Manuel Oliver and Diana Earl both belong to a club that becomes less exclusive every day: survivors of gun violence victims.
“Once you’re in this club, you cannot get out of it,” said Earl, whose son, Dedrick, was shot and killed in Austin at age 22. “This is a club no one wants to be in.”
Earl and Oliver, whose son was among the 17 people killed in the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., are visiting Dallas this weekend to protest another club: the National Rifle Association.
About 80,000 NRA members are expected to attend its annual conference at the downtown convention center, as well as President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Oliver will perform a live art installation during a student-organized rally outside City Hall on Saturday morning. He said he’s always been the “father that paints,” but since his son’s death, he’s traveled around the country, creating murals with messages demanding gun reform.
When Oliver learned the NRA convention would be held in Dallas, he said, he knew he needed to be in town to make his statement.
“I believe that having a convention for the NRA and supporting them and bringing the president of the United States, it’s showing very low respect for the victims of gun violence,” he said. “This is where we show that we are more.”
For Oliver, painting the walls is how he keeps his son’s voice alive.
“I didn’t start this as a way to feel better. I started this to express Joaquin’s voice. To be honest, with the process of making a wall here and a wall there, it removes sadness from me and it brings power to myself.”
Oliver said he and his wife, Patricia, consider their son one of the leaders of the movement of young people demanding gun reform, such as those who took part in demonstrations a month after the massacre.
“He was part of the March for Our Lives,” Oliver said. “We choose to see Joaquin as one of them. So that said, our parenting is not over. We keep on being parents of Joaquin.”
In April, his mural in Springfield, Mass., included a photo of his son with a “NO HUNTING” sign around him. He smashed his canvas with a hammer, placing sunflowers in the holes.
Inviting Oliver to Dallas was an easy decision for Waed Alhayek and other members of the group he leads, StudentsMarch.org, which organized the rally at City Hall.
Oliver said he will paint during the rally, between speakers. At the end, he’ll take the microphone as the final person to address the crowd, and he’ll invite attendees to sign the mural.
His nonprofit, Change The Ref, focuses on empowering young people to create change in their communities. That’s in line with what StudentsMarch.org aims to do, too, Alhayek said.
“We thought it would be incredibly powerful that on the same day that all these gun enthusiasts are meeting for this convention, students are going to rise up,” Alhayek said.
The group’s demonstration, called Rally4Reform, will start at 10 a.m. in City Hall Plaza. Voter registration booths will open at 9 a.m.
Gun-control advocates won’t be the only demonstrators this weekend. A counterprotest focused on protecting Second Amendment rights will be held outside City Hall at noon Saturday. The rally was organized by North Texas Patriots for Liberty, Open Carry Texas and other groups.
Among other groups protesting the convention is Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an organization that Earl became involved with shortly after her son’s death in November 2016.
Earl said she wants to call for lawmakers to close the loophole that allows vendors to sell firearms at gun shows without keeping sale records or performing background checks, even if that goes against what NRA leaders support.
“The NRA is not our government, and every official that is voted in needs to know that,” Earl said. “This is not a temporary moment for us. This is a movement.”
Throughout the NRA convention, which began Thursday and ends Sunday at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, gun reform groups around the city plan to speak out against the organization in different ways.
Faith Forward Dallas, a coalition of faith leaders of many religions, will host a prayer vigil at City Hall Plaza for the duration of the NRA convention. Attendees have signed up for hourlong prayer slots from 2 p.m. Thursday until that night, then again Friday, Saturday and Sunday starting at 6 a.m. Sunday’s last prayer slot ends at 6 p.m., according to the group’s website.
“This is intended to be our faithful response to what we know is a very divisive thing in our city and in our world right now,” said the Rev. Rachel Baughman, Faith Forward spokeswoman. “We are making an active gesture of faith by being present, by praying for those coming and going, but more than that, praying for our elected officials.”
At 7 a.m., noon and 7 p.m. each day during the vigil’s duration, a faith leader will hold a service in the plaza, Baughman said.
The Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action will host a Day of Action on Saturday aimed at teaching participants how to influence lawmakers, volunteer Donna Schmidt said.
After an “explosion of interest” in the group’s work since the Parkland shooting, Schmidt hopes new members will use the three-hour training to continue pushing back on bad gun laws, she said.
“The gun lobby has a dangerous agenda that we’ve seen across the country, putting more guns in more places in the hands of dangerous people,” she said. “We have been doing the work that has been beating that back, and we’ve been very successful at it.”
The Day of Action will take place from 2 to 5 p.m. at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, and there will be a separate track of events for students who attend, Schmidt said.
Dallas police said Wednesday they are aware of several protest events planned throughout the weekend — with and without permits — and are working with organizers to handle security.