2022-06-15 10:48:01 By : Mr. Z L

The children who did not die are young adults now, and on a Wednesday morning in Washington, they gathered just before 9 inside a hotel conference room on Capitol Hill. The school shooting survivors had come from all over the country, each of them hoping that this time would be different.

“Are you Zoe?” Alexa Browning asked Zoe Touray, who was standing alone by the door, nervously fiddling with a cellphone wrapped in a Mickey Mouse case.

“Yes,” the 18-year-old answered, smiling and extending her hand. This was her first trip away from home without an adult. She’d just graduated from Michigan’s Oxford High, where four students were killed in November, including one of Touray’s closest friends. She’d gone to funeral after funeral, staring into open caskets at swollen faces that looked nothing like the kids she knew.

Browning opened a black folder and removed a packet of documents that on one side read, “MARCH FOR OUR LIVES,” and on the other, “IT ENDS WITH US.”

But none of the people being handed the packets knew whether that was true. Many of them had been here before.

In 2018, survivors of the rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., had organized a demonstration that drew tens of thousands of protesters to D.C. One teen after another took to the stage in front of the U.S. Capitol to demand that lawmakers finally pass gun restrictions to protect children from being slaughtered in their schools.

Among the most memorable to appear was Sam Fuentes, then a senior at Douglas who a month earlier had been shot in the leg and struck in the face with shrapnel. At the time, Fuentes thought she was lucky. With tears and blood streaming from her eyes, she had watched two of her friends die.

“Our mission is simple, and our ambitions unbeatable,” she had shouted to a roaring crowd, so overcome with nerves that she vomited on stage before finishing her speech. She’d recited a poem she’d written entitled “Enough.”

But, of course, none of it was enough. The lawmakers they had begged to listen ignored them, and the school shootings continued.

Now Fuentes, 22, had come back for a second march, but she’d long ago shed the naive hope of those early days. Meaningful progress, she knew this time, would not come easy, if ever.

Standing just outside the conference room, she watched Browning explain their schedule to Touray, who had been recruited to help lobby members of Congress and give a speech at an event that afternoon.

In the four years between the massacre that led Fuentes to stand on a D.C. stage for the first time and Touray’s intention to do the same, there had been at least 130 shootings at schools, another 57 people killed and more than 115,000 children admitted to the circle of survivors.

311,000 students have seen gun violence at school since Columbine

Browning, a March for Our Lives policy associate, skimmed through the pages of the packet, detailing all the items they wanted Touray and the others to pitch to lawmakers: universal background checks for gun purchasers, the Protecting Our Kids Act, an assault weapons ban.

Touray chewed on her bottom lip. She didn’t really know about any of those things.

“I won’t talk too much. I’m nervous,” said Touray, who was both intimidated and inspired by the other activists. They were all so smart and determined. She couldn’t imagine that the people in charge wouldn’t listen to them, especially after 19 fourth-graders in Uvalde, Tex., were shot to death in May.

Fuentes could imagine it, though. She’d given so many speeches to approving crowds, lobbied in so many offices bedecked with U.S. flags and promises of American exceptionalism.

“I try not to be jaded,” said Fuentes, who still had shrapnel embedded in her leg and behind her right eye. But she’d come to D.C. despite her growing cynicism, because she needed this community of survivors and the activism that helped her manage the trauma.

Fuentes has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. On some nights, she wakes up sweating, thrashing, screaming.

Touray had just started seeing a therapist, because fear had changed who she was, too. At the Detroit airport the day before, she began to panic over what she would do if someone drew a gun. She didn’t see any exits. She imagined being shot, dying alone.

But, like Fuentes, she’d found that doing something helped soothe her anxiety. So she ignored her dread and got on the plane.

Now, at the hotel, Fuentes headed off to change into her blue “March for Our Lives” T-shirt, her black folder of talking points still unopened, and Touray found a quiet space on the other side of the room where she could study all of them, hoping to come up with a question that would somehow make a difference.

Touray paced behind the stage, her forehead beading with sweat.

She had been invited to speak at an event hosted by Moms Demand Action in front of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, but she hadn’t understood until she and Fuentes arrived that hundreds of people and dozens of cameras would be watching her.

“I really need you to hype me up this rally is huge,” she texted her mother from behind a tall black sign that read, “DON’T LOOK AWAY.”

