In a week when Joe Biden tepidly proclaimed independence over the coronavirus, a different sort of plague was afoot. Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a gun violence emergency in New York State and more than 180 individuals were shot to death over the 4th of July weekend. We are awash in gun violence.
Within this dispiriting context I became aware of an action carried out by a group I had not heard of called, Change the Ref. The organization was founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver to honor their son Joaquin, a victim of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The name is derived from a plea Joacquin, who loved to play basketball, made of his father, imploring him to do something about his experience with blatantly unfair referees on the basketball court. The Olivers adopted the phrase “Change the Ref” and applied it to their campaign against the gun lobby in an effort to bring sensible gun legislation to the US, uniquely plagued among the world’s nations by the epidemic of gun violence.
So far—an excellent cause, a touching story. But what really grabbed my attention was the action they initiated to bring attention to this issue. They invited two Second Amendment advocates–NRA board member David Keene, who was the pro-gun group’s president from 2011 to 2013 and John Lott Jr., author of “More Guns, Less Crime,” to speak at the graduation ceremony of James Madison High School outside of Los Vegas, Nevada. James Madison is the author of the second amendment.
There was only one hitch: unbeknown to the speakers, James Madison High School does not actually exist. The authors had created it out of whole cloth, including its own website. The speakers were asked to participate in a “rehearsal” to check sound levels. Change the Ref activists set up a field with 3,044 empty chairs–the lost class–with each chair representing a student who would have graduated but had been cut down by gun violence. The speakers delivered their remarks to the empty chairs as dramatic video footage captured the action. After the rehearsal, the speakers were told the graduation had been cancelled because of a credible threat of violence.
When approached by BuzzFeed News after the “event” John Lott was incredulous. “I had no idea. You mean the whole thing was a set-up?”
I can only begin to imagine the attention to detail required to successfully pull off this “event,” and the level of stress experienced on that empty field as the gun apologists delivered their remarks; I can only guess at the jubilation and sense of relief as Change the Ref organizers realized they were successful in their deception.
But the kicker for me was in the response by Manuel Oliver to an interview with Rachel Maddow who asked him what gives him hope that things will change after all these years of legislative failure as gun violence continues to rise (as evidenced in this July 4th weekend’s toll). His answer was profound in its simplicity: “My hope lies in the fact that we are having this conversation on television and it was not preceded by a mass shooting.”
Yes, herein lies the hope! If we can unleash the creativity that lies in the DNA of so many Americans, we can catapult actions that capture our imagination into the spotlight, crowding out the messages of dehumanization, division and despair that so flood our media. Whether it be gun violence, climate change, economic disparity based on race or the threat to our democracy; bold and innovative ideas help us change the story in dramatic ways. The power of “story” touches the heart as well as the mind and invariably has a greater impact than recitation of facts and figures, charts and graphs or endless policy fights that produce incremental changes in our laws. Kudos to Change the Ref for showing us the way.