In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland people began using art as a means to express their grief and to connect their plea for gun reform to others. How did this art reach people in ways that moved beyond just words?
MANUEL OLIVER: Listen. If in order to make the world a better place, you need to lose your son. Let the world (be) fucked up. Don’t fix it because the price is too high. So because I know that, I try to tell people things that nobody told me before I lost my son.
Every 15 minutes someone is shot down in the United States. So probably someone was shot down while we were talking about this.
Me or Patricia, we’re not here to save Joaquim. We can’t do that. It’s not going to happen. I wish I could do that. We are here to save other kids. So. So the urgency of me to find a solution is not as urgent as the one from a dad or mom that still have their kids with them. You should be more concerned than me because I don’t have my son anymore,
HOST: Today, I’m in, Parklands, Florida, reporting on the gun control movement that emerged after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Today’s episode is about how the movement used art and culture to convey a powerful political message. Why are people driven to connect art to politics? Why are people driven to connect their art to politics? And wind is art become a powerful messenger. Let’s go.
HOST: I’m Amanda Tattersall, welcome to Changemakers, the podcast telling stories about people changing the world. We tell stories, like this one. And we also make ChangeMaker chats, where we feature people who make change.
This episode was written by Kate Wild. We want to thank Cheryl McDonough and the documentary team at Parklands Rising for helping us to produce this series. Parklands Rising is an extraordinary film about these events, and we would encourage you all to see it.
ChangeMakers is supported by the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. They break down barriers between researchers, policy makers and community campaigners so we can build change together. Check them out at https://sydney.edu.au/sydney-policy-lab/
And you can sign up to our email list at changemakerspodcast.org. You can also find us on twitter at ChangeMakers99 or facebook at ChangeMakers Podcast.
Art and politics, politics and art.
The times they find each other are often in moments of crisis, where words are hard. Think Picasso’s Guernica or Banksy’s stencils.
Some artists make one political statement in their career – like a tribute song or a fundraising concert.
For other artists, every work they create is political.
Manuel Oliver is without question, a political artist.
In the last year and a half, documentary maker Cheryl McDonough has filmed him making art works across the United States.
CHERYL McDONOUGH: Every time that I witnessed him, you see him put on his headphones and he gets into a zone. And I don’t know what that emotional experience is for him, but I’ve seen him do it. He needs time to tap into whatever is fueling his art. And having seen him create these pieces publicly numerous times. It is it’s just kind of profound, with you know, visual art. There is something where people feel something. People seem to understand his experience, understand his pain. The crowd watches in silence.
MANUEL OLIVER: “I’m trying to send a message in an untraditional way, and maybe that will work. Maybe that will make some people connect with what this tragedy means.
Do I really need explain to you how high is this price, of not having your son in your house? Of having an empty room? Are you willing to lose that just because you’re defending a lobby that is making money selling weapons?” longer out point
HOST: What happened to Manuel Oliver and his wife Patricia on the 14th February 2018 is difficult to bear, even as a witness. Their son Joaquin was one of 17 children fatally shot at a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
MANUEL OLIVER: I think I need to tell you this. I. I don’t enjoy this part of the story. It’s been a long time since I don’t share these details. But I think that wherever Joaquim is right now, he needs people to understand and know very well what happened.
On that day. I took my kid to school. All right. And usually I made two cups of coffee. That morning on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, 2018, I also made two, two cups of coffee. And he said bye to his mother. He grabbed flowers that we bought the night before, so they were supposed to be for his girlfriend. And then we just got in the car and drank the coffee and we were listening to cool music, talking and enjoying that two mile ride from home to school. And then once we got to the school, he did told me, I love you, Dad.
And I, of course, said I love your son. You take care. And I asked him before he left to call me back at around ten ten thirty AM, so I will know the whole story behind the flowers. I wanted to know everything. Joaquim and me, we share a lot of details of our lives. And he will call me every single day several times. And. And that’s it. That’s the day, the last day that I saw my kid alive. I never got that call back.
What happened to him after that, after that conversation with me, a few hours later – because we live in Florida and Florida is inside the United States and our society has fever for the gun culture. It’s like an addiction for guns and and a 19 year old kid, another kid was able to purchase an AR 15. Which is a military style weapon. Made and manufacture in the best possible way to kill as much people as possible in the least amount of time that you could,
MANUEL OLIVER: So this 19 year old went to up to a gun shop. He bought this legally, and he took it to school and he started shooting randomly. And Joaquim was on the second floor of this building. And he was outside of his classroom. There was a lot of panic. During those moments and he got shot four times.
