In 49 days, Emma González has gone from high-school student, to victim, to face of the anti-gun movement in America. Stylist profiles the young woman teaching the world about hope.
Emma González is 18 years old: the final border of childhood. In a piece that she wrote for Harper’s Bazaar in February, less than two weeks after 17 other people at her school were brutally murdered by one of their former classmates, González described herself. “I’m 18 years old, Cuban and bisexual,” she wrote.
“I’m so indecisive that I can’t pick a favourite colour, and I’m allergic to 12 things. I draw, paint, crochet, sew, embroider – anything productive I can do with my hands while watching Netflix. But none of this matters anymore.”
González no longer has time on her hands. She’s become the de facto face and leader of the American gun-control movement, especially since the six minutes and 20 seconds that she spent onstage at the March For Our Lives protest in Washington on 24 March.
For someone so young, it was a masterclass in oratory. First, she spoke the names of her dead classmates, and then she stood in silence for more than four minutes. With her shaved head and olive green utility jacket covered in stitched-on slogan patches, González remained straight-backed with the occasional tear running down her face until an alarm went off, indicating the end of the amount of time it took for Nicolas Cruz to kill 17 people.
“Since the time that I came out here, it has been six minutes and 20 seconds,” she said. “The shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape and walk free for an hour before arrest. Fight for your life before it’s somebody else’s job.”
In those silent minutes – minutes that one DC analyst has called “the loudest silence in the history of US social protest” – Emma González became an icon.
In a letter to the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on the occasion of the March, former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama wrote: “You’ve helped awaken the conscience of the nation, and challenged decision-makers to make the safety of our children the country’s top priority.”
But, as we celebrate González’s courage – and that of her classmates – we must also take a long, hard look at how a national failure to act on gun control has put the burden of saving American children’s lives on the slight shoulders of Emma González, and her friends.
I was in my final year of high school in Niskayuna, New York, during the Columbine shootings. It was April 1999 and I was visiting my grandparents during spring break. I remember watching the news coverage on their television, the horror of seeing a school that looked a lot like mine – a large school in an upper-middle-class suburb – turned into a murder zone. In the days and weeks after the shooting, there was much speculation about what had caused the perpetrators to commit the massacre.
Had they been influenced by violent video games? Were their long black trench coats to blame? Were they Nazis? Were they bullied? But as much as my school friends and I were horrified by what had happened on the other side of the country from our high school in upstate New York, I do not remember feeling concerned that it was likely to happen to us too. It was an anomaly. School shootings were not yet an epidemic by the time I graduated, just two months after Columbine.
Being 18 now means that Emma González was born in 1999: that very year. Her generation grew up in an America where school shootings are not uncommon: 122 students have been killed at school in the US since Columbine.
Estimates show that 187,000 students have so far been affected by shootings, which is to say that they were present at schools where shootings happened. How could you ever go to class again?
In addition to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, González’s high school, there have been 16 other school shootings in the United States so far this year (at time of writing; it seems necessary to note that, “at time of writing”, because what if one happens between me writing and publishing this? It’s not unlikely).
School shootings are now so common that many aren’t even reported beyond local or regional media; two people murdered with guns in the middle of a school day is no longer very remarkable. Along with her classmates, González participated in ‘Active Shooter’ drills to prepare for the possibility of a school shooting. Unfortunately, the perpetrator, a former student, was able to use this training to his advantage in terms of anticipating where and how students would be sheltering. He, too, was prepared.
González is a representative not just of the survivors of the Parkland shooting, but of a new generation of young people, and especially young women. Activism comes naturally to them, in part because it is central to popular culture. When Columbine happened, the pop culture icons of my generation of American girls were the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and the members of Destiny’s Child.
They sometimes spoke to a kind of female empowerment, but they were not explicitly political. For González and her peers, the landscape is different and ever-changing. They have no shortage of activist role models: having a conscience is considered an increasing necessity now.
Teen Vogue mixes beauty product facts with reportage from the front line of the Trump resistance and think pieces from progressive voices. Young actresses like Yara Shahidi and Zendaya use their fame and social-media platforms to promote activism, engage in politics, and pursue philanthropy. Malala Yousafzai is a household name.
And against that backdrop, González is a household name, too: at once singular amongst her peers and of a kind with many other young activists of her generation. She’s a young queer woman of colour. She’s open about her sexuality.
She is loud and articulate and she shows no respect for the adults who have made America a land of mass shootings: not for the NRA, not for the politicians, not for the president (she stands for everything that hard line Trump supporters oppose, but so far seems impervious to their ire).
