Image: Todd Spoth

Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away” rang out over the PA system in Stratford High School’s auditorium on a Saturday night in late February, as teens in Students Demand Action T-shirts found their seats among parents, teachers, school-shooting survivors, reporters, and even a film crew or two. The crowd had gathered for a special announcement from a member of the senior class, who was clad in a dress shirt for once, not his go-to aloha look.

“I’m Marcel McClinton,” he announced, “and I’m running for City Council.”

Call it far-fetched, but seeking public office seems a natural progression for this 17-year-old activist. A survivor of the 2016 mass shooting at the Memorial Drive United Methodist Church, McClinton has spent the past two years pushing relentlessly for gun-violence-prevention laws in both Austin and Washington, D.C. He’s organized die-ins, led protests, and lobbied for gun-violence victims. He serves on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Gun Violence Prevention Commission. All this, and he balances high school, football (he’s a tackle, naturally), a part-time gig at Starbucks, riding the MS150, church, mission trips to Jamaica, and brushing off online trolls, to boot.

And he still has plenty of energy to run against Michael Kubosh for City Council Position at Large 3 this November. Don’t worry, it’s legal: McClinton turns 18 in July. And he’s well-versed in Houston’s problems. “Death, selling people for sex, and flooding homes are our issues,” he said at his launch.

A week after his announcement, McClinton had already raised $17,000. He’d also already attracted some high-profile supporters, among them numerous political activists; his senior advisor, Jody Casey, who served as Beto O’Rourke’s midterm campaign manager and is advising McClinton for free; and consultant Rania Batrice, Bernie Sanders’s former deputy campaign manager. Six activists spoke during his launch at Stratford High, including Patricia Oliver, who lost her son in the mass shooting in Parkland, and Rhonda Hart, who lost her daughter in the one that took place near Houston, in Santa Fe.

“If Marcel can handle sheltering 20 preschoolers in place for an hour during a mass shooting,” Hart told the crowd, “he can handle City Hall.”

The shooting occurred three years ago, over Memorial Day weekend. McClinton was just 14 years old. He was teaching Sunday School in a room adjacent to his mom’s class at their church on Memorial Drive. A man with an assault rifle went on a shooting spree in the Conoco parking lot across from the church, killing 56-year-old Gene Linscomb and injuring six others, including two congregants, setting a gas tank on fire with stray bullets, and shooting at a helicopter.

“I remember the pastor’s wife walked into my mom’s class, and she looked mortified. Her eyes were like, black. Her pupils were so big. And she just said, They’re shooting. They’re shooting. Get the kids away,” McClinton tells Houstonia a couple of days after his campaign launch, sitting at his local Starbucks in between school and a TED talk he’s giving that evening in Bellaire. “Then we heard it. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. At that point it felt like a war zone.”

For five long minutes, McClinton and his class sat with the lights off and the doors locked. Then they began moving the children by twos into the sanctuary to be with their families. The church stayed on lockdown for four hours, during which time McClinton listened to police scanners, sent footage from his phone to news stations, and called as many reporters as he could. “I wanted there to be documentation of what was happening inside the church,” he says, “in case we all died.”

McClinton, his mom, and his sister made it home safely that evening, but he continues to suffer from the trauma—sleeplessness, migraines, and something much darker: “The feeling of—you’re so certain you’re going to be shot and killed. The certainty that you’re going to die, right? It doesn’t get out of someone. You can’t describe it. It really, really sucks. It’s a really sucky feeling.”

Nevertheless, McClinton, who was already into politics before the shooting—he’d interned for the Harris County Republican Party earlier in 2016—didn’t make the connection between policy and gun violence until 2018, when he watched in horror as the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland left 17 students dead and 17 more injured. When he saw student David Hogg speak on the news, he decided to join the fight.

In March of last year, McClinton helped organize March for Our Lives Houston—a 15,000-person march through downtown to Ted Cruz’s office—along with Road to Change town halls against gun violence and in support of common-sense gun control. (Cruz has never met with them.)

Two months after the march, the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School killed 10 and injured eight. “We thought it was going to be Parkland 2.0, and transform American policy,” McClinton says. “It did not. It’s a very different community … They didn’t want to talk about the shooting.”

McClinton befriended a group of Santa Fe survivors—Bree Butler, Megan McGuire, and Kennedy Rodriguez—and, together with local student activists Kelly Choi and Arielle Hobbs, they founded the nonprofit Orange Generation, which pushes for stricter gun-storage measures and laws that would require guns to be temporarily removed from owners who might pose a danger to themselves or others.

No stricter laws have been passed in Texas, as of this writing, since Santa Fe. Instead schools have added metal detectors and armed guards, and increased lockdown drills. Three times so far this semester McClinton and his classmates have practiced huddling in a corner with the lights out, waiting for an administrator to jiggle the door handle from the hall to make sure it’s locked. “It’s terrifying,” he says. “It’s the last thing some kids hear before they’re shot and killed.”

McClinton is fed up, and he will keep fighting even as he prepares for a new chapter in life—he’s also planning to study finance at UH even if he wins a seat on City Council.

“Times are changing,” he says. “I’ve been part of a movement that’s changed America. Sixty gun bills passed in 20 states through our activism. That’s because kids got pissed off and said enough is enough.”

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