You're Killing Us: On Love, Grief, Rage, Action and Dead Baby Jokes

Oliver painted Joaquin with Hendrix and other role models. Photo by Susan Stocker, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

We're still seething from the moment in Wednesday's House gun control hearing when GOP Florida douchebag, Trump fan and drunk driver Rep. Matt Gaetz started blathering the greatest danger facing us isn't our insane arsenal of firearms but "illegal aliens" - 786th note to racist jackasses: no human is illegal - and we need a wall to be safe not these no-brainer background checks the vast majority of Americans, in fact, support. This, at the first legislative gathering to address gun violence in over eight years - attended by all 24 Democrats and five of 17 Repubs - even though there's a shooting nine out of ten days in America affecting about 100 people a day, with nearly 40,000 Americans dying from guns in 2017, a 40 year-high. Despite that all-American carnage, Republicans kept spewing garbage denials; they were topped by Gaetz jabbering "the greatest driver of violence (was) not the firearm,” so yeah, go wall.

Gaetz' prompted outrage in the roomful of young March For Our Lives activists, and in two outspoken fathers of Parkland victims - Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed, and Manuel Oliver, who lost his 17-year-old son Joaquin, known as "Guac." When Oliver stood and shouted back, Gaetz issued his appalling ejection threat. Oliver, of course, has seen much, much worse. A 51-year-old Venezuelan immigrant and graphic artist, he has spent the year since his son's murder engulfed in grief, anger, and a fierce resolve to turn his loss into change, using the power of art to advocate for "a new generation of dead kids." He has painted scores of murals, held die-ins, testified often in D.C., and organized voter registration drives - "Just Fucking Vote." In all, "I'm being as rebellious as democracy is letting me be.”

From the moment he heard his son was dead, Oliver vowed he wouldn't allow him to be a mere victim: "Joaquin was going to be the voice." He and his wife Patricia quickly formed Change the Ref, an advocacy group using urban art and "nonviolent creative confrontation" to expose the horror of and the complicity of NRA-bought politicians. Its goal: To give young survivors "a disrupting voice to help lead the way to change." The name comes from Joaquin just before he was killed; ejected from a basketball game for disagreeing with a biased referee's call, he said: "Dad, we need to change the ref if we are looking for a fair game.” One of Oliver's early, most-publicized actions was painting, with broad, furious strokes, his first mural: An image of Joaquin with, "WE DEMAND A CHANGE" in huge black letters.

That first mural launched “Walls of Demand,” a series of installations, half performance art and half gun-control rally, he has staged around the country, usually in politically strategic places, including at Smith and Wesson headquarters. For what would have been Joaquin’s 18th birthday in August, he went to NRA headquarters with about 1,000 supporters; over the shouts of protesting and often armed gun freaks, he painted a massive Joaquin, 17 birthday candles for Parkland's 17 victims, an extra candle for his son, and  the words, “We demand to blow out our candles.” Then he took a hammer and knocked a hole through each flame. Despite what many people believe, Oliver says his murals are not cathartic and do not ease his pain; he feels they simply "give a voice to Joaquin." “I can be sad or I can fight," he says. "This is not me being an artist. This is Joaquin being an activist.”

Oliver's work was featured in a tribute exhibit “Parkland 17" sponsored by NBA star Dwayne Wade, who was such a hero to Joaquin his family buried him in a Wade jersey. He has painted Joaquin in a timeline that abruptly stops, and in the company of other activists Oliver views as role models. He recently painted a scathing mural on Tijuana's border wall with Mexico; it reads, in Spanish, "On the other side, they also kill our children." In D.C. he staged a chilling die-in: Amidst a crowd of participants in Joaquin masks and a life-size Joaquin statue, Oliver hefted a megaphone and called out lawmakers: "Where are your children? Are they safe? You want to talk about a national emergency? Here's one - you're killing us."

In his most gut-wrenching action, he just performed a mock stand-up set after Louis C.K., in a new low, mocked the Parkland students' activism. In the video, Oliver puts up posters - “Murdering Innocent Children Comedy Night” - before taking the stage and describing the last time he saw his son. “You guys ever heard dead baby jokes? I got a dead baby. His name was Joaquin Oliver. He was gonna be 18. But now he’s dead.” Pause. “And that’s not a joke.” Then he walks off the stage. This week, Oliver said his rage at the hearing, like his unrelenting labors since Parkland, come from the same place - as a heartsick father - and have the same message: "Remember our son." This summer, he painted a mural featuring Joaquin in his knit cap alongside activist Emma Gonzalez, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and other notables; above them, big red letters read, “WE DEMAND.” Why put Hendrix and Joaquin together, he was asked. “Because everyone is a rock star."


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Joaquin's time line, suddenly stopped

Along the southern border. @AFPphoto by @GmoAriasC

Joaquin and Joaquin-masked supporters at D.C. die-in

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