A Year Later, Parkland Activists’ Pain Hasn’t Lessened. Neither Has Their Resolve.

“You cannot complain if you are not a part of the solution.”

When Manuel Oliver thinks of his first meeting with renowned gay rights activist Peter Staley, a clarifying moment comes to mind.

Manuel had, up until last winter, lived a quiet life in the South Florida suburb. He was an artist. He had a studio. He was a family man, with a wife and two kids.

But Staley, the leader of statement-making, life-saving protests in the '80s and '90s, got straight to the point with the newly-minted gun control advocate.

 "OK, Manny," Manuel says,  repeating the words that Staley had said to him almost a year ago. He raps the table in front of him with his hands — a loud, jarring sound in an otherwise silent press conference. "Who's willing to get arrested in here?"

 Manuel, of course, was ready for whatever it took. So was his wife Patricia. Their son, Joaquin, was among the 17 that were killed in the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School. To many in the Parkland community, the names of those students and teachers have become a mantra, posted and reposted on social media in their memory:  

Alyssa Alhadeff. Scott Beigel. Martin Duque Anguino. Nick Dworet. Aaron Feis. Jaime Guttenberg. Chris Hixon. Luke Hoyer. Cara Loughran. Gina Montalto. Joaquin Oliver. Alaina Petty. Meadow Pollack. Helena Ramsay. Alex Schachter. Carmen Schentrup. Peter Wang.

The tragedy that could have torn the school community apart now binds them together.

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Manuel relays Staley's first, clarifying question at a press conference held on the anniversary of the 2018 shooting. Valentine's Day. The day his 17-year-old son brought sunflowers to school for his girlfriend. The day his 17-year-old son died.

"They were expecting us to be sad at home," Manuel says of the anniversary. His voice is measured, his expression resolute. "We are sad but active here in New York."

To his left, Patricia wears a look of determination that matches his own. Together the couple founded Change The Ref, an anti-gun violence nonprofit. She is flanked by Emma González, the Parkland-student-turned-activist who stared down a crowd of hundreds of thousands while observing a moment of silence timed to last as long as the shooting did. Six minutes and 20 seconds. 17 dead, including her close friend, Carmen. 

 Side by side, the Olivers describe González and the other teen leaders of the March For Our Lives (MFOL) movement as their sons and daughters. They are bonded by their shared trauma, which fuels their shared advocacy. In tribute, González wears not one T-shirt but two halves stitched together. The iconic blue of the movement she co-founded and Change the Ref's black-on-gold share equal space.

At a Los Angeles rally against gun violence, a woman holds a sign quoting González aloft. Karl_Sonnenberg / Shutterstock.com

 "Every day, I feel the same," González says. Where the Olivers' delivery of their planned speeches seems carefully stoic, her voice wavers when she lets it. "Every day, my friends feel the same. Every day it feels like the shooting is happening again, or happened yesterday, or will happen tomorrow."

In the weeks following the shooting, González and the Parkland teen activists became ubiquitous on cable news. Exhausted and sprawled out in their parents' living rooms, they charted out the beginnings of their movement in between primetime interviews and high-profile op-eds. Many, including fellow MFOL co-founder Cameron Kasky, have been open about the challenge of emotionally grappling with the shooting while keeping pace with the 24/7 news cycle.

 "That trauma, once inflicted, doesn't leave," González says. She adds later: "We fight our trauma by fighting against gun violence."

González and Manuel in front of the U.S. Capitol. Photo via Parkland Documentary, by Gigantic Productions.

 At the press conference, Staley says he sees March For Our Lives and Change The Ref as "emotionally connected" to all the movements throughout American history that drove meaningful change. The AIDS epidemic was ignored just as the epidemic of gun violence is today, he explains— until those whom it had affected shouldered their pain and took it to the streets.

 "I see this in Emma, Patricia, Manny: this commitment to use their grief, to know they will win in the end, to know they can create that pivot point," he says.

