In one of the most publicized moments at Saturday’s March for Our Lives, 18-year-old Emma González stood on the stage in complete silence, weeping. She marked the six minutes and 20 seconds that claimed the lives of 17 people at her high school in Parkland, Fla. And on her olive-green jacket, she wore several sewn-on patches, including a Cuban flag.
That flag, representing González’s Cuban heritage, became the subject of attacks from some conservatives online over the weekend. And on Sunday afternoon, one of those critical messages appeared on the Facebook page for the campaign of a U.S. congressman: Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
“This is how you look when you claim Cuban heritage yet don’t speak Spanish and ignore the fact that your ancestors fled the island when the dictatorship turned Cuba into a prison camp, after removing all weapons from its citizens; hence their right to self defense,” said the post, which also included a photo of González at the lectern Saturday.
The meme, which was posted by King’s campaign team, prompted hundreds of comments, many of them criticizing the congressman and defending González.
“Are you SERIOUSLY mocking a school shooting survivor for her ethnic identity?!” wrote Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. “When it was my community, where were you? When it was Sandy Hook? Columbine? Were you on the sideline mocking those communities too? Did you question someone identifying as a mother? Did you question whether people like me were crisis actors?
“Emma stood for 6 mins and 20 seconds to honor the lives of 17 gone too soon,” Wolf added. “The least you could do is shut your privileged, ineffective trap for 6 seconds to hear someone else’s perspective.”
King’s campaign team promptly and defiantly fired back at individual comments, creating a heated exchange on the Facebook post.
“Pointing out the irony of someone wearing the flag of a communist country while simultaneously calling for gun control isn’t ‘picking’ on anyone,” the campaign team responded to Wolf’s comment. “It’s calling attention to the truth, but we understand that lefties find that offensive.”
Reached for comment early Monday by The Washington Post, a spokesman for King’s campaign said that the King for Congress Facebook page is managed by the campaign team, not the congressman himself.
“And the meme in question obviously isn’t an attack on her ‘heritage’ in any way,” the spokesman wrote in an email. “It merely points out the irony of someone pushing gun control while wearing the flag of a country that was oppressed by a communist, anti-gun regime. Pretty simple, really.”
González has become a prominent face of the student-led movement against gun violence since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. And she has not been shy about explaining her various identities.
“My Name is Emma González. I’m 18 years old, Cuban and bisexual,” she wrote in an essay in Harper’s Bazaar last month. “But none of this matters anymore. What matters is that the majority of American people have become complacent in a senseless injustice that occurs all around them.”
Her father immigrated to New York from Cuba in 1968, Univision has reported. Emma was born in the United States. As Univision wrote, González does not speak Spanish, “but her voice reveals the heritage of the communicative passion of mixed Hispanics with oratory skills perfected at school.”
Other images attacking the teenager’s Cuban heritage circulated in conservative circles online.
“Emma Gonzales, wearing the flag of an authoritarian communist nation. Makes sense, they both hate an armed citizenry,” stated one meme shared on Reddit’s conservative page r/TheDonald. It was shared on social media through variations of the theme, including one by conservative commentator Andrew Wilkow.
Critics made other attempts to discredit González over the weekend, most prominently through a fake photo of the teenager tearing the U.S. Constitution in half. The doctored image and animation was lifted from a Teen Vogue story about teenage activists. In the real image, González is ripping apart a gun-range target.
Earlier this month, a Republican candidate for the Maine state House, Leslie Gibson, described González as a “skinhead lesbian,” referencing her short buzz cut.
“There is nothing about this skinhead lesbian that impresses me and there is nothing that she has to say unless you’re a frothing at the mouth moonbat,” Gibson wrote in a tweet, which was later deleted.
Gibson, who was running unopposed for Maine’s House, so outraged other politicians that two entered the race to oppose him. Gibson then quit as a candidate.
In her Harper’s Bazaar essay, González addressed the adults who have criticized the Parkland student activists, writing that “if you have ever felt what it’s like to deal with all of this, you would know we aren’t doing this for attention.
“If these funerals were for your friends, you would know this grief is real, not paid for,” she said. “We are children who are being expected to act like adults, while the adults are proving themselves to behave like children.”
The Des Moines Register, in an editorial the day before the Parkland shootings, called on Iowa Republicans to oust King in the 2018 Republican primary, calling him “one of the least effective members of Congress” who “thrives” on “outlandish” and “incendiary observations.”
King is known for making inflammatory remarks about immigrants. In April of last year, he posted a photo of a beer on Twitter, offering a toast to immigration authorities for deporting a “dreamer.”
A month earlier, he commended nationalist Dutch politician Geert Wilders with a tweet saying, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” He had previously celebrated Wilders, stating that “cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end.”
And in 2012, King compared vetting immigrants to picking out a hunting dog.
“You want a good bird dog? You want one that’s going to be aggressive? Pick the one that’s the friskiest,” he said at a town hall, “not the one that’s over there sleeping in the corner.”