Two and a half years after a mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead, Manny Oliver—father of Joaquin Oliver, who was murdered that day—continues to push for a more peaceful future.
His latest effort, a collaboration with MullenLowe, centers on one of his son's great loves—baseball. Father and son had been touring Major League Ballparks in the final years of Joaquin's life. That tour now continues, as Manny has bought space to put a carboard cutout of his son in the seats at 14 ballparks around the country—a creative use of a fan-appreciation effort many teams have been offering during Covid.
The move is designed to keep Joaquin’s memory—and his love of the game—alive, while continuing to bring attention to the epidemic of gun violence in America. In the two years since Parkland, there have been 83 additional school shootings and zero changes to federal gun laws.
Here are some images of Joaquin at MLB parks:
The effort, titled #CutOutTheBullshit, has drawn lots of attention around the league. Oakland Athletics pitcher Jesús Luzardo, who attended Stoneman Douglas, sought out Joaquin's cutout and paid his respects.
Thanks to @Athletics Pitcher Jesus Luzardo @Baby_Jesus9 for showing respect to Joaquin ”Guac” Oliver at the Oakland Coliseum. Two Venezuelans ready to strike out a few. Viva Guac! And the other 40k/year victims from Gun Violence. @patriciapadauy pic.twitter.com/zz7jtkddS6— Manuel Oliver (@manueloliver00) September 10, 2020
"On Nov. 3, let's send a message to the do-nothing politicians: Our children aren't cardboard cutouts. Either you protect them from gun violence or you're out. #CutOutTheBullshit," says a YouTube video recapping the effort.
We spoke with Manny Oliver—who runs the Change the Ref organization, battling gun violence—by Zoom on Wednesday to get the full story behind the campaign.
Muse: Tell me about your son's love of baseball.
Manny Oliver: Joaquin loved baseball. All credit goes to him for that, because there were no baseball fans in this house but Joaquin. He didn't have a father with the passion or even the patience to watch a whole baseball game. But I did understand the passion and love that my son had. Along with my wife, we were able to empower that. Joaquin played 10 or 11 seasons when he was a kid. We were there the whole time, watching him play and supporting him. It was special to watch baseball games on TV with him because he knew everything. He was the perfect partner to watch a game with. That's part of what I miss right now. Not only did I lose my son, I lost a great guy who was also my best friend.
Muse: You traveled to ballparks together?
We did it two years in a row. We went to Detroit and watched a game. He wanted to see the Tigers. His favorite player is Miguel Cabrera. We went to Boston, and we went to New York. We had the best experience in specific ballparks. Where is it we can find the best hot dog? Oh, that'll be Fenway Park. Where is it that the french fries are amazing? Oh, that might be the Cubs in Chicago. That was the tradition we were building. Suddenly, I can't do that anymore. The tradition was not for me. It was for him to remember it, and then he will go with his kids and maybe bring me, as an old guy, to one of the games.
So the fact that, today, there are images of Joaquin in other ballparks that I was not able to bring my son to, it feels nice. I think destiny found a way to bring Joaquin to these places, so our goal of visiting more and more ballparks would be achieved. He's not only watching the games, he's sending a strong message. I can say that I'm a proud father of an activist who has a big presence when it comes to defeating gun violence.
Where did this idea of the cutouts come from?
In order to get to that answer, I have to tell you that everything that we do since we lost our son needs to be disruptive. So we have made a lot of campaigns with advertising firms. In this particular case, MullenLowe did it with us. They came up with the initial idea. I don't remember me changing many things—just small details here and there. It's a great way of sending a message. We are putting together an American tradition like baseball with an American pandemic like gun violence. These are two very American things. We're also reaching a new audience, because it's not usual to have these kinds of campaigns directed to a group of people who love sports. So I think it's brilliant. And because I see the results today, I can't imagine anything more effective than this to send our message.
Tell me about those results. Are you getting a lot of PR pickup over the last few weeks?
It's incredible. Not to mention, it has been organic. We got a call from the Blue Jays, who were not part of the campaign. They wanted to be a part of the campaign. Now they will have Joaquin's image in all their games. We got a call from the Athletics in Oakland. Luzardo, the pitcher, he wanted to find out where Joaquin was inside the park so he could take a picture with him. Luzardo went to the same high school as Joaquin. These things are pretty amazing for me as a father. You have to understand that I have all intentions to continue being Joaquin's dad. This is a way for me to do something with my son and my wife. So it's great. The response has been amazing.
Can you describe what it's like personally for you and your wife to see his cutout at these games?
This is the best way to answer that. We went through the worst. The day they told us our son was murdered, shot four times inside the school—anything that happens now, it will never hurt as bad as that day. Today is more about the mission we have. Today is about how to prevent this from happening to others. That's what these kinds of campaigns are doing. We are open to sharing our message in an unique, untraditional way. I'm not going to do things that have already been shown to fail. I'm not going to go to D.C. and spend hours talking to politicians who actually don't give much importance to what's going on because selling guns and the gun industry and the gun manufacturers are more important than civilians' lives. We skip that step. We move forward to talk to society through strong messages. You know who's good with strong messages? The advertising industry.
Creativity is probably the best way to get heard, and to make change.
Yeah. In America, we are used to these situations and we move on. We assume this is our normal, this is the status quo we need to live with, and this is it. I refuse to think that way. I don't think Americans deserve this kind of status quo. If I need to do whatever needs to be done to change it, and it will take a few years, then I'm in. At least I'm going to start doing something, so we cannot keep saying we are the greatest country in the whole world and at the same time accept that these things can happen on a daily basis. After Joaquin was shot until today, at least 100,000 people have lost their lives because of gun violence. This is beyond Joaquin. This is way beyond Joaquin.
What progress are you making with Change the Ref? Is it a busy time leading up to the election?
It's a balance of busy and not so busy because of Covid. Before Covid, we were traveling a lot. I'm an artist so we have these activations of murals and I do a lot of speeches and we even had a theater play. When Covid hit, we were not allowed to travel, and we don't want to travel. We don't want to get sick. That has slowed down everything we're doing. On the other hand, you just said it. In 40-something days we have an election and we're going to choose the next president of the United States. We know gun violence is a main subject that needs to be part of the decision we're going to make on Nov. 3. It's a reality. No one's going to ask if you are Democratic or Republican before shooting you. So that's where we are. I'm pretty sure gun violence is going to be a decision-maker when it comes to who are we electing and who are we not electing.
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