PARKLAND, FLORIDA — On the afternoon of February 14, 2018, Kyle Kashuv found himself in the midst of a waking nightmare, huddled in a classroom closet for two harrowing hours, attempting to console and reassure terrified fellow students. An apparent fire drill had abruptly turned into a bloodbath after a gunman calculatingly lured potential victims into the halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School by pulling the fire alarm — a ghoulish maneuver designed to maximize the body count. Teachers began following protocol by locking classroom doors after an active shooter alert was announced over the campus intercom system. Kashuv ended up piling into one room only after an instructor made a judgment call to unlock her door to accommodate a group of panicked students. The closet felt “like the safest place to be,” he remembers. “I was trying to calm people down who were crying hysterically, letting everyone know that everything would be alright.” Kids frantically checked their phones and social media feeds for emerging information as they remained holed up, waiting for a SWAT team’s liberation. It finally came around 4:30pm. They had survived; seventeen others had not.
This southeastern Florida community is still reeling. On a warm Sunday afternoon, people are milling around a makeshift memorial that lines the fence outside of the school. It’s filled with layer after layer of placards, flowers and candles. Passers-by slow down as they drive past the scene of this heinous crime; some pull off the road and simply stare. In a nearby park, Kashuv, a 16-year-old junior, is matter-of-factly relaying his personal story from that horrible day, probably for the umpteenth time. He’d reached out to me through Twitter, expressing a willingness to talk about his experiences and the state of public debate over what happened inside his school a few weeks ago. With his parents’ permission, I agreed to meet him. He has a lot to say but can’t help but wonder aloud if many in the mainstream media have any interest in listening. Some of his schoolmates have gained prominence as television mainstays in the aftermath of the killings, their opinions validated with verified social media statuses, amassing millions of followers in the process. Kashuv is just as much a Parkland survivor as now-familiar names like David Hogg and Cameron Kasky, yet his views have only garnered limited attention.
I ask him why he thinks that’s the case. “I don’t know,” he says, hesitantly. “Maybe because I don’t use inflammatory language. I speak calmly and logically without much emotion. I don’t necessarily make the very best headline.” He’s politely referring to some of his more “famous” peers’ propensity to launch provocative and partisan attacks, such as repeated assertions that people who disagree with their political or policy preferences “don’t care” about dead children, or have ‘blood on their hands.’ But Kashuv knows that the disparate treatment he’s lived isn’t merely attributable to stylistic differences; he’s convinced that the substance of his views is what has diminished his appeal to many activists and journalists.
“I’m a very strong Second Amendment supporter and I will continue to be throughout this entire campaign.” he tells me. “As of right now, my main goal is to meet with legislators and represent to them that there are big Second Amendment supporters in our community. Through this entire thing, my number one concern has been making sure that the rights of innocent Americans aren’t infringed upon.” He says that when he visited the state capitol to talk to lawmakers shortly after the tragedy, he consistently asked for guarantees that the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners wouldn’t be attacked or abridged. He’s waded into this debate “kind of reluctantly,” he admits, observing that at some point he realized that he was one of the few conservatives in his school who were speaking up in public. “It’s not even by my choosing, it’s just come to that,” he remarks. “I feel somewhat obligated to do this because the other half of America needs to be heard. I’m doing this because I have to.”
Kashuv counts himself as a believer in the ‘Never Again’ cause, but feels ostracized and ignored by those — including students and the adults supporting them — who disagree with his conservative politics. “It’s quite saddening because I support this Never Again movement in some aspects. Everything that isn’t for gun control, I fully support. But a lot of people in the movement, they view it as ‘you’re with us or you’re against us.’ There’s no middle ground. So either you support them on all of their policy ideas, or you’re an enemy. That’s sad because I really do love this movement, and I want it to do a lot of good work. But simply because I have a different opinion on what needs to be done [on guns], I’m not represented as a leading member.”
He wasn’t invited to participate [see update] in CNN’s raucous and emotional town hall meeting in the wake of the shooting, watching it instead on television along with the general public (he says some of the pro-gun control students who traveled with him in Tallahassee were flown back for the event). He didn’t like what he saw. “The entire CNN town hall was very ineffective. It worsened the divide,” he laments. “It was so counter productive because Republicans would answer back, and they weren’t really able to voice logical concerns and [talk about] what they wanted to do because they were just booed. It was simply counterproductive. That’s the only word for it.”
