Joaquin Oliver: American dream to American tragedy

On the four-year anniversary of the day his 17-year-old son Joaquin was shot dead by a crazed gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Manuel Oliver climbed a 150-foot construction tower and draped a banner with his late son’s face on it that read “45k people died from gun violence on your watch” in a direct message to President Joe Biden. 

“We needed to show some rebellion, some rejection to everything that is happening, and take the risk of getting arrested, which is exactly what happened after that,” Oliver said, in defining his reason for taking action.

It was on February 14, 2018, that Joaquin and 13 other students, along with three staff members, were shot and killed.

Left with nothing but a broken heart, Manuel and his family began picking up the pieces. But how do you grieve for a lost child? How do you express your frustration and anger? There is no widely accepted word for a parent who loses a child. No phrase can truly encapsulate how it feels to go through that kind of loss. With his son gone, Oliver was robbed of the greatest joy of his life. 

But you know what they say about what happens when one door closes. 

“Like you have to understand at some point that you don’t have your son anymore, your best friend, but it wouldn’t be fair for him for us to just cross our arms and wait for someone to fix the problem,” Oliver said.

And so soon after that day, four years ago, Manuel Oliver started on a mission to make sure what happened to his son would never repeat. He and his wife Patricia founded the Change The Ref organization in honor of Joaquin. CTR, which got its name from a basketball conversation between the father and son shortly before the boy’s death, takes the unique approach of using urban art as a creative confrontation to expose the disastrous effects of the mass-shooting pandemic in recent years. Approximately 110 people in America are killed with guns per day. 

Manuel and his family immigrated to the United States from Venezuela when Joaquin was only two years old. Moving here at a young age, Joaquin quickly adapted to American culture. He was just like any other kid. He loved football and basketball, was a fan of music from Frank Ocean and XXXTentatcion and was passionate about sensitive issues like the Black Lives Matter movement.

Manuel moved his family to the U.S. in pursuit of a better and safer life than what Venezuela could offer. After extensive research, he chose Parkland because it was considered one of the safest places to live in Florida and had some of the best schools. Before the tragedy, Manuel was not well-educated in American politics. These days, his sole purpose is to draw attention to politicians who support the NRA and take what many people call blood money. 

“This is something I never thought I would be doing because I lost the most precious part of my life, my dear Joaquin.” Patricia Oliver said. 

Since the shooting, multiple other Stoneman Douglas victims’ families have taken to creating organizations for their crusades. Stand with Parkland, created by multiple families, works to pass safety measures within schools, so parents have the peace of mind that their children won’t be victims of gun violence. Others have worked to pass legislation such as Jamie’s Law, which Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz introduced. The law was named after Jamie Guttenberg, a 14-year-old who died that day. It requires instant background checks to prevent criminals from gaining access to firearms.

Manuel shows off one of his art pieces, encouraging young people to vote. (Photo courtesy of Manueloliver00 / Twitter)

The name of Manuel’s organization, Change The Ref, comes from Joaquin’s love for basketball. 

Oliver coached his son’s team in his last season. During one game, Joaquin got into an argument with the referee about a call that was made on the court. He was thrown out of the game, along with his father, who also argued. 

On the way home from the game, Joaquin mentioned to his dad that the team couldn’t win games with referees like that. He believed they weren’t getting a fair shot, so he suggested that they needed to change the ref. And so, the foundation name was born.

“And a couple of weeks later, when the tragedy hit, I saw how the nation’s referees, the members of Congress and Senate, were in some way like on one side of the equation,” Oliver said. “They are allies of the NRA and the gun industry. So those refs are not giving us a fair game. We will never have a fair game with their calls.” 

Arguably, CTR’s most impactful message has been the Walls Of Demand, a nationwide project consisting of murals painted by Oliver and includes images containing messages that are hard to look away from. The paintings began around a year after Joaquin’s death and Oliver estimates the number of murals he’s done to be around 55. 

One of Manuel’s Walls of Demands in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Manueloliver00 / Twitter)

“I think it connects with people directly… when you have a graphic and you also have sound, you add that interactive piece of art, it’s easier to impact people, which is exactly what this is about,” Oliver said. “This is about trying to bring people to an uncomfortable place where they realize…their kids…could be the next victim of gun violence.”

Oliver celebrated what would have been Joaquin’s 18th birthday by singing “Happy Birthday” outside the NRA headquarters. 

“I will always sing happy birthday to Joaquin, regardless of where I am,” Oliver said

CTR also aims at the NRA and the gun industry as a whole. In June of 2021, the organization tricked the former president of the NRA, David Keene, into giving a speech for the graduating class of 2021 at the James Madison Academy in Las Vegas. No such school actually exists. Keene, who still serves on the board of the NRA, spoke to 3,044 empty white chairs. Oliver said that was one chair for every student that died due to gun violence in 2021. Manuel had asked a few political figures to give speeches that day, but Keene was the only one to accept. 

“Maybe he had the biggest ego and that’s how he accepted,” Oliver said. 

Manuel Oliver shows Jeff Glor of CBS News one of his many art pieces. (Photo Courtesy of ChangeTheRef / Twitter)

Olivers’ confrontational methods certainly draw attention to his message. He only sees those who stand in the way of his mission.

“We all know that selling guns cannot be the good side of an equation where we’re losing lives. So it’s not a Republican or Democratic thing. It’s an ethical problem. And we should all see it as an ethical problem. Nobody wants kids dying around the nation, period.” Oliver said.

Yet, for all the good Oliver and Change The Ref has done, it isn’t what he wants to do. He doesn’t want to spread this message, paint murals, organize campaigns, or save lives. None of that brings him the joy that Joaquin brought him. 

Manuel and Joaquin share a father/son moment. (Photo courtesy of Manueloliver00 / Twitter)

“I’m not proud of what I do,” Oliver says. “But I understand that this is going to be my life forever… We’ll be protecting people like you forever.”

Gun legislation has been a subject for fierce debate going way back when Congress passed the National Firearms Act (NFA) back in 1934, the country’s first major federal gun control legislation. Since then, the debates surrounding firearms and the second amendment have gone back and forth.

 In recent memory, we’ve seen teenagers in high school gunned down in Parkland and Columbine, concertgoers in Las Vegas, LGBTQ and Latino people in Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub, black churchgoers in Charleston, and even first graders in Sandy Hook Elementary. None of these have been the “final straw” that pushes people over the edge. None have brought about change on a national level. 

That is what has given Oliver a reason to continue to fight, despite the lack of movement from the government.

Manuel and other activists on a campaign tour posing for a picture. (Photo courtesy of Change The Ref / Website)

Yesterday, he showed up at the White for the announcement of new legislation to limit the use of so-called ghost guns, wearing the shoes Joquin planned to use for his high school prom.

“Making sure that every time you go to bed at night, you have done something that it will create a better future for your kids or for yourself or a better present for your parents.” Oliver said. “You don’t need to wait for your heart to be in total pain, to lose a loved one, to get involved.”

Ivan Espinoza is a junior majoring in digital journalism. Ivan is interested in a career in sports journalism with an end goal of becoming a basketball analyst.

Arianna Otero is a student studying Digital Journalism with a concentration in Political Science. Some of her interests include video games, pop culture, and music. After graduation, she wishes to continue her career in journalism focusing on politics and radio.