On Valentine’s Day 2018, a 19-year-old former student walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School outside of Miami and reportedly started shooting. Within a month, teenagers who had seen their friends and teachers being shot were standing on a stage at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in front of 200,000 people.
This event did not happen spontaneously. Not all Jimmy Fallon, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ariana Grande, Cher and Kevin Bacon have not all decided to meet backstage the high school kids who became activists overnight and famous overnight, with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian on the golf cart. even though they weren’t on the guest list. The signs in the crowd were handmade: “Thoughts and prayers don’t stop the bullets”, “Which child is next?” With arrows pointing in all directions, “the only glock I want in my class”, with a drawing of a glockenspiel. The response has been organic and overwhelming. But what happened this Saturday morning in Washington and at rallies across the country were landmark events in how New Energy, Washington-based politicians, big donors and Hollywood began to come together in a new aligned goal.
Gun control was the great failure of Barack Obama’s presidency, and he knew it. He had cried on the White House podium in December 2012, thinking of the dozens of children shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and promised in a fascinating speech at the prayer vigil that weekend in Connecticut that he would use “whatever power this office wields to engage my fellow citizens. He had just been re-elected, the horror of what had happened had paralyzed the NRA in silence, and all that came out of his promise was a commission headed by Joe Biden that produced a collection of largely meaningless executive actions. He and Biden couldn’t even get a Senate vote for the bare minimum of mandatory background checks. “It was the best that could have happened at that time, and even that did not happen,” says Joe Manchin, the conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia. Obama effectively gave up. There is no had greater example of the disparity between the fact that Obama makes Americans want him to lead and his inability to do so.
George Clooney was at his home in Los Angeles on the day of filming, sitting with his parents, watching Anderson Cooper on CNN interview Cameron Kasky and David Hogg, two of the students who quickly became central figures. He was caught in the moment, struck by how smart and hot they were on camera. He wanted to help, so he called Cooper, asking for their numbers. When Cooper hesitated, Clooney told him to give them his instead.
“You lit a fire,” he said when he finally joined them, and told them there should be a march – just kids. Get into a small group, start organizing.
Clooney called Obama because it’s something that can happen between two guys who were friends since playing basketball together when Obama was a state senator. “I am completely radioactive,” Obama told Clooney. “If I get close, it becomes ‘Barack Obama’s liberal agenda.’ He offered to activate backstage plays and keep other politicians away.
Obama saw the spark, but he worried. These children were her daughters’ age, suddenly falling into tragedy and stardom. He was concerned that they would be put in the national spotlight, that there would be no infrastructure to protect them, whether when they were attacked online by gun freaks or when a Hollywood producer called a college student asking for the rights to a song the school choir sang in a CNN town hall a few days later. He was worried about another missed opportunity. He was worried that the politicians would take over and ruin everything.
Clooney started calling more celebrities to participate: John Legend, Jimmy Kimmel. Obama called Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut husband of Gabby Giffords, who had become a link in his own anti-gun network in the seven years since his wife was shot in the head. Kelly initially pushed back on the idea of a march, tried to warn all those suddenly gun-focused celebrities not to have hope. “You think it’s gonna be like Sandy Hook,” Clooney told him. “It’s going to be different.”
He called for Sunday performances, pulling favors to keep students booked. The shooting took place on a Wednesday and the following Sunday they announced the plan. Clooney and a television producer named Deena Katz, who had helped organize the Women’s March, set out to find a name to register a website under. They would call it the Walk for Our Lives.