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Parkland survivor Delaney Tarr on why they march: "Because we have to. We're afraid for our lives."

Delaney Tarr, Parkland shooting survivor, tells Salon why gun activism is now a necessary part of her life


Rachel Leah
February 14, 2019 3:00PM (UTC)

When Parkland shooting survivor Delaney Tarr stopped by “Salon Talks” last fall to talk about "Glimmer of Hope: How Tragedy Sparked a Movement," an essay collection she and her peers wrote, she didn't want to dwell on details of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one year ago that changed her life. She didn't come to talk about grief — Tarr and her peers have done hundreds of interviews that dwell on that. She came to talk about action and, she hopes, to inspire it.

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As a survivor of one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, Tarr is uniquely equipped to shake up Washington's gun control debate. In our conversation, she called out out the NRA for its stranglehold on electoral politics -- which may finally be giving way, Kanye West's deeply misinformed Oval Office rant, and America's tendency to dismiss teen outrage as an angsty phase. 

Tarr and her peers were thrust into activism, and seem to be more than up for the task. She emphasizes that the March for Our Lives, the MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter were all born out of necessity. "It's not us wanting to do something. It's us having to do something," she told me.

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Read our conversation below, or watch it here. 

Tell me about the new book you’re a part of “Glimmer of Hope.” How did it come together?

I think something that's really interesting about this book is that it's kind of the behind the scenes of the March For Our Lives because people see what what's in the news, people see what happened on the stage that day at the march, but they don't know everything that went into creating it and to making it happen.

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And it's a perspective that really just humanizes us and makes people remember that we're a group of teenagers that are doing this crazy huge thing. But we are a group of teenagers first and foremost.

You’re talking about the March For Our Lives, which happened in March 2018. How many people were there, a million?

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The numbers range anywhere from 800,000 to a million in DC, but we had over 800 sibling marches all across the world, so that's millions and millions of people all coming out for one cause.

As organizers, what were you trying to communicate, besides humanizing yourselves? What else is the purpose behind releasing this book of essays?

With this book, we wanted to ignite some sort of passion for in young people in particular because when they see this, when they see what we had to go through, the grief that we experienced so many of our different experiences and perspectives, I think that every single person can connect to this in a different way, and it will hopefully inspire them to do something with their activism, with their passion.

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I think it also, it's a good clarifier. It shows what we stand for, rather than what other people say we stand for. It's coming from our own mouths saying this is what we're about, not what other people are telling you now.

What did your life look like before the shooting and what does it look like now?

Before the shooting, I was in avid student journalist. I was in my student news, like my broadcast news, but I was also part of the student newspaper. My high school experience was largely covering things that were happening in school. It could be anything from stories about the vape epidemic at schools to just a football game. I spent four years with a camera in my hand sometimes in front, sometimes behind and that was my experience and it's kind of what got me to where I am today.

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After the shooting happened, it just propelled me to go out there and do interviews because it's what I was comfortable doing. It's what I knew. It was my way of coping and it soon became obviously so much more. But now, I mean it's strange being on the other side of the camera so much, but it's what needs to be done and it's what I feel good doing.

How did Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and your experiences there change after the shooting?

I mean Douglas is a totally different place and I think that oftentimes people think that we only view Douglas in a negative light because of what happened there, but that's not true. It was our home. It still is a home for so many of us and that's not something that we're going to forget just because some horrible atrocity happened there.

It's so much more than just that one day and that's important to remember, even if it has shifted the way that we attended school. I mean we were terrified so much of the time afterwards.

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I graduated last year, so I'm not even in school this year and I know that they've had to deal with fire alarms, with pranks, with dealing with the administration and school system, and yeah, there's good and bad, but ultimately, it's still where we came from and that's important.

In your essay in this book, you talk about how your sense of community really shifted in the aftermath and how you and your classmates really bonded and became a family.

Absolutely, I mean I've never seen a community so unified in the way that it was after the shooting because it's not just that something horrible happened, it's that it's a shared experience that we've all had and oftentimes we are the most comfortable around one another, specifically the people in the march because we get it.

