students are actors who are being coached and fed lines by someone or other.
Donald Trump Jr. liked two tweets from far-right websites attacking one of the outspoken students.
“Should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases?” asked former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on his website. “The answer is no, the media should not be doing that.”
“Sick of the Parkland Puppets yet?” asked National Review film critic Armond White. “Why their ubiquitous presence on TV news shows? Who’s their publicist?”
“There’s been some unfortunate media handling of these traumatized children,” said Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway. “They’ve used them as ways to enact what they always like to do, which is a gun control agenda.”
Fox News host Tucker Carlson said that gun-control advocates and the media “are using these kids in a kind of moral blackmail, where you are not allowed to disagree or you are attacking the child.”
Waldman says that all comes down to this:
What worries the right is not that they won’t be allowed to disagree with the Parkland students, but that they’ll be restricted to disagreeing with them on substance, and not be able to give the kind of full-throated personal attack they’re used to.
The idea of the paid actor criticism, like the charge that the students must be using PR agents to book their interviews, is that if you can find some reason that their words aren’t a pure expression of their feelings without any strategic intent behind it, then their testimony is no longer valid and need not be addressed substantively – so either they’re just emotional and naive and therefore need not be listened to, or they’re too savvy and strategic and therefore need not be listened to.
But that’s a trap too:
No one is going to criticize Tucker Carlson or anyone else for disagreeing with the students, for saying “Here’s why the ban on AR-15s they’re proposing is a bad idea.” It’s only personal attacks on the students, which we so often accept as just how politics gets done, that come off sounding so despicable – which is exactly why the right wishes that the Parkland students would just go away.
They’re not going away, and they’ve learned the lesson of the sixties. No one is going to stick a flower in the barrel of some NRA member’s gun, even if that would make another great photo. This war would only rage on. Symbolic victories are crappy. They want a real victory. They may get one.