At the microphone was Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who had followed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had followed Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who had followed Moms Demand’s founder, Shannon Watts.

They were among the most important figures in the fight for reform, Touray had just learned. And now it was nearly her turn.

“I just got here and there’s so many people and now I’m speaking,” she wrote in another text, before her mom called.

“Just calm down. It’s okay,” Vickie Brent-Touray told her. “You were meant for this.”

Six months ago, she was grief-stricken and adrift, struggling to sleep, despite the melatonin and Benadryl.

Touray hadn’t thought much about school shootings before her own. As a child, she rarely paid attention to the news and was only allowed to watch PBS Kids on weekdays. She’d heard of Parkland, but knew almost nothing about it. Then, after Oxford, Touray was invited to talk about what she’d been through at a state event. Her mother encouraged her to speak up, so she did.

Touray, who plans to study anthropology at North Carolina A&T State University, considered herself a courier of a message that her schoolmates would never get the chance to deliver. And that was why, as the summer heat climbed above 80, she refused to take off the black sweatshirt that listed each of their names: Madisyn Baldwin, Hana St. Juliana, Tate Myre, Justin Shilling.

“I want them with me up there,” Touray said, after someone suggested that she change clothes.

Fuentes understood. At the end of her speech on March 24, 2018, she led the crowd in singing happy birthday to Nicholas Dworet, one of the two friends who’d died in her classroom. He would have turned 18 that day.

As Touray readied to go on stage, rehearsing the lines in her mind, Fuentes sat in the distance, beneath the shade of a white oak. The shrapnel buried in her muscles made it hard to stand for too long. She needed to take breaks.

Everything about these gatherings left her conflicted. Seeing young new activists like Touray was both refreshing and dispiriting, because they were joining a movement that hadn’t been able to end the crisis. She felt the same about seeing old friends from other gun safety organizations. She loved reconnecting, but what almost always brought them together was another massacre.

“I think, as a collective, we’re all very tired,” she said, between drags on a vape pen.

Fuentes was studying film at Hunter College in New York and worked at a jewelry wholesaler in Manhattan, but activism had long felt like her real job. She was represented by a speaking agency and, before the pandemic, traveled a couple times a month to speak at colleges and nonprofits. Just hours before she flew to Washington, she did an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which she referred to only as “GMA,” because she’d been on it so many times.

Now a young woman holding a sign that said “Pro-Life Is Gun Laws” walked up to her and stared.

“Are you Sam?” she asked.

“You’re from Parkland, right?”

“Thank you so much for all your work,” she said.

A few minutes later, a man with a clipboard and a headset ushered Touray toward the stage. She stood at the lectern and glanced down at the speech on her phone.

“November 29th was the last good day,” she said. “November 30th is the day that haunts me.”

She described heading to class after lunch and her friends hearing a sound that reminded them of balloons popping. It was gunfire.

“We sit in the back of the room,” she remembered. “We talk, we text, we call, we cry. We wait in terror fearing for our lives until the gunfire comes to an end.”

What Touray didn’t say: They’d escaped through a window and ran.

Her sister was killed at Oxford High. She refuses to let it move on.

“Nothing about this has been easy. I was drowning. Now I’m floating. I want to be able to swim … not in a sea of grief,” she continued, before asking Congress to pass the new laws that March for Our Lives staffers had helped her work into the speech. “Save the next Madisyn. The next Justin. The next Tate. The next Hana. Save them before it’s too late.”

She stepped away from the microphone, relieved, until Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who was up next, took Touray’s hands in his and led her back onto the stage.

“Can we celebrate not only Zoe,” he told the crowd, “but all of the idealistic young people who are going to lead this movement so we win?”

Touray and Fuentes had just made it through security at the Hart Senate Office Building, passing inside a metal detector monitored by three armed guards, when a roller on the X-ray machine came loose, slamming against the tile floor.

Touray flinched. Fuentes didn’t.

She used to, until she taught herself to brace for the triggers before they came. It was why Fuentes tried to keep her back to the wall whenever possible, scanning for threats.

Accepting that bad things were inevitable made them easier for her to manage, and Fuentes knew that made her sound like a pessimist sometimes, but she rejected that label.

“I’m just a realist,” Fuentes explained, and she was thinking about her sense of reality again during a meeting with Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat who had long championed new firearm restrictions.