We get not only going through this tragedy, but the huge weight of activism, the pressure of it, and we can really understand and just be ourselves and not have to work on putting forward any best version of you. Not to be an activist, not to be somebody who's grieving, just to be you.

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And I think it's when we are the most genuine and the most vulnerable and it's really important for us that we have that connection and I think what's really what kept us going all this time.

You've written about how you and your mom actually had conversations about what you would do in a school shooting before February 14, 2018.

Oh, yeah.

What were those conversations like?

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I remember not long before the shooting, our school kind of changed the way that it was going to be doing code reds, which is what you do in situations like that. And they kind of spent an entire day going over what in each class we would do in that situation, where we would hide in the classroom, all of that.

Was in response to like the school shootings happening all over the country?

I can only assume so. It just one day was presented to us and we just kind of accepted it because we were like, yeah, school shootings are a thing that could happen. We should prepare for it, which is a sad mentality to have, but that was our reality.

And I remember talking to my mom about the fact that we live in Florida and the schools are largely outdoors. I eat lunch outside in a courtyard every day and it was me trying to plan if I was walking around between classes, if I was going to the bathroom, if I was eating lunch, where would I hide?

I had contingency plans for so many different events and so many different scenarios, and ultimately those contingency plans were not what ended up happening. But the fact that it was a thing that I had to discuss with my mom of should I keep my car keys on me at all times so that I can run to the parking lot and hide in my car? Should I try and get in the garbage can and cover myself there so nobody can see me? That was a conversation that I had because I genuinely viewed it as something that not only could happen but probably would. And that was, that was life. And it did happen.

It's heartbreaking to think about the growing list of horrors that young people have to think about, whether it's girls and women thinking about sexual abuse, or people of color and the police, or young people fearing of school shootings and violence in their homes and communities. How is being a teenager different today?

I mean so often it just feels like we're in this battle ground. That it's not this nurturing way of growing up where we get to find ourselves and just live and be teenagers, but we have to be ready at any moment to deal with sexual assault, to deal with gun violence, to deal with police brutality. And that's not the way that it should live, that we should live.

We should be carefree, we should still be going through our angsty teen phase, as so many [people] that are older than us like to think we are. But instead we're creating social movements because we have to, because we're doing it because we're afraid for our lives.

The MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter and the March For Our Lives are all born out of necessity. It's not us wanting to do something, it's us having to do something, and that's a distinction that I don't think a lot of older generations realize because we just haven't had the ability to relax and enjoy our teen years or to be those lazy millennials that they so often portray us as.

In thinking about the history of movements, it's often young people at the center, but not necessarily this young, you know, bleeding and stuff like that.

That's true.

But tell me about March For Our Lives movement. What are you fighting for? What's it about?

The March For Our Lives movement is a movement dedicated to gun violence prevention and voter mobilization and youth engagement because that is the crux of our country. I mean, gun violence is something that permeates pretty much every aspect of our lives even if we don't realize it. Police brutality is a form of gun violence. Domestic abuse is a form of gun violence. You have education that is disrupted by gun violence. People can't go to churches, concerts, pretty much anywhere without being shot. And when people realize how much it affects our everyday lives, I think that they realize the severity of this and how much something needs to change.

And of course, as we always say, the best way to create that change is through voting because we have our policy points, but if the leaders in charge aren't going to pass those policy points, they're not going to take the action that needs to be done, then we have to vote them out. And who better to do with the young people?

We are a huge group of the voting population, but only one in five people in our age demographic votes. If we were to change that, then we can sway pretty much every election in our favor. We could control who has the power in this country.

What have been some of the misconceptions of the movement?

We have so many, so much hate for what people perceive us as. They perceive us as Nazis, gun grabbers, anti-Second Amendment people, so many awful things. And that's just not us. We believe in the Second Amendment, we support it, but in the Second Amendment it supports reasonable limitations and we need reasonable regulation on the people who are getting these firearms, because there are people who should not have access to firearms.

The person who shot up my school should not have had access to a firearm, that much is clear. There needs to be reasonable regulations on access to guns and gun safety. It's not about taking away the Second Amendment. It never has been.