MANUEL OLIVER: And while I’m telling you this. There’s only one thing that really bothers me. I don’t know and I will never know. If it was a slow death. If there is pain involved. I will never know that. So I hope there is no pain.
… A few hours later. A lot of hours later night. This happened at 230, around 230 p.m.. And then finally around. 2:00 a.m., so that’s kind of 12 hours later, we were told by the FBI and police and some other people that I don’t even know who they are and Joaquim was one of the 17 victims. And the good news if there is such a thing here. Is that he was able to give the flowers. To his girlfriend.
HOST: Before he knew what he would do, Manuel was absolutely sure, completely sure, that life for him was forever changed.
MANUEL OLIVER: So the next morning I quit my job and I started to learn. From the tragedy, how do we approach this?
I was not raised here. I was raising South America, in Venezuela. In an environment where answers for something like that will be totally different. Most of the reactions that you see here is that we need to secure our kids and some, a lot of people fight in that direction.
If we had bullet proof glasses in, in, bulletproof windows in the school, maybe some of the victims will still be alive. If we had metal detectors in the school, maybe all of the victims will be alive.
HOST: There were calls from authorities about defensive measures even as students were fleeing from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s gunman –
News Anchor: Joined on the phone now by chief David Brown, Former Chief of the Dallas Police Department. We saw the response from local law enforcement, the students have been trained how to deal with this, every community in the country now has emergency training for these school shootings that have become all too prevalent in our country.
Chief Brown: Yes George, and again, the students and teachers are suffering in place (?), so let’s be reminded that many states passed laws that armed some of their teachers and we need to really be aware as we’re responding to this that ah, who might be the active shooter and who might be a concealed carrier, someone who might be trying to hip it on (?) themselves.
HOST: A security response. The idea is that guns have a right to exist and we need to protect ourselves from them. You see it in active shooter drills that are run in almost every school and preschool in the country. It is a familiar routine to Cheryl.
CHERYL: That certainly happened where my girls go to school …, the active shooter drills. .. all three of them have grown up with that. They ‘ve all done the hide in the classroom, barricade the door. You know, be quiet. Get under a desk. You know, all of those things. They’ve grown up with this. And it’s it’s it’s horrible.
HOST: Manuel knew there must be another way to respond.
MANUEL OLIVER: So I decided that I was not going to fight in that direction because I think ii is a defensive way to to accept that this is normal. And by doing those things, you assume that it will happen again.
HOST: Manuel was not going to set up an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff. He wanted to stop the crisis of gun death from happening. But how would he do this?
MANUEL OLIVER: by accident, I discovered that art will be a tool.
HOST: Manuel Oliver had been a creative director in an advertising agency, a businessman and a powerful public speaker.
He could have used any of those skills to push for change – but something else emerged. At an Art Gallery.
MANUEL OLIVER: We were in this gallery a couple of weeks after the events and they invited us, ‘us’ by meaning all the parents of the victims to be part of an exhibition that will will show photos of our loved ones. And when I got there, this is in Miami. When I got there. I saw this amazing, beautiful wall right behind the counter of the gallery. So I told the lady. Are you displaying something on that wall behind you? Nope. And then I ask, can I paint something on that wall? And of course, she said, yes. Come on. This is a father of a kid that just was shot two weeks before she thought maybe I was gonna draw a cute little heart or, I don’t know. And that was my first experience of releasing that anger through art. And I painted I had um a stencil of Joaquim’s face. And I wrote on the wall, “we demand a change”. And I started hitting the wall with a hammer. And there were some flowers in the gallery. And I started placing the flowers in those holes that the hammer was leaving on the walls. And that’s how we started it.
HOST: What Manuel Oliver ‘started’ that day was to begin an art movement that tried to change gun culture in the United States.
But his work wasn’t isolated or alone. He was in partnership with a political movement driven by his son’s classmates, joined by hundreds of thousands from around the country.
[00:01:00] V/O: “A crowd of half a million rallied in DC”
Crowd chants: ‘we want change, we want change.’
David Hogg: 96 people die every day from guns in our country. We say NO MORE.” [00:01:13]
HOST: Oliver’s story is so tragic, we have to hope that it isn’t the only way to a life committed to artistic politics.
Parklands did motivate other artists to respond.