Conservative Florida Senator Marco Rubio attended the forum, throughout which he was showered with jeers and heckles. His job approval rating has taken a hit as a result, according to a recent poll. Kashuv — who hopes to meet with Rubio in the near future to discuss the Senator’s newly-unveiled policy proposals — thinks that’s an unjust outcome. “I respect [Rubio for showing up] a lot because he didn’t have to go. He knew there was going to be so much backlash, but he still went.” Kashuv’s opinion of another public official onstage that night is decidedly less generous: “What really angered me was Sheriff Scott Israel. He sat there and he was practically virtue signaling, and this was all while he knew that his department hadn’t acted properly.”
The right-leaning student appears uncomfortable directly criticizing his headline-grabbing schoolmates, seemingly worried about fueling a pitched “Right vs Left” battle. But their actions have increasingly grated on him, and Kashuv is starting to push back more forcefully. He was particularly bothered by Hogg’s boast on Bill Maher’s HBO program that he’d hung up on the White House during a call designed to arrange a conversation with the president about potential solutions. “Simply hanging up, whether it was the president or his assistant — that’s terrible. And then to brag about it on national television? It’s extremely counter intuitive to actual change. You get a call from the president’s office, and instead of talking, or reaching a middle ground, or seeing what can be done, you hang up on them? I think that’s just extremely immature.” Visibly agitated, Kashuv isn’t finished. “[Some of their statements and actions] are divisive and pushing people further away from reaching a middle ground. It’s terrible and it’s hypocritical — someone saying they want to make change, then they’re pushing away some of the people who would help make that change.”
Buzzfeed reported last week that a small cadre of pro-gun control Parkland students have received financial and logistical support from a raft of national political organizations, including Everytown, MoveOn and Planned Parenthood. But as Kashuv tries to lend his perspective to the debate, he often feels like an isolated one-man band. “I don’t have any entities supporting me at all. Everything is my personal doing. Like, me reaching out to people. Not many have reached out to me at all — not many big media names have reached out to me.” Nevertheless, he’s been motivated to keep engaging by a steady stream of quiet encouragement from other students who’ve confided that they support what he’s doing, but are reticent to lock arms with him in public. “There have been other kinds who’ve reached out to me and said, ‘hey Kyle, I really support what you’re doing, I love what you’re doing.’ But a lot of them are fearful of the negative consequences” of getting openly involved.
The son of first-generation Israeli immigrants, Kashuv describes himself as a conservative, but is adamant that he doesn’t want to become a partisan gladiator. He also emphasizes that his convictions are his own. “My family has not been political at all. Everything I say is my own perspective. Nothing was like spoon-fed to me, or forced. Everything has come from my own research and understanding. I generated my own perspective,” he says, adding that he’s rebuffed efforts to enlist him as an ideological agitator in the model of Hogg and Kasky. “I have been asked to make an organization that would represent the conservative point of view in this debate, but I do not want to do that. I consider myself conservative, but I still want to reach the middle ground here, and that’s my end goal: To reach a proper solution that is bipartisan. There is a middle ground.”
As we walk around the outskirts of his campus, Kashuv reflects on the unexpected and unusual experience of being thrust into an intense nationwide argument. He tells me he has no desire to run for office or to become a “television person.” His aspiration is to study business at the University of Florida, then attend Wharton or Harvard for graduate school. As he seeks to offer a reasonable voice in pursuit of bipartisan solutions to the horror his community experienced, he and a friend have helped develop an app designed “to provide emotional support — not official counselors, but emotional support — from volunteers to assist children in need.” He hopes that his project, School Guardians, will go national. “It has so much potential,” he says, nearly smiling for the first time in our entire encounter.
Before we part ways, I ask if there’s anything he wants to make sure to say. Kashuv doesn’t hesitate: “The only way change will be accomplished is if we stop using inflammatory language, we sit down and have a logical discussion, we don’t call the person the enemy, we don’t shout at them, and we don’t boo them. That’s the only way a positive change will be made.” Thus far, this young man’s cautious, earnest, relatively low-decibel voice has not been featured as a significant part of our national conversation after Parkland. Meanwhile, a handful of newly-minted spokespeople who’ve escalated their aggressive and sometimes alienating tactics have been ubiquitous. What does that say about incentives and the seriousness of our debate? Some of the adults in politics and media who serve as gatekeepers and adjudicators of America’s debates should have to answer that question.
UPDATE – A CNN source clarifies that all Parkland students were invited to attend the event. In context, Kashuv meant that he was not invited — i.e., singled out — to ask a question. In fairness to CNN, Kashuv says he had not been as publicly vocal at the time those decisions were being made.