Speaking about voting, you know, I've seen so much energy from young people all over, including young celebrities. You guys had that a viral my first-time voting video, which was very funny. Why, to you, is voting so important?

Young people just historically haven't voted for so many reasons, for having their voices silenced, for feeling like it doesn't do anything, but still largely because nobody's speaking to them. When people are running for office, they don't really target that young demographic because they don't think that they're going to turn out. But that young demographic is so important because we're the future of this country.

We're voting not just for today, but for tomorrow and everyday after that. The policies that we enact now, the people that we put in in power now, are the people that are going to make decisions that will affect our lives when we're adults, when we're parents, when we're grandparents.

These are all things that we haven't necessarily been able to consider because we've been basically convinced that our votes don't matter and that our voices don't matter. But young people have such a powerful voice. Like you said, we have affected so many social movements. We've been the people at the helm of these movements, so why should our opinions matter? Every vote counts the same. Every law is affecting so many different people, not just those that are already grown up. We're getting effected too, clearly, so why shouldn't we have a say in it?

What are some of the tactics or strategies that you're using to engage people? Because one thing that I know is not working is this idea of shaming people, saying things like “I see these long lines at whatever store, but not at the voting polls.” That type of rhetoric is not working.

It's not. We as teenagers kind of just organically know how to communicate to other teenagers, I think. And it's happened before where like older people, people who run campaigns and all of that are like, you guys are so good at messaging, how do you do it? And we're like, just like we just know. And they're like, oh my god, how did you guys think to be like intersectional? And we're like, obviously? Why would we not can include different communities? Why would we not include inner city communities? They experience gun violence, too. It makes sense.

And have been working fighting against gun violence for a long time.

Exactly. They've been working for it for so long and they haven't been getting the platform and the voice that we have. So yes, we're going to share our platform. That just makes sense.

So much of it is what we know would speak to us, like the first time PSA video. That was very much, young people are going to be a lot more engaged watching Mark Ruffalo, Chadwick Bozeman, Scarlett Johansen make dirty jokes about voting then they are just reading something or having an older person speaks to them. It's communicating with people in ways that not only will understand but that they'll want to understand.

Much of the time voting is made to be this complicated thing. The language around it is just not engaging. It's not fun. Voting isn't seen as cool. We really are trying to make voting cool and that's really social media, it's grassroots mobilization, it's doing fun things.

Voting memes are like this huge new thing. I keep finding them, not even that we've created, but that other people have created that are just hilarious and like it's created by young people because we know what we're engaged with.

What would you say to young people who see things like voter suppression, voters being purged from the voter rolls, felons who are disenfranchised, voter ID laws and feel discouraged by the process?

It’s ridiculous how much voter suppression we have in this country. I don't think that it's talked about enough by any means. I didn't even know enough about it until I started getting into activism. And then people are like, yeah, every vote counts the same and all of that. But then I'm like, well, gerrymandering silences a lot of votes.

In states like Georgia they're just purging people from the voter rolls. Felons aren't allowed to vote most of the time and they're usually wrongly convicted or part of mass incarceration and it is incredibly like the statistics point towards it's being people of color that are mass incarcerated. Like this is clear voter suppression. This is not equality.

But the best thing that we can do is to fight for it. If you're not happy with something, fight for it. If you can vote, vote. If you can't vote, grassroots mobilize. Do that type of thing.

In hearing you talk about mass incarceration and gun violence in inner cities, I understand that part of the March For Our Lives movement has been connecting with different communities across the country. Did it open your eyes up to issues you hadn't really thought about or hadn't been invested in that now you see as part of this?

So much. I mean, I've always been a supporter of Black Lives Matter. I've always recognized police brutality as a huge issue in our country, but if there's a difference between seeing it on a screen and seeing it face to face and talking to people who have to deal with it every day.

When we went to Chicago, I think it really, it opened my eyes because we were talking to students there and they were talking about the fact that even when they do vote for candidates, they're still not seeing money being put into schools. They're seeing money being put into police training schools and that's not what they need. There is no funding for education and it creates cyclical system of violence.