The family behind the movement

The March For Our Lives' name is blunt and uncompromising, chosen by the teens to explicitly convey just what was at stake. The Olivers named Change The Ref not for what is at risk, but what they believe is necessary: a change in leadership. 

The phrase came from an observation Joaquin, a talented high school basketball player, had made to Manuel a few months before the shooting. Joaquin felt a local referee was making consistently bad calls at his games. Almost as if he was biased. But bias isn't won over by clever plays or quick footwork in the same way that scoreboards are. If Joaquin wanted to have a shot at winning, he knew what needed to happen: they needed to change the ref.

A year later, when the Olivers talk about changing the ref, they aren't advocating for a new whistle-blower to frequent their local gymnasium. They're advocating for reform in circuit courts, state legislatures, and all the horizontal skyscrapers that they marched between that day in Washington, D.C. It was the largest single-day protest in the city's history. It was barely more than a month since they'd lost their son.

 "We decided to do something to keep Joaquin's memory alive," Patricia says.

After the press conference ends, Manuel, Patricia and their daughter Andrea unveil Manuel's latest "Wall of Demand," a series of 17 protest murals and installations created by Manuel in the year since Joaquin's death. One for every person killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglass.

The latest is Valentine's Day-themed, and features a cherub aiming a rifle at a red heart balloon emblazoned with the number 17. Between the cherub and its target are four words in all-caps: "YOU STOLE MY HEART."

A photo of Manuel's 17th Wall of Demand, via Change The Ref.

Joaquin's name occupies the bottom section of the mural. His likeness, his voice and his handwriting permeate his father's work. In other murals, painted live in a gut-wrenching melding of performance, pain, and art, Manuel used sunflowers like the one his son had bought for his girlfriend to represent bullet wounds. He dismisses past criticism of the "violent" imagery. No, his paintings are not meant to comfort. He likens them to medicine a parent makes a child drink so that they'll get better. The medicine may not go down easy, but digesting it is necessary for recovery.

"Before anything, I am a father," Manuel says. 

The bond between Manuel, Patricia, and Andrea is clear as they stand together to unveil the seventeenth mural in midtown Manhattan. This is far from the first of such gatherings they've attended. It will not be the last. When Manuel's megaphone fails to project his words to the crowd, all it takes is for Patricia to give him a simple, loving tap on the shoulder, and he extends the device further so that people can better hear his words.

Manuel and Patricia at the unveiling of Manuel's seventeenth mural. Cate Matthews / A Plus.

Bullhorns and speeches and sunflowers-for-bullets. It's a strange routine to become familiar with, but it's one that the Olivers have had to. A year ago, Patricia says, she could not have participated in a similar press conference about gun violence and how it led to her son's death. But she's changed.

"Every single day, I have been gathering more courage," she says.

Other installations have also required extraordinary courage. In August, the family celebrated what would have been Joaquin's 18th birthday outside of the National Rifle Association's headquarters in Virginia. They were joined by hundreds of anti-gun violence activists and survivors, as well as several pro-gun counter-protesters.

One, Manuel says, approached his daughter to complain that she was infringing on his rights. He says the counter-protester towered over his daughter, the sister of a gun violence victim, while holding a gun, and that she — by then a veteran of such events — kept her cool.

Both protests remained peaceful, according to The Washington Post, and at one point, the Olivers' coalition sang "Happy Birthday."

“There’s a hundred of you. There’s millions of us.”

So far, Manuel Oliver has painted 17 Walls of Demand. But to capture the true scope of gun violence in the United States, he says he'll have to paint 40,000 more. 2017 was the deadliest year for firearm injuries since 1968, per data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 40,000 people were killed by guns. 

"But I cannot paint 40,000 walls," he says. And, if he and MFOL achieve what they've set out to achieve, he won't have to.

