At noon on Tuesday, thousands of teenage bodies will blanket the U.S. Capitol lawn. For 12 minutes, or 720 seconds, they will remain motionless in honor of Americans who have been killed in mass shootings since the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, exactly two years before.
The student-led demonstration is part of National Die-In Day, the latest gun-reform protest in the wake of the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In Washington, D.C., in addition to the die-in, organizers are holding a rally and voter registration drive. They hope to attract tens of thousands of participants. At least 20 sister protests are scheduled at state capitols across the nation.
The National Die-In Day was organized by three students, Amanda Fugleberg, 18, and Frank Kravchuk, 21, both of Orlando, and Nurah Abdulhaqq, 14, of Douglasville, Georgia. The three met in a text-messaging group in the days following the Parkland shooting, where they began talking about ways to build on the activism started by survivors. But it wasn’t until they were introduced to each other on Twitter by one of those survivors, David Hogg, that the idea for a nationwide die-in solidified. Hogg quickly signed up as an advisor to the demonstration, helping the organizers access resources and promoting it on social media.
“I always cared about the issue, but Parkland was what got me involved in taking action,” said Fugleberg, who helped organize a walkout at her school in March and participated in a March for Our Lives rally in Atlanta.
While Hogg and many of his fellow Parkland survivors are advocating for a specific set of gun reforms — including universal background checks and bans on high-capacity magazines — the National Die-In organizers said they have no policy platform. Instead, they say the purpose of the event is to draw attention to what they see as political inaction in the face of escalating gun violence. “The die-in represents that inaction is literally leading to deaths,” said Gary Simcox, a student who is helping to organize the protest.
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The organizers chose to hold the protest on the anniversary of the Pulse shooting, when 49 people were killed in what was then the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Many of the organizers are members of the LGBTQ community and say they want to use the occasion to draw attention to the impact of gun violence on that and other minority groups.
“People who are minorities are more likely to be affected by gun violence, whether that’s because of their race, their religion, or sexual orientation,” Abdulhaqq said. “We’re trying to keep those voices alive.”
The die-in is a form of protest that has quickly become part of the post-Parkland playbook. In March, teenage activists staged one at Chicago City Hall. The protesters erected paper gravestones inscribed with the names of people killed in police shootings, and lay down beside them, suggesting that they might have just as easily been the ones killed. And in May, Hogg and his classmates staged a die-in at a Publix grocery store in Florida after the chain was found to have contributed money to politicians backed by the National Rifle Association. Images quickly went viral of the teenagers lying “dead” in the store’s produce section as customers stepped over their bodies. Publix acceded to the protesters’ demands and suspended donations to NRA-backed lawmakers.
The images die-ins produce are startling — and familiar. They’ve appeared in newspapers and on television screens since the 1960s. It was during that decade that a die-in was first staged by anti-nuclear activists, according to T.V. Reed, a professor of English and American studies at Washington State University and author of The Art of Protest.
The tactic has since been used worldwide to protest a range of issues, including domestic violence and famine. It was popularized in the 1980s, during the HIV/AIDS crisis, by activists who used die-ins to draw attention to inaction from the government and drug industry amid the growing number of LGBTQ deaths. Those protests were particularly effective, said Reed, because “many of the protesters themselves had been given what was in effect a death sentence.”
The protests staged by school shooting survivors have stirred emotion for the same reason, he said. “They dramatize that it could have been them, could have been any student anywhere – a thought that would give any parent pause.”
The organizers plan to leverage that emotional power by sharing video and images of the action on Twitter, where the idea for the action was born and where they say the momentum for even more activism around gun reform is building.
“People are sharing their ideas and other people are seeing it and sharing their ideas and before you know it, there’s a movement,” said Fugleberg.
“We’re aiming for one major action each month before the midterms,” Abdulhaqq added. “If we can pull that off, we can really make a difference.”