One was documentary maker Cheryl McDonough
CHERYL McDONOUGH: it was a weekday. I don’t remember where I heard that news. I remember being more horrified than usual, because we have mass shootings in this country all the time. This was worse than the usual situation. What got my attention was what happened over the next few days. It was the kids, the March for Our Lives kids they spoke out immediately. They spoke out within 24 hours. They were all over the news. Changing the conversation about guns. And that really was kind of that was where it was more of a light bulb for me.
I’ve lived through many school shootings in my lifetime. I’ve seen I’ve seen a lot of things happen and and a complete lack of change. But I felt like they were on to something and I felt like this is genuinely the start of a movement.
I knew from the beginning I wanted to tell the story of a movement as it was happening
HOST: McDonough expected the media would only stay interested in the Parklands shooting for a few weeks
CHERYL: because I’ve seen so many of these kinds of events in this country, and I don’t want that to happen. I want to keep the voices of these kids alive, because this is a real moment in history.
HOST: But she was wrong about the level of interest in Parklands. THIS mass shooting WAS different because the teenagers of Douglas High and people like Manuel Oliver responded differently. They demanded change and they took action, in new ways that worked.
AMANDA: That first piece of art in the gallery you said it was cathartic for you. What else was it?
MANUEL OLIVER: There’s two powerful moments that that happened. The small group of kids from from Parklands, that today are known as not only The Parklands kids, but march for our lives, they were there. They they wanted to come over. We connected immediately. Emma Gonzalez was there. David Hogg was there. … when I when I hit that wall with the hammer the first time and it opened a hole, a perfect little round hole, just like a bullet will do. Some of these kids, run away from the room. That was powerful. And then I said, OK, this is this is making people react. I’m gonna I’m going to get better at this. I’m going to. I’m going to really work on this.
HOST: The pain and anger Oliver expressed in his art is, at one level, very personal. It kept alive his connection with his son.
MANUEL OLIVER: So Joaquim was involved in the art. He was making a statement and that’s powerful.
HOST: But of course Manuel and Joaquim’s art also worked at a political level. It reached out to a much wider audience – it tried to connect with people who haven’t thought about how gun violence could affect them.
The art was a device for channeling powerful emotions into political outcomes.
Art is a form of communication – but it is a form that is so very different to traditional political tools like speeches and written words.
Manuel’s art provoked a range of contradictory emotions. Love and fear. Beauty and pain.
From this emotional canvas – the viewer then moves from their heart … to their head. And the thinking time, the contemplation isn’t momentary. It lingers. Severe art – like Guernica, and equally like Manuel’s violently beautiful pieces – can stay with you for a long time. Sometimes, forever. They can be fuel for not only new thinking, but they can lead to people acting differently in the world.
So often the world of social change seeks to move people only using rational argument. We see this in everything from the American gun debate to discussion about climate science and climate change. And so often, we see these rational arguments come up short. While evidence is profoundly important, it doesn’t always convince a skeptic. It doesn’t always change minds.
This is where Manuel’s work has been different.
His art is a different, powerful – highly intentional – way of connecting to others.
MANUEL OLIVER: Now there is a creative process. And one thing that is also part of them. As of today is that there are always statements from Joaquim. Like he has he has the power now to make you change your mind. It’s not me being an artist. That doesn’t matter at all. It’s Joaquim being an activist. And that is fucking great because you are turning a victim into an activist. And think about that.
The difference in terms of things that you can you can reach. It’s tremendous. I mean, you can cry your victim and have a miserable life forever. Or you can turn your victim, your loved one, into an activist, with your help, of course.
AMANDA: You have license to do what is necessary that other people sometimes are too scared to do in this situation, it feels like. Do you feel like that’s part of the power that you have in this moment to speak?
MANUEL OLIVER: One thing that I that I don’t get is how in, in America, in the United States there’s a lot of barriers when you want to be an activist and believe or not, some people ask for permission to do something, instead of doing it.
HOST: Manuel’s art is not only raw, it is gloriously bold. It’s instructive to us all. You don’t need permission to change the world.
Not seeking permission is an enduring lesson of the March for Our Lives movement more broadly, started by Joaquims class mates.
Emma Gonzales [00:00:30] Thank you. Every single person up here today should, all these people should be at home grieving. But instead we are up here standing together because if all our govt and President can do is offer thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.” [00:00:45]
HOST: Manuel’s art and March for Our Lives are parallel campaigns. But they frequently converged and interconnected. This happened at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Dallas months after the Majority Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting. In the months between the mass shooting in Parklands in Feb 2018 and the NRA AGM, another 322 mass shootings had happened across the United States.
