‘Emma’s silence.” Even a hundred years from now, scholars of communication will be analyzing the power of those four minutes and 26 seconds.
Emma Gonzalez, one of the student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., spoke for just under two minutes at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. She named those who were killed in 2018’s Valentine’s Day massacre and made them real. And she said about every one of them: Never.
Then Gonzalez stood silent. As one commentator said later, “TV hates silence.” It makes us all squirm. The crowd was clearly uneasy and periodically broke the quiet. Nevertheless, she persisted. When her phone sounded, she spoke again, saying that since she came on the stage, 6 minutes and 20 seconds had passed, the time it took the shooter to write “never” to 17 lives.
Her silence riveted me. It made palpable the terror experienced by the victims and the survivors — a 10th of an hour that seemed an eternity. It highlighted by contrast the meaning of the student movement’s hashtag, #NeverAgain. And it made incontrovertible the void in the lives of the families of the victims, reminding me of the father who said he now has to visit the cemetery to have a conversation with his daughter.
Indeed, Gonzalez’s litany of “Nevers” resonates with one of the most searing moments in all literature. King Lear cradles the dead Cordelia in his arms, and wails, “Oh, thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never.”
And her hush echoed what Simon and Garfunkel knew 54 years ago: “People writing songs that voices never share / And no one dared / Disturb the sound of silence.”
Gonzalez’s rhetoric, both what she said and what she didn’t, was more forceful than 99 percent of what we hear from our political leaders. It had the for-the-moment and for-the-ages ring of Martin Luther King Jr. (whose 9-year-old granddaughter also spoke at the March for Our Lives, about her dream).
Anyone who bears my name can hardly be expected to put “only” before “rhetoric.” Words and silences — about, say, “liberty” and “death” — make things happen, especially when they show, don’t tell.
Gonzalez’s silence was formidable all by itself. Its clout was buttressed by the contrast with her earlier speech, three days after the slaughter. In her challenge to adult complacency, she wove through eight “excuses” and said of each, “We call B.S.!” By the time she reached the end, the crowd was entirely with her. “They say that no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred: We call B.S.! That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works: We call B.S.!”
On Feb. 17, Gonzalez lit a fire. On March 24, she froze ice. Her fire ignited the crowd. The crowd lost its footing on her ice. On both occasions, she shook us up.
Everybody’s wondering whether this will all blow over and if in a few weeks we’ll be back to business as usual. There’s always that danger.
But Emma Gonzalez has done what Edward R. Murrow said Winston Churchill did: mobilized the English language. And she has sent into battle not only its words, but also its sounds of silence.
Patrick Henry, of Waite Park, Minn., is a retired executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research.