After filming, Uvalde becomes a new stage on a sinister American circuit

People come to the town square in Uvalde May 27 to pay their respects to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.
People come to the town square in Uvalde May 27 to pay their respects to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

UVALDE, Texas – The cowboy traveled 1,213 miles from his farm in Ohio and erected a blue tent and a sign asking, “NEED TO TALK?” on an empty corner lot. The Dallas artist painted a mural on a large canvas set up across from Robb Elementary School. Parents of a mass shooting victim fly out of Buffalo, telling new members of the terrible brotherhood created by another rampage.

As this small town mourns 19 children and two teachers killed at school by a gunman, it has also grown, becoming a place of pilgrimage for mourners, rescuers, therapists, proselytes and voyeurs . In a an area which is usually occupied by summer vacationers cooling off in the Frio River or autumn hunters prowling the hill country, the hotels are now exceptionally full, the restaurants bustling.

There are media hordes, of course, with tents, cameras, vans and bright lights. But other foreigners came too. Police vehicles from other towns in Texas – Cactus City, Irving, Amarillo – line the streets, standing in for a local force facing scrutiny for its late response to the shooting. Whataburger employees from other stores arrive every day so that staff at the Uvalde outlet can take time off. The Billy Graham Rapid Response Bus, American Red Cross, Christian Bikers, Mariachi Musicians from San Antonio and Therapy Dogs from Florida lined up in front of makeshift memorials.

The scene highlights an unusually American reality. Mass shootings happen so often here that their locations have become something of a circuit, the kind of place where regulars see familiar faces and lament the latest tragedy.

“These shootings are always the same but always different,” said Sandy Phillips, whose daughter was killed in a shooting in Aurora, Colorado in 2012, and who now travels with her husband from one massacre to the next. . The survivors of Uvalde, she said, are “a family now – sadly, a family you never want to be a part of”.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin in an interview described the media visit as intrusive and frustrating “never ending”. But he called counselors and spiritual leaders who descended on the city a “blessing”.

“Not only will these families need help…you have so many citizens who are traumatized by this,” McLaughlin said.

Ohio cowboy David Graham – unrelated to Billy – has set up his minimalist “Cowboy Cares” operation half a mile on Main Street from a memorial in the town square. He had just been in Buffalo, where 10 people were shot and killed in a supermarket, and said he wanted to avoid the “circus” – the surreal festival vibe that blankets the leisurely tour visitors take around pile of withered bouquets and crosses dedicated to each victim. .

Many there have a program, Graham said. He only wanted to offer an ear, and had met with remarkable success: about 100 people a day had gone there, he estimated.

Graham, 62, stands on the corner in his white hat, giving a thumbs up and clapping for passing cars. He looks each visitor in the eye and asks, “How do you sleep?” The answer is rarely right; tears often flow. At a recent party, Graham chatted with a man who came to thank the cowboy for his presence and ran over a Grapevine, Texas police cruiser as he passed.

Next is Uvalde County Sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Davila, who is off duty, carrying two bottles of water for Graham. “People are looking for why – why did this happen,” Davila, 47, told Graham. “The one constant I’ve come to realize is that sometimes people do bad things.”

Karina Arango, 34, rolled around in a Mini Cooper. She certainly wasn’t sleeping well, she said, and soon she was sobbing. Her friend’s daughter was in intensive care, seriously injured by bullets. Graham offered Kleenex.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” Graham told her as she knelt at her window. Arango perked up when he told her he planned to stay at least until the last funeral, then mentioned that she had just hosted a clown from Houston who couldn’t find a hotel room. . “It was amazing to have him,” she said with a smile.

Phillips and her husband, Lonnie, hastily left Buffalo, leaving behind the motorhome that transports them from massacre to massacre, where they distribute a tool kit for survivors in morgues, schools and more. Uvalde was the 19th mass shooting site they have visited since their daughter, Jessi, was killed in a movie theatre.

“We talked about just setting up a table and having that information there for anyone who might need it. But we are still reluctant to be part of the circus,” Sandy said, describing street preachers and motorbike ministers. “They were just loud and obnoxious, and it made me sad that this quiet little community was flooded.”

It was quieter Thursday night in the town square, where Knights of Columbus from various Texas chapters flipped burgers in 91-degree heat. An Albuquerque teacher sang a song by Sarah McLachlan and told those gathered that she knew Uvalde would be different from what she saw on TV, so she “had to be here.” The crowd, mostly locals, sat in camp chairs and seemed grateful.

Earlier today, Dion Green stood on the sidelines of the memorial in a t-shirt that read “NOT ONE MORE.” He survived a 2019 mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio that killed nine people, including his father, who died in his arms. Green had also just arrived from Buffalo.

“Every time there is another. Just like yesterday, Oklahoma,” Green said, referring to a Wednesday shooting at a Tulsa hospital that killed four people. “I’m just trying to offer light and hope so people can move on. It takes time.”

In Robb, onlookers slowly walked past another memorial. A few houses away, a woman sold beef brisket in her driveway to raise money for the family of a deceased child. She was relieved, she said, that the TV vans with their lights had thinned out.

Opposite the school, Roberto Marquez took a break from the colorful, angular mural he had been working on for two days in a yard whose owner he said had given him permission. “I don’t encroach,” said Marquez, 60, who wore a black cowboy hat.

When the Uvalde shooting happened, Marquez had only recently returned home to Dallas after nearly three months of painting in Ukraine. It was his mission now, Marquez said: To go from crisis to crisis — the migrant caravans, the collapse of the Surfside condo — to create art.

“Very few times I felt rejected,” he said. “Most of the time people think what I’m doing is right.”

Uvalde was only the third stop on Graham’s cowboy listening tour. A former Southern California ad salesman, he said he used to openly mock Christianity, using hotel Bible pages to roll joints. Then one night he stopped to read a verse, and he became a believer, but not an evangelist.

Graham said he had long done relief work, lending his muscles to haul wet furniture from homes flooded by the hurricane. But he’s older now, and a conversation in December with a woman in tornado-strewn Kentucky got him swinging. She asked him if she could attend the funeral of a man she believed had not done enough to save, Graham said.

“I said, ‘I don’t know, but how do you sleep? “, Graham said. “Then I had the idea that people needed to talk.

Graham spent weeks there. Buffalo was next.

In Uvalde, he had a window into the city’s ongoing trauma. A child’s uncle who called 911 from inside Robb pulled over, Graham said. Worried teenagers would be ashamed to tell future classmates where they came from. A man has sobbed that anger at the police might force his son-in-law, an officer, out of town – and with him, the man’s daughter and grandchildren.

“My grandkids,” he said, “they’re pushing them away and they won’t even see the sane part of this town come back,” Graham recalled.

McLaughlin, the mayor, expressed concern that families of the victims have long-term support and resources, even after all visitors have left. But their departure will also reveal the true character of the city.

“Then you’ll see the side of Uvalde that we’re talking about again,” McLaughlin said. “The neighbor will be there for the neighbor. They will be strong and support each other.

Graham doesn’t doubt it. Uvalde, he said, is more open and united than any place he has visited.

“All I want to do is leave it a little better than I found it,” Graham told Gilbert Limones, a pastor who came with members of his congregation to pray with the cowboy in the darkness after sunset.

One of the pastor’s companions gave Graham a cooler. Limones offered Graham a place to shower. Graham, who sleeps in his truck most nights, headed for a hotel room instead — one that, a week after the shooting, was finally open.

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