One hundred twenty-six days after the deadliest school shooting in Texas history submerged his town in grief, Brett Cross began sleeping in front of the Uvalde school district’s administration building. Uncle and guardian to one of the 19 children lost on May 24 at Robb Elementary, Cross announced he wasn’t leaving until the district suspended its five-person police force—a fraction of the 376 officers who wasted 70-plus minutes in the botched response to the killing. Cross met two days later with Uvalde Superintendent Hal Harrell, who swore he couldn’t spare the district’s officers. Harrell then condemned Cross, and others who joined him during the days, writing in a letter: “We do not condone this group’s behavior and are seeking an end to the disruption,” while the district also started installing a fence on site.
Cross, updating his 35,000 Twitter followers regularly, refused to back down. And eight days in, he caught a break: CNN revealed the school police department had hired an ex-state trooper under investigation for her role in May 24’s lackadaisical police response. The trooper was even caught on film saying she would have acted more bravely had her own child been in the school. The story sparked more supporters to join Cross and, on October 7, Harrell suddenly found he could suspend the district police department after all. Then, Harrell—who’d worked three decades in the district and whose father had been superintendent too—announced his retirement. Cross declared victory and, at last, went home.
“With the help of media everywhere we pushed and pushed. … From day one this has been about accountability and transparency,” Cross wrote. “Our children deserve it. We deserve it. We will move forward into the next battle, as this war has no end in sight.”
This remarkable bit of activism was no isolated event, but rather an escalation of a now-five-month-old ad hoc movement for accountability and gun control spearheaded by parents of those lost at Robb Elementary. Alongside persistent investigative journalists, this movement has become a vigorous force for change and against forgetting—one that has racked up a growing list of wins and whose influence will continue to be felt through the ongoing election and next year’s legislative session. Despite some local divisions and backlash, this assemblage is stress-testing the Texas tradition of moving on from mass shootings without real reform. Under the weight of a tragedy that could crush anyone, these families are fulfilling a pledge made memorably at a July protest by Kimberly Rubio: “What I want no one can give me: I want my daughter back, and if I can’t have her, then those who failed her will never know peace.”
In just the few months following the shooting, Uvalde families organized the largest protest their town had seen in half a century, convinced the city council of nearby Hondo to cancel an event affiliated with the National Rifle Association, and joined survivors of other mass shootings to push bipartisan gun legislation through Congress and an assault weapons ban through the U.S. House. They turned city, county, and school board meetings into endless referenda on their local leaders, and they formed organizations including LivesRobbed, Uvalde Strong for Child Safety, K.A.R.M.A., and Fierce Madres. Currently, Javier Cazares, who lost his daughter Jackie in the tragedy, is running as a write-in candidate against County Commissioner Mariano Pargas, who was also the acting chief of the city police at the shooting scene. Pete Arredondo, the ex-chief of the school district police who was fired in August and was also a city council member, is set to be replaced on council by Eloisa Medina, who is involved with Fierce Madres and would be the only woman on the municipal body.
Starting last month, a number of families also chose to ally more closely with the Democratic gubernatorial campaign of Beto O’Rourke, who—unlike Republican incumbent Greg Abbott—supports gun control policies like “red flag” laws and raising the age from 18 to 21 for buying an assault rifle like the one used by the Uvalde killer. (Florida passed such an age-raising law in 2018 after the Parkland school shooting, providing a possible model for Texas.) On the day of the first and only debate between the two candidates for Texas governor, a few dozen Uvaldeans traveled to Edinburg for a press conference. The Abbott campaign insisted that no members of the public, including the families, could attend the debate, according to the O’Rourke campaign.
O’Rourke then launched an unusually affecting political ad that featured Uvalde families sitting together, holding photos of their perished children, explaining to the camera: “No child is safe in their school while Greg Abbott is governor.”
At the state Legislature, the Uvalde relatives have found an ardent ally in their Democratic Senator Roland Gutierrez, who plans to force the state Senate to discuss gun control in next year’s session even if it means amending his bills onto other priority legislation. “We’ll have Uvalde families in there. … As far as I can see, those families aren’t going to stop, nor should they,” he told the Observer in a forthcoming profile.
And over in the state House, Uvalde’s Representative Tracy King—survivor of a dying breed of white Democrats representing rural Texas—recently came out in support of raising the AR purchase age.
“Now, I haven’t always felt that way [about gun control],” King said in an October 5 press conference. “That was before May 24. A law that would require a young adult to wait until they were 21 would have made a difference in this particular situation, so I support that law wholeheartedly. … I appreciate these families putting that out there because as I said earlier they could be asking for so much more.”
Any state legislation, of course, will face the buzzsaw of Abbott and uber-right Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (unless either is upset by their Democratic opponents in the November 8 election). And GOP House Speaker Dade Phelan has also spoken against raising the purchase age. Nevertheless, the topic is sure to roil the Capitol in 2023.
As for police accountability, attention has shifted up the chain from local police to the state Department of Public Safety (DPS), which was represented by 91 officers at the shooting scene and which has refused to release radio communications and body camera footage to the public. In addition to the ex-trooper hired then fired by the Uvalde school district, an internal investigation has led DPS to fire a sergeant who arrived within four minutes of the shooting but urged delay—in violation of police protocols to immediately confront active shooters. A DPS captain who ordered a delay more than an hour into the attack is under investigation too, along with a Texas Ranger, while the department is also seeing an unusual rash of retirements.
Time will tell how much heat reaches the longtime head of the state police, Steve McCraw, who sought initially to deflect all blame onto the Uvalde school police chief. “I’ll be the first to resign, I’ll gladly resign, I’ll tender my resignation to the governor if I think there is any culpability in the Department of Public Safety,” McCraw pledged last month. Some Uvalde family members, including Cross and Rubio, are already demanding he make good on the promise.
To be clear, there is division and backlash to the families’ demands in Uvalde, a southwest Texas town of 15,000. After Superintendent Harrell announced his retirement, CNN reported a number of largely Anglo Harrell supporters showed up to a school board meeting with signs, including one that read, “Stop the blame game.” The priest of a local Catholic church urged peace before justice, and a deacon wrote a screed to Uvalde’s daily paper denouncing activists as “grievance hustlers.” Uvalde County, 73 percent Latino, voted for Trump in both his presidential runs, and the area has a sordid history of segregation and racism. Furthermore, the families and their supporters have struggled to coalesce into a central organization.
But anyone familiar with mass protest, especially civil disobedience, knows that it sparks backlash. Why would this be different in a small town that hasn’t seen comparable activism in 50 years? And anyone who’s spent time in activist organizations knows how hard it is to get passionate people on the same page. Why would this be different for a movement composed of novice activists mobilized by extraordinary personal grief? The truth is, a trajectory of progress is already clear, and this movement of families—alongside a diligent press—has the chance to flip the script on Texas school massacres. Maybe this time we won’t look back, as through a fog, and remember we didn’t change anything of substance.
For politically engaged Texans, expect to keep hearing the names of Cross, Rubio, Cazares, Garza, Garcia, and so many more. Wherever even one of these Texans goes, they carry with them the gravitas of membership in a club no one wants to join and the magnetism to hush a room when they speak. For Texans concerned with child safety, or just the social fabric of this state, let’s hope they keep pushing, as long as their strength holds.