Just a year into their crusade, Parkland's activists have already accomplished a lot at the national level. The Department of Justice banned bump stocks, an attachment that increases the number of rounds a semiautomatic rifle can discharge per minute. According to CNN, 26 states and D.C. implemented new gun laws locally. Over a dozen companies cut ties with the NRA or changed their gun sales policies. And, following a MFOL nationwide tour to drum up youth voter registration, 31 percent of eligible voters aged 18 to 29 cast ballots in the 2018 midterms, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning. That's up 10 points from the 2014 midterms. (Other factors, including the hugely competitive races in a number of states, likely also contributed to youth turnout.)

John Rosenthal, a Massachusetts-based businessman and founder of Stop Handgun Violence, attributes the changes to the fact that the school's young survivors were ready to become the advocates they themselves needed.

"The March For Our Lives student movement has put a mirror in front of us adults," Rosenthal says.

One of Manuel's Walls of Demand, painted on the U.S. border fence in Mexico. As translated by The Villager, it reads: "On the other side, they also kill our children." GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images.

But he and the other activists agree that there's still much more to be done. Manuel isn't choosy about who joins his community on the front lines. After disgraced comic Louis C.K. was recorded mocking Parkland survivors, Manuel released his own "standup routine" criticizing C.K.'s choice to create comedy from his family's tragedy. But, Manuel says, if C.K. is willing to learn and to become a part of the solution, the comic's support would be welcomed.

If C.K. joined the movement, he'd be one among many. Hundreds of thousands participated in the D.C. March For Our Lives and its sister marches across the globe. To many of the activists, it felt like a watershed moment in the fight against gun violence.

"When you see a million people in D.C. marching for one same goal, unless you see a million marching for the opposite, then it's polarized," Manuel says. "You know this is what they want."

Signs at the D.C. March For Our Lives in March, 2018. Rob Crandall / Shutterstock.com

Manuel believes he has the public on his side (and, per the Pew Research Center, most Americans believe gun laws should be stricter), but knows that Capitol Hill will be harder won. In January, House Democrats introduced H.R. 8, a bill that would require federal background checks for almost all purchases of firearms. Critics of the bill note that a number of mass shooters, including the Parkland shooter, passed background checks while buying their guns.

While H.R. 8 will likely soon pass the House, the Olivers doubt it will pass the Senate. At least not in the short term.

"We choose the Senate," Manuel says. "We have the final [call] here. And we have to understand that…. They don't get it. They work for us."

The Olivers, who say they moved to the United States from Venezuela so that their children could grow up in a safer environment, voted for the first time in the 2018 midterms. They'd just become citizens the year prior. A family photo posted on Joaquin's still-public Instagram profile appears to document that 2017 day. Patricia waves a red, white and blue flag that matches Manuel's shirt and tie. "Yes… I cried🇺🇸❤️," Joaquin's caption reads.

The family photo Joaquin posted on Instagram.

If the Olivers and their community succeed in "changing the ref" in our nation's capital, it will be because they have succeeded in changing the way Americans vote. Almost 49.3 percent of eligible voters showed up to the polls in 2018, the highest turnout for any midterm election in the past century. But that still means that 50.7 percent of eligible Americans didn't show up — or were otherwise prevented from casting their ballot.

"You know, in some countries, you don't even have the right to marry the person you love… So you can go ahead and vote," Manuel says. He brings up the importance of voting again and again at the press conference: "You cannot complain if you are not a part of the solution."

Manuel has resolved to be a part of the solution. It's been a whirlwind 365 days for his family, and there's more of the same to come. The 2020 elections are around the corner, and with them a thousand smaller battles over local policies and state laws. There's still change to be made. There's still lives to fight for. As long as Joaquin's family is working in his name, Manuel believes his son "has the power to make a change."

And just as he was that first day with Peter Staley, Manuel is ready for it all. From his seat, he stares at those listening with a determined expression reminiscent of González, his comrade-in-arms.

"We've decided that we are going to win this battle," he says. "And if you don't believe me, you should."

Cover photo via Scott Eisen/Getty Images.

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