On the TV outside Murphy’s office, broken families from Uvalde and a mass shooting in Buffalo were testifying in front of a congressional committee. The House was just hours away from voting for sweeping new gun legislation that many believed had no chance of passing in the Senate. But Murphy urged Fuentes, Touray and the other activists to keep doing what they’d been doing. Rallying, lobbying, demanding change and maintaining the momentum.

“I don’t think the same thing is necessarily going to work,” Fuentes said afterward, sitting on a stone bench outside Murphy’s office as Touray listened.

Demanding that conservative lawmakers acknowledge a moral obligation to protect children from guns hadn’t succeeded, Fuentes realized, so maybe that was the wrong approach. She had learned over the past four years that guns were central to many Americans’ identities, but she’d also learned that lots of gun safety laws could protect those people and their children from harm without stripping them of something they cherish.

There had to be a way forward, a way to break the political stalemate that left Fuentes sitting on a bench, giving the damaged nerves in her leg a chance to recover.

Congress’s refusal to act had shaped every aspect of her life.

She suffers from tinnitus in her ears and could eventually go blind in one eye. At least three of her schoolmates have died by suicide since the slaughter that left 17 dead inside Stoneman. She will never again talk to her friend Helena Ramsay about their favorite musicians or joke with Nicholas Dworet in a Shakespearean accent.

To Fuentes, being right didn’t matter much, not anymore. Only making a real difference would.

Fuentes’s message was on Touray’s mind that night in her hotel room, where she left the bathroom light on because in Michigan she shared a bedroom with her younger sister and was sleeping alone for the first time since she was 4. Touray didn’t like saying so little during the meetings with lawmakers, so she laid in bed trying to come up with a good question.

The next morning, her chance to ask it came at the base of the U.S. Capitol steps during a meeting with Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Democratic congresswoman from Massachusetts.

“Just in terms of, like, helping, what else do you think that we could do other than what we’re already doing?” Touray asked, holding a pink notebook that on some pages had her new gun violence notes — “this time HAS to be different the #1 cause of death in children is guns” — and on others had food ideas for her upcoming graduate party — “banana pudding!”

Standing in front of her, Pressley thought for a moment.

“You can focus on your healing and take care of yourself, honestly,” Pressley said. “And also, don’t lose hope.”

Touray smiled, gratified that her question had elicited a thoughtful response, but she was also distracted, because a belligerent man on the steps behind her was screaming about government brainwashing. She started trembling.

Pressley’s words left Touray feeling hopeful, even after a more somber meeting with Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, who told the group that he wasn’t sure whether the Senate would pass any new legislation, and if they did, it wouldn’t include many of the items they wanted most.

“This package will come together quickly, or it won’t come together at all,” said Blumenthal, who was helping lead negotiations with Republicans. “It has to happen in days, not weeks.”

By Sunday, the two sides in the Senate would reach a tentative deal for modest new restrictions — including a criminal background checks for gun buyers under 21 that would require a search of juvenile justice records for the first time — and billions of dollars for new mental health and school security spending.

Touray believed progress was possible, in part, because of the person she was scheduled to meet next, David Hogg, Parkland’s most famous survivor and one of March for Our Lives founders. They were scheduled for a joint interview on CNN the next morning, but she was nearly as nervous about speaking with him as she was about appearing on live TV for the first time.

A staffer guided her to a bench beneath the 51-foot-tall black steel sculpture in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building, where Hogg was finishing up a photo shoot for an upcoming magazine profile.

Afterward, Hogg sat next to her. He looked her in the eyes.

“I’m sorry that you’re part of the club that none of us want to be part of,” he said. “I thought we could change things and make it so that things like what happened at Oxford don’t happen anymore. Unfortunately, so far I’ve been wrong.”

“I’m hoping that you do it this time, though,” Touray said, sensing Hogg’s exhaustion after what had already been a frustrating week of discussions with lawmakers.

“We have the most valuable thing on our side that anybody can have in politics besides an enormous boatload of money, which is time,” he told her. “We’re going to outlive almost everybody in this building, hopefully.”

Touray laughed, but Hogg was serious.

“At least you’re doing something about it,” she said.

“I’m not. We are,” he said. “I get a lot of the credit, but I don’t deserve it. It’s people like you.”

It was nice of him to say, Touray thought, but she didn’t really agree. He was the face of the movement she’d just joined. He had 1.2 million Twitter followers. She had 18.

But Hogg wanted her to understand that he meant it. He was just one survivor from one shooting.

