Activists against gun violence gathered on the National Mall, just yards in front of Capitol Hill on Friday, a day after the parents of a Parkland shooting victim were taken out of a Joint Subcommittee Congressional hearing on gun control.
Attendees of the event, organized by Generation Lockdown: Made in America and the Newtown Action Alliance, showed up in numbers, despite the windy rain and muddy grounds. Speakers included gun violence survivors, parents of victims, and gun reform advocates currently serving in the House of Representatives, who all took the stage to call Congress to action.
Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fl), who represents the Florida district in which the Pulse NightClub shooting took place, was in the hearing when Manuel and Patricia Oliver were arrested.
“Yesterday was a very difficult day,” Frost said to the gathered crowd. “[The Olivers] were dragged out of the room and arrested for speaking out about the fact that their son was shot to death in his classroom … But like Manny always says, Joaquin is not a victim. He’s an activist.”
Joaquin, Manuel and Patricia’s son, was killed in the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla. His father has been a vocal leader of the gun reform movement in the years since.
“I was asked yesterday to shut up and sit down, or get arrested,” Manuel Oliver said in his speech. “We can all get arrested.”
Patricia Oliver stood with her husband onstage.
“We cannot give up; we need to be clear,” she said to the crowd. “Use every single way, every single social media platform that you have … give that passion that you have.”
Other parents of victims, specifically those in school shootings, attended and spoke at the event. Brett Cross, whose 10-year-old son Uzi died in the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, performed a spoken-word speech.
“Children’s bodies enter the morgue,” he said in the speech. “Some, unidentifiable aside from the shoes that they’d worn. Uzi was left stomachless, his body was ripped, and was torn.”
In an interview with the Beacon, Cross described the process of writing his unique speech.
“I write a lot,” he said. “And when I started writing the speech for this, it just flowed. It just came to be … It came to my heart and needed to come to be.”
Cross has a tattoo on his back of the exact place his son was shot. He noted the young age at which his son’s life was taken.
“He was ten,” Cross said of Uzi. “He doesn’t get to do any of the firsts, any of the things you look forward to. He doesn’t get to live life. For someone that was so lively and full of life, a ray of sunshine … It’s unfair.”
Along with Frost and the Olivers, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was also present during the hearing. The former Speaker of the House called out the lucrative market in which gun trades and sales circulate.
“Right now our country is suffering from the filthy lucre of money associated with guns,” Pelosi said in a speech. “This is [what is making our country] so dangerous. On our streets and in our communities, assault weapons are evil.”
Pelosi was succeeded by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as House Speaker after the 2022 midterm election cycle, in which Republicans won the majority of the House of Representatives. Along with Pelosi, Rep. Frost serves in what is currently a Republican majority Congress that, according to him, refuses to support an assault weapons ban.
“If they actually care about students, if they actually care about what happens in the classroom, why are they not doing anything about gun violence?” Frost said in a speech. “Why do they not do anything to ensure kids are not completely murdered in their classrooms, where they’re supposed to be there to learn?”
Manuel Oliver, who was arrested and pinned down by Capitol police during the Congressional hearing on Thursday, expressed a similar sentiment regarding those sitting on the board.
“They will protect the gun industry no matter what,” Manuel said.
Rory Verrett is the father of 15-year-old Sedona, a school shooting survivor with organization Survivors Demand. In an interview with the Beacon, Verrett said the issue of gun violence is really one of politician’s determination.
“Congress simply has to summon some political will to say ‘no’ to the gun lobby and the NRA and to pass common sense gun laws,” Verrett said. “If you don’t think it’s going to impact your family, at the rate of gun violence in this country, it’s going to impact every family in America. It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s ‘when.’”
Frost, who calls himself the first Generation Z member of Congress, spoke as someone who is a member of “Generation Lockdown,” a term used to describe “Gen-Zers” for which school shootings and lockdowns have become a norm. The term is also how Generation Lockdown: Made in America earned its name.
“A top question people [ask me] is ‘What separates Gen-Z from other generations? And, unfortunately, it’s the fact that our generation is defined by mass shootings,” Frost said. “I often call us the mass shooting generation.”
While the issue of gun violence in classrooms is something that overwhelmingly affects Generation Z, parents of both survivors and victims have joined the fight. Verrett spoke to how he has both supported and joined his child in their gun violence activism.
“I think every generation has an issue that defines their generation,” Verrett said. “It’s a great way to channel the rage, the hurt, and the pain to be an activist and … make sure other children don’t have to go through what they went through.”
Verrett encouraged other parents whose children have survived gun violence to facilitate and support their children in speaking out about the issue.
“Give your child the chance to make change and to channel some of that energy and frustration into making a solution,” he said.
As active shooter incidents skyrocketed in frequency between 2000 and 2020, from three to 40, Gen-Z has become the face of the movement—for some, literally.
Parkland shooting victim Joaquin was commemorated at Friday’s event with a larger-than-life black-and-white picture of his face, laid on the ground. His parents instructed event attendees to take their shoes and socks off, dip their feet in colorful paint, and leave footprints all over the picture. The result was a technicolor myriad of steps on the path to change.
Just over ten months after the shooting at Robb Elementary School, another gunman stormed The Covenant School, an elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee, and killed three students and three staff members on Monday. The shooter was killed by police following the shooting.
In the closing speeches of the event, Patricia Oliver left the crowd with one singular sentence to take with them.
“To finish this, I will read you a line I got from someone in heaven: we need freedom from political tyranny,” she said.