Oftentimes they join gangs just because it's safer to be in a gang than it is to not be in one because you're trying to protect your own life, you're trying to protect the lives of those around you, and it's this horrible reality that is so silenced because it's not given a platform, because people don't want to talk about the ugly side of America, the side that has been created through systemic oppression over years and years since its creation.

It's such a huge issue and we realized that we were in a place where if we started sharing our platform and we started sharing their voices, that maybe we could create some more positive change.

And do they feel included in this movement?

I believe so, absolutely. I mean, yes, this movement started in Parkland, but it is by no means just Parkland. I mean some of our leadership positions are from people in Wisconsin, people from here in New York, from Harlem.

It's very much something where we've found these incredible activists from all over the country and we're giving them these leadership positions. We're giving them these roles in the March For Our Lives because we know what incredible change they've already made and what incredible change they can continue to make with our platform and with our resources.

As we’re sitting here talking about misconceptions, it reminded me of Kanye West’s visit to the White House, I don't know if you're aware.

Oh, I'm very, very acutely aware of that.

He said a lot of things.

Yes, he did.

One thing that he said is that illegal guns are the problem, not legal guns. And naturally the NRA shared this clip and endorsed it and was like, this is the point, thank you, Kanye for standing up for us. And many people, Parkland parents, and students spoke out against this. Why is that point incorrect or kind of problematic?

It is one of the most problematic things I think I've ever heard come out of his mouth.

That's a bold statement.

Also anyone's mouth. Like he said some other things that are just ridiculous, but when he said that, and when the NRA so quickly jumped on it, I thought it was almost comical even, that type of laugh where you're just angry, but you have to laugh because it is so absurd.

Because there have been so many shootings where guns have been purchased legally because we do not enforce background checks, because we do not have the no fly, no buy laws, because we are letting domestic abusers get access to weapons. It is not an issue of just illegal guns. It is an issue of the way that we allow people to get guns. There are so many people that if we vetted them properly, we would realize should not have access to a firearm, should not have access to a weapon that can cause such destruction.

You look at Las Vegas and that was a legal purchase. My friend Matt Deitsch, he's a one of the chief strategists for the March For Our Lives, he did a tweet where he listed all of the mass shootings in which the weapon had been purchased legally. It is not an issue of that, it is an issue of the laws that we have in place right now that are allowing these people to purchase these guns legally.

To make a statement like that is so clearly uneducated, so clearly not founded on facts. It's founded on just over generalizations. Of course organizations like the NRA are going to jump on that because that is their saving grace.

You speak about the NRA a lot in your speeches and kind of call them out. What have you learned about the NRA and politics?

I've learned how much money and corruption there is in politics, how often these people are not representing their constituents but they're representing their pockets. And it's upsetting and we really should not have this in politics, but specifically with the NRA, a group that has a choke hold on so many legislators.

The money that they're funneling into these people's pockets, into their wallets is what's controlling these decisions. It's what's allowed them to stay in power for so long. And we have to clarify that this is not an attack on the members of the NRA because so often those are law abiding gun owners.

But this is attacking the root of the evil. This is attacking the organization that has led to so much corruption in our country, that has led to these ridiculous gun laws in so many states. And that's what we need to take down. That's what we need to expose because when we expose such injustice as that, that's when we can start having the conversation and change the dialogue.

Wow. Given everything you've been through, given everything going on in the country, there's been a lot of really troubling things. How do you stay hopeful?

Every time that I meet a young person who's been mobilized by this movement, that's when my hope comes back. When I meet someone who organized a march in their community or who ran a voter registration drive or who simply just registered to vote, that's what gives me hope because that's the future of our country. That's the present of our country. It's the young people. It's always been the young people, no matter how many celebrities we may get to communicate with, no matter how many politicians we meet, they're what keeps us going.

They are the lifeblood of this march. They always have been. They always will be there. They are our country. That's the America I know and that's the America I'm hopeful for.


Rachel Leah

Rachel Leah is a culture writer for Salon. You can follow her on Twitter: @rachelkleah.

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