“I can’t speak for you or what happened at Oxford,” he told her, his tone serious. “You need to.”

“How’d the interviews go?” Fuentes asked Touray, the two of them standing together in a gated VIP section next to the March for Our Lives stage, where Hogg was midway through his speech.

“I know,” Fuentes replied, and both of them laughed.

It was just past 1 p.m. Saturday and, combined, they had already talked to NBC, CBS, NPR and MSNBC, along with a batch of other news outlets.

Thousands of people were packed onto the hill behind them leading up to the Washington Monument, and a layer of gray clouds lingered overhead, but the rain had stopped. This year’s rally wasn’t meant to be like the one in 2018. There were no Hollywood celebrities leading chants, no pop stars belting anthems. This time was about “rage,” as one March for Our Lives staffer put it, but that’s not what Fuentes and Touray were feeling.

Fuentes had spent the day exchanging hugs and jokes and silly memories with friends from Parkland she hadn’t seen in months. Touray had reconnected with a fellow Oxford survivor and hung out with new friends who had lived through the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary, including Jordan Gomes, a teen who’d joined her in the meeting with Blumenthal. Touray had talked about lipstick options with Parkland survivor X González and danced to nearly every beat booming through the towering overhead speakers.

“This is my song,” she’d said to at least three different songs.

Touray had arrived in D.C. unsure of whether she was meant to be an activist, but by Saturday, she felt convinced of it.

“This time is different,” Touray had heard people she admired say over and over last week, and she believed them.

Now Touray and Fuentes decided to get a photo together in front of a blue background adorned in March for Our Lives logos.

Suddenly, as they were walking over to it, hundreds of people rushed by the metal fence in front of them, screaming as they sprinted toward Constitution Avenue, away from the rally.

“Why is everyone running?” Fuentes asked, voice quavering, her eyes wide and watery. “Why is everyone running?”

Touray leaned against a chain-link fence and closed her eyes, placing a hand on her forehead.

Fuentes staggered toward her. She was fighting not to pass out.

On stage, a speaker announced that people needed to stop running. Everything was fine. Nobody was in danger.

“I’m freaking out,” Touray said, leaning on her knees.

They’d hear later that a man in the crowd had shouted something that sounded like “gun” during a moment of silence for Uvalde, sparking a stampede. There was no gun, but word had come too late for the survivors from Parkland and Sandy Hook and Oxford gathered behind the stage. Within seconds, terror had swept from one to the next, and now each of them had returned to the worst day of their lives.

“I think I’m going to throw up,” Touray said, rushing into a white tent nearby.

She stood in the corner, facing the wall, and called her mom.

“I need help,” Touray told her, tears trickling down the side of her nose. She was too shaken to say anything more.

“Calm down,” her mother said, again and again.

Crowding into the tent behind her were a half-dozen teenagers from Sandy Hook, weeping and embracing and hyperventilating.

“Were you watching the live stream?” one of them was saying on the phone. “Someone started yelling, and then people started ducking, and so we started running, because we thought somebody was trying to kill us.”

Touray rejoined Fuentes, who put her hand on Touray’s shoulder.

“You can cry,” Fuentes told her.

Touray buried her head in her hands, until at last she looked up. Fuentes stared into the teen’s vacant eyes, her heart aching for Touray’s anguish and her own and for all the others who had been scarred by school shootings and would never entirely escape what they’d endured.

“Take deeper breaths,” Fuentes told her.

Now the rally was nearing its end, and González was about to take the stage. A group of survivors, including Fuentes and Touray, had been asked to stand behind her in a show of solidarity.

“God, why am I still crying?” Touray asked, embarrassed, as she followed the group toward a waiting area near the stairs. “I feel like I cannot breathe right now.”

Gomes, the Sandy Hook survivor, told Touray she would stand next to her. They could hold hands.

She asked Touray to breathe with her. Inhale for four seconds, she instructed, hold for seven, exhale for eight.

“You’re okay,” Gomes said. “Are you sure you want to go up there?”

“Enough is enough,” the crowd was chanting. “Enough is enough.”

Then it was time for them to join the others on stage. Fuentes walked up first, and Gomes went behind her. Then Touray ascended with the rest of the activists, stopping and steadying herself in the middle of the stage.

She was one of them now.

Story editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Mark Miller and Mark Gail. Design by Irfan Uraizee.