MANUEL: The NRA they get together and they talk about guns and they have the president of the nation there opening the ceremony. So we decided to go there and I was able to paint a mural outside, a block away from where they were having their meeting …one of the images that I used was Joaquim with a target around his silhouette.
HOST: More political art actions were planned. The NRA were firmly in focus, and the next time hundreds of March for Our Lives students took part. This time the date was Joaquin’s birthday. It should have been his 18th birthday.
MANUEL: We went to the NRA headquarters in Virginia. And, and we were right in front of the building. … And we were able to bring fifteen hundred kids. Right in front of the NRA. And I did another mural with Joaquim, blowing his candles. I placed 18 candles.
MANUEL: And I, then I hit, I started hitting them and I left number 18 without hitting. I didn’t even touch that one because that’s never going to happen.
HOST: March For Our Lives by this time, was attacking gun laws on many fronts. The midterm elections in 2018 were set up as a referendum on Trump. March for Our Lives played a critical role in generating the highest ever turnout of young voters in those elections. A record 46 NRA backed candidates lost their seats. As Delaney Tarr from March for Our Lives said on CBS at the time
QUOTE FROM CBS
[00:03.03] Delaney Tarr: “We are here to call out every single politician.
[00:03.14] The pressure is on for every person in power and it will stay that way because they know what is coming. They know if there is no assault weapons ban pack then we will vote them out.” (applause) [00:03.26]
HOST: Cheryl McDonough’s documentary team was there, filming everything everywhere the group went.
CHERYL: We filmed from about one week before the March for our lives, a big march in Washington, D.C. and actually all over the country. And we filmed pretty much straight through until the midterm elections. At some point somebody was saying, you know, you can’t, you’re not supposed to be an activist if you’re making a documentary, you’re sort of neutral, whatever. But I do feel like this was the first time where I felt like this is personal. This is this is truly life and death. It’s my life. It’s my kids lives.
There is no reason why it happened to them and it didn’t happen to me. There is no reason why it was their teenagers and not my teenagers.
So for me, their pain really just fuels me to do the work.
HOST: McDonough’s documentary, Parkland Rising debuted at the Woodstock Film Festival in 2019 where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.
[00:51:29] We live in Connecticut, you know, I don’t know if this is all over the country, but I have I’ve seen signs around town for the Stop the Bleed campaign, which is, you know, trying to teach people and teachers how to use a tourniquet so you can stop the blood that’s pouring out of a child’s body quickly to maybe save some lives that it’s the all around the school. Stop the bleed, you know, because we can’t figure out how to. Deal with the gun problem. So this is what we do. I feel like that should that should really bother more people.
HOST: I’m sorry – what? Stop the Bleed?
So we need mass lessons in how to tourniquet shooting victims rather than instead, um, you know reduce the number of military weapons in common usage? It feels like giving aspirin to someone who has had their leg amputated.
For anyone outside America – you know, like me – this sounds frankly, like the most awful, desperately, distracting crap I’ve heard. Well at least heard in a while.
But when I step back for a second and reflect on it, I can think of other distractive ‘fake solutions’ that pop up all over the place – that mirror “Stop the Bleed.” It feels like politicians often resort to fake solutions, where they say ‘look over here and do this, so you don’t take a deep look at the situation and see the house on fire.
In Australia – have been given a fake solution to a desperate crisis. As we recorded this episode we were experiencing the worst bush-fires ever recorded here, or anywhere else in the world ever. It’s pretty bad. And our politicians have said we shouldn’t talk about climate change and how burning coal causes it, while fires are burning. They have said we need to send thoughts and prayers. I kid you not.
And there is a lesson here when it comes to art and politics. Political art works when it cuts through all of this fake solutions BS. The most remarkable political art calls a spade a shovel and says – we need something real here. That’s what the students did. It’s what Manuel did, it’s what Cheryl did. Good political art cuts to the truth of the matter. It seeks out the cause of the problem and seeks honest action.
For Manuel, the artistic journey has also involved a lot of learning along the way.
AMANDA: Were there things that you started to learn about what made the art that you were doing or that sort of action that you were doing, more powerful?
MANUEL: Yes. That’s where we are now. My wife told me in the very early stage of all these tragedy that we lost fear and the feeling of risk. last February. We did a mural in New York. It’s a four story building. And we did these along with a company that does these amazing, big, enormous graffiti’s and we did it by parts.
