When the hammer first punched through the drywall people flinched. The crowd was silent as Manuel Oliver began to destroy parts of the art he had just created, mirroring the destruction of his son’s life in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
Oliver, the father of shooting victim Joaquin “Guac” Oliver visited the South Congregational Church in Springfield Friday for the latest in a series called “Walls of Demand,” an art project that has been traveling around the country.
On February 14, a man entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and shot 14 students and and three faculty members. Joaquin Oliver was one of the victims. Since the shooting, survivors from Parkland and students across the country have galvanized many in the country to take up the fight against gun violence.
Oliver worked on a canvas of drywall, roughly eight feet high and 16 feet long. He painted a tree, attached 17 yellow signs with figures on them representing the 17 victims, and spray-painted an image of a gunman.
That’s when Oliver took out his hammer. The sound of a hole being punched into each of the figures amid the silence of those watching him work was nearly as shocking as the bullet holes they were meant to represent. In each hole, he placed a sunflower.
Oliver signed the work, “Guac’s Dad. I’ll love you forever.”
“This isn’t me as an artist,” said Oliver said in an interview before beginning on the wall. “This is Joaquin as an activist.” Oliver emphasized that his role was to support the student activists who have taken a strong leading role in the fight against gun violence in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
Oliver and his wife, Patricia, have created Change the Ref, a non-profit organization, that’s purpose is, “to empower our next generation so they can fight for their values, have their voices heard, and impact change for their future,” according to the organization’s website. Change the Ref collects donations that support voter participation and activist education initiatives.
This is the fourth installation of Walls of Demand and was brought to Springfield by local organizers of March for Our Lives, last month’s nationwide, youth-led, day of action against gun violence. Oliver has created murals in three other cities and plans to create them in 17 cities in total, one for each of the 17 Parkland victims.
After the last blow of the hammer, Oliver addressed the crowd. “This is Joaquin fighting. Why aren’t you?” He took his wife’s hand and walked away.
After the art performance, the Olivers went with a group of protesters from the art performance to the gates of Smith & Wesson, where they unfurled a banner of their son’s image. Smith and Wesson manufactured the gun used in the Parkland shooting. The wall was originally going to be created in front of the company, but the Olivers were denied a permit to protest there. Oliver placed a sign on the wall he created in front of the South Congregational Church that read, “We can buy a gun freely, but can’t get a permit to express our rights.”
The Olivers took part in a community discussion on gun control at the church later that evening. The discussion session had been organized, in part, by Springfield Teens Demand Action, an activist group that advocates against gun violence.
South Congregational Church has been a site of advocacy recently. The church has hosted an undocumented Peruvian woman and her family to take sanctuary from immigration enforcement officials.
Friday seemed a fitting day for the Olivers to engage people in conversation around gun violence. It was the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, in which two students murdered 12 of their classmates and one teacher. Many schools across the country saw students walkout in remembrance of Columbine, despite most of them not having been alive when it took place. Columbine was not the first school shooting in America, but it horrified the nation and thrust school shootings into a spotlight from which they have yet to recede.
Even as students observed the anniversary of gun violence, that violence continued. A school shooting occurred at Forest High School in Ocala, Florida, on Friday morning, leaving one student injured. It was the 20th school shooting this year, according to CNN.