The first time she came to the media’s attention was just three days after the shooting at her school: addressing a rally of victims’ family, survivors, and community members, she asserted, “We will be the last mass shooting.” Calling out politicians directly, she said: “We need to pay attention to the fact that this isn’t just a mental-health issue. He wouldn’t have been able to kill that many people with a knife.”
On “knife”, her voice lost its control and rose to a scream, a cry of childish grief. A reminder to all of us who were awed by her poise and delivery and passion that she is still very, very young.
We don’t know very much about González’s life before the shooting. We had no reason to. She was just a normal kid enjoying her last year of high school – there’s a photo of her handing out treats for Valentine’s Day an hour before the shooting happened.
She has a very warm smile. She was the president of her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). When she wanted to shave her head, she persuaded her parents to let her do it (she felt that she had to get her parents’ permission to do it, which says something about the kind of young person she is) by making them a PowerPoint presentation about the benefits, such as less money spent on shampoo. She did not cut her hair, she explained to one media outlet, because she was making a political or feminist statement, but because, “It’s Florida. Hair is just an extra sweater I’m forced to wear.”
Parkland is a town where many people are financially comfortable. At just over $130,000 (£91,000), the median household income is more than twice the national median income. González’s parents are a lawyer and a math tutor; her father, a Cuban immigrant, came to the United States in 1968. In an interview with 60 Minutes, González’s mother said that she and González’s father are “just running along beneath her with a net, which she doesn’t want or think that she needs.”
González appears to have no fear. That she grew up in a supportive and well-resourced family, in a community where she felt respected and cared for, is important. It’s apparent that she and her classmates draw the confidence that fuels their activism in part from the privilege of their upbringing – that they’ve managed to draw media attention in a way that children from less-privileged communities have been unable to.
The Parkland activists do not gloss over this, frequently citing their awareness of their privilege, their intention to use it for good, and their understanding that, as González’s schoolmate Jaclyn Corin stated in Washington, “We share this stage today and forever with those communities who have always stared down the barrel of a gun.”
It helps, as well, that they’re at the climactic points of their high school careers: when 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012 – when González was just 12 or 13 – their five-and six-year-old classmates were too young to become activists.
Many thought that gun laws in America would never change after Sandy Hook, that if those young lives weren’t seen as a reason for reform then we were truly lost. But González and her classmates are giving us hope. They seem to know what they’re doing. They have already been encouraged to fight injustice.
González has noted that her role in the GSA has prepared her for the national stage: “If I wasn’t so open about who I was, I never would’ve been able to do this,” she says. “In ninth grade, I was in a creative writing class where I could actually really effectively communicate what I was feeling, and it especially helped me come to terms with who I was. That definitely was when I really understood who I am, and when I came to terms with it, and when I told most people,” she said, linking her queer activism to her current work.
The March for Our Lives was one of the biggest-ever marches in Washington, DC – and certainly better attended than the current president’s inauguration. González’s Twitter account, @Emma4Change, now has nearly double the number of followers of the NRA.
Will González and her classmates succeed where so many adults have failed, in achieving a tightening of gun laws in a trigger-happy country? Their first attempt failed: just a week after the shooting, they went to Florida state capital Tallahassee to try to get legislators to amend a bill to tighten gun laws.
But where adults might have thrown up their hands, these children have remained unfazed, even when doctored images and fake news threaten to discredit them. They’ve gathered hundreds of thousands of people into their movement, including high-profile adults like Oprah Winfrey and George and Amal Clooney, all of whom made substantial donations to funding the March.
The size of the movement that González and her friends have spearheaded is so astonishing that it’s tempting to regard her as an icon, as a kind of Joan of Arc, a young woman coming out of nowhere, leading the way to victory in a battle that once seemed unwinnable. But González is a real person, and the battle is not yet won, and I can’t help but think of what she wrote after her self- description in Harper’s Bazaar: “None of this matters anymore.”
Childhood ended for everyone at Marjory Stoneman Douglas on 14 February: none of the surviving students will ever be the same. But the ones to whom we’re collectively turning to change America’s gun-loving culture… for them, I have the deepest admiration, but also the deepest concern.
How will they survive the trauma of losing their friends and being thrown onto the global stage all at once? We should give them the Nobel Peace Prize. But we should also give them time, at some point, to try to recover something of themselves.
Images: Getty / Words: Jean Hannah Edelstein / Photography: Mike Stocker