So we started two weeks in advance and we place a cupid and then we place some hearts under it. And and every one there was a lot of traffic walk walking traffic in front of it. So everyone was trying to try to understand what was going to happen. What what is it that we were going to put on that mural? And then on the last day, February 14th in the morning, we added an assault rifle on Cupid’s hands. And and we added, ‘you stole my heart ‘ right under him. It was a surprise to everyone. Everybody thought that we were going to do some cheesy Valentine’s Happy Valentine’s wall in New York. And we didn’t. We did not go in that direction. We wanted to create an impact. And and that creative process also was, I, I was very proud of it.
HOST: Confrontation has continued to be critical. Whether through a mural, or now, when trying new artistic forms.
MANUEL: So we have a play, a one man show. It’s called Joaquim, My Son, My Hero, which is another way of using art to spread the message. It’s a roller coaster of emotions. There is dialog between me and my son. It’s me on stage four for one hour and 30 minutes. And the very beginning of this interview when you asked me about the journey and the process. This is exactly what learning means. And everything that we do is somehow related to the power of art.
HOST: But confrontational truth telling isn’t easy.
AMANDA: Have people attacked you for what you’re doing?
MANUEL: Yeah, every day that happens a lot because – I get it, I mean, they don’t like what we’re doing.
HOST: The NRA has a YouTube channel. Its hosts have attempted to undermine the impact Manuel Oliver and his son’s classmates are making on gun control. It broadcasts clips like this.
Grant Stinchfield: [00:00:01] “The socialists that have taken over the Democratic Party are using the murder of 17 children to push an unconstitutional agenda. Instead of implementing actual solutions that harden our schools, instead of working to find ways to keep kids safe, they are using them. Hiding behind them. All the while planning, a nationwide march that ultimately has one goal. To disarm free and law abiding citizens. [00:00:26]
HOST: But the attacks and pressure don’t dissuade Manuel. The stakes are too high.
MANUEL OLIVER: I don’t know how long this interview has taken, but every 15 minutes someone is shot dead in the United States. So probably someone was shot down while we were talking about this. I think that people should get involved before these happens.
HOST: There is also opposition from politicians. And because their voices are more mainstream, in some ways their attacks are more problematic. Republican Senator Mark Rubio from Florida, said this the day after the Parklands shooting.
[00:00:58] “… it isn’t fair or right to create this impression that somehow this attack happened yesterday because there’s some law out there that we could have passed to prevent it. For if there was such a law, that could have prevented yesterday, I think a lot of people would have supported it.” [00:01:18]
HOST: March for Our Lives isn’t just about traditional protest, memes and events.It has also used experimented with how art can create a strong political voice.
Many of the March for Our Lives students were into art – designers, into theatre and film. For Manuel, art offered a space for expressing his grief and finding a voice for change.
MANUEL OLIVER: No one is going to stop this new generation that is emerging. The Parkland kids. That’s a way to describe these. The Parkland, Parkland kids are everywhere all around the nation. So there are not only Portland kids, there are kids from New York and L.A., Chicago. There’s they’re represented everywhere. These kids are not only organized, but they are, they know exactly what they want from from their country. And and they will get it. They will get it.
Imagine these kids of 40 years ago demanding changes to the tobacco industry. Nobody will listen to them. Today, we all demand the tobacco industry to do things. So what we’re doing is just thinking ahead, like doing things that we all know that will happen at some point and and every time I feel frustrated, maybe because someone sends me an email and a threat and I think about that. Nothing that they can say is gonna change this from happening. Not because I will do it. No, it’s because the kids that new generation is gonna make sure that it happens. And then even right now, while I’m telling you this, it gives me like fresh air. Like, yeah, it’s like fighting for something that, you know, you will win.
HOST: Changemakers is hosted by me, Amanda Tattersall. Remember to subscribe to this podcast to catch all our episodes. This is series 4 so there is plenty to be inspired by in our back catalogue.
Changemakers is produced by Amanda Tattersall and Ben Keating. This Series is written by Kate Wild, Amanda Tattersall with Charles Firth as script editor. Our audio producer is Jules Wucherer.
Our sponsoring organisation is the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. They break down barriers between researchers, policy makers and community campaigners so we can build change together. Check them out at https://sydney.edu.au/sydney-policy-lab/ We are also supported by Organising Cities project funded by the Halloran Trust based at the University of Sydney.
Like us on Facebook at changemakers podcast and check out changemakerspodcast.org for transcripts and updates on all our stories.