As he prepared to address a crowd of cheering supporters on Saturday, Manuel Oliver refused to stand behind the lectern set up for him and other listed speakers at a gun-control rally in Miami’s Design District.
That space in the middle of the audience’s gaze, he explained, belonged to his son Joaquin Oliver, 17, a graduating senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High who was killed at his school more than three months ago.
“This is exactly the moment when the mission is more important than how we feel,” he said, joined at the front of a room inside the Palm Court Event Space by his wife, Patricia. “After what you just did, I want to be sitting down and crying, but I don’t think that’s gonna solve anything.”
A day before their son was supposed to join his fellow seniors at the BB&T Center in Sunrise and receive his diploma, a monumental step on his path to college and then to a fulfilling career, the Olivers stood unified as they put their own grief aside to urge local leaders, candidates for state and federal office and volunteers to continue fighting for a safer country.
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Four seniors were among the 17 students and school staff members killed during the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland.
“So tomorrow is a very special day for us,” Oliver said. “We’re gonna show up tomorrow to graduation, and we’re gonna raise our voice ... and they’re gonna know we are with Joaquin and with every other victim of gun violence.”
Following their son’s death, the Olivers founded the advocacy group Change the Ref, which aims to diminish the political capital held by the National Rifle Association.
Saturday’s rally, held in observance of National Gun Violence Awareness Week, was organized by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The space and those in attendance were draped in blazing orange, or safety orange, which has come to represent the anti-gun violence movement.
Following Oliver’s remarks, his wife took the microphone and spoke of a mother’s unique sense of responsibility to keep peace in her household and to maintain control over her children’s well-being.
“This time, we have to extend what we do at home outside,” she said. “We are using our voice in Joaquin’s name. Joaquin is right there and I am feeling him, that he is hugging me and giving me the strength to be talking here in front of you.”