‘May Their Memory Be a Blessing’: Hundreds Gather for Uvalde Anniversary Vigil

On Wednesday evening, precisely one year to the day since our state’s worst-ever school shooting rocked the southwest Texas town of Uvalde, hundreds gathered for a vigil at an outdoor amphitheater sandwiched between the city’s civic center and the Leona River. The crowd, as Uvaldeans have done at a litany of public events since last May 24, wore custom-made shirts depicting the 19 children and two teachers lost in the Robb Elementary shooting, or maroon t-shirts reading “Uvalde Strong.” It was a family affair, with little kids squirming and playing and occasionally running across the stage at inopportune times. 

The event began with a prayer followed by a release of live butterflies that had been distributed earlier. John Quiñones of ABC News spoke about his outlet’s year-long effort covering the shooting’s fallout, which included setting up a local office. Activists with the gun control group Newtown Action Alliance addressed the need for firearm control. And children and a teacher, Arnulfo Reyes, who survived the Robb Elementary shooting, lit candles for the assemblage to hold. 

In what seemed to be a crowd-favorite moment, Tamir Kalifa, a photojournalist who’s closely covered the shooting’s fallout for families for the last year, sang an original song written for one of the kids lost that day: Jackie Cazares, 9, whose favorite color was sage green and who dreamed of traveling to Paris. “All of the things little Jackie, all of the things little Jackie, all of the things little Jackie could have been,” the song concluded. Kalifa also delivered a Jewish prayer, finishing with a recitation of the 21 names and the words: “May their memory be a blessing.”

This evening, the parents and uncles and grandparents and siblings of those killed last year—who have spoken and spoken and spoken, from protests to local school board meetings to legislative hearings in Austin to countless media interviews—did not speak. Instead, they simply clustered together front and center, candles burning down, and—one can hope—took some shred of solace.

In the 12 months since the Uvalde tragedy—which was compounded by a disastrous police response in which a massive force including 91 state troopers wasted 74 minutes before killing the 18-year-old shooter, a delay that might have been fatal for at least a few victims—a coalition of the bereaved has pushed tirelessly for accountability and gun reform. They’ve had successes: A few law enforcement officers, including the then-chief of the school district police, have been fired; the school superintendent resigned; Congress passed a minor piece of gun control legislation; and the Texas Legislature, set to finish its regular session next Monday, may pass some tangential measures including a bill to close a loophole that can prevent the release of public records related to mass shootings.

Crosses bearing the names of shooting victims in Uvalde Gus Bova

But law enforcement has faced nothing approaching systemic accountability for its failures on May 24, 2022. And the main policy demand of the bereaved families—that lawmakers increase the purchasing age for assault-style rifles from 18 to 21, a move that likely would have saved their children’s lives—appears to have died in the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature without getting a floor vote. Meanwhile, public records related to the shooting are still being withheld as the local district attorney ostensibly continues to investigate the police response. 

Mariano Pargas, who was the acting chief of city police at the shooting scene and later resigned from the force, also continues to serve on the local county commissioners court. On Monday, two Uvalde family members spoke at the commissioners meeting about what they see as Pargas’ failures that day last year, but Pargas was not in attendance.

Wednesday evening’s vigil came after a handful of local officials sent a message to the press on May 12 that seemed to suggest media and out-of-towners should stay away from Uvalde on the anniversary. “We ask for peace and privacy,” it said, adding that “if you feel compelled to support the residents of Uvalde, please host something in your hometown in our honor.” The message was signed by the mayor and county judge, along with the district attorney and other law enforcement personnel whose agencies’ actions during and after the shooting have been heavily criticized by the families of those lost. It was not signed by any of those family members.

On May 15, LivesRobbed—a nonprofit formed by a number of the families—posted on Facebook that visitors “from all over the world” were invited to the anniversary vigil, in seeming contradiction to the officials’ statement. Finally, on Monday, city leaders called a press conference in which Mayor Don McLaughlin said the intent of their prior message had been to protect the families’ privacy—“not trying to keep anyone from [coming] here.” Interim Superintendent Gary Patterson added that the statement had been intended to dissuade unidentified “bad actors” from coming to town.

At that Monday presser, Berlinda Arreola—who lost her 10-year-old granddaughter Amerie Jo Garza in the shooting—attributed the mixed messaging to a “miscommunication on both parts,” but specified that she wished officials would have shown families their May 12 letter before sending it.

Outside Robb Elementary, on Wednesday afternoon, a memorial that once sprawled across an entire corner of the school grounds, overflowing chaotically with teddy bears and flowers and letters, had been pared down to something a bit more austere: just 21 white crosses bearing the names of those lost—a few stuffed animals and flowers piled around each—and a marker on the ground where visitors leave coins. Despite plans to tear it down, the school building still stood, pending ongoing litigation according to Uvalde’s interim superintendent. The windows in the school’s addition, where all the killing took place, were still boarded up with plywood. A painfully outdated sign affixed to a chain-link fence, just outside the door where the shooter entered, still advised: “All visitors must get pass at office.” 

Officers from the various police departments that failed to swiftly enter Robb’s classrooms a year ago were staked out all along the perimeter Wednesday. Signs reading “No media allowed past this point” were scattered a bit confusingly not far from the memorial as photographers milled around looking for shots and TV camera crews staged just across the narrow street. At the town’s main plaza, a mile away, another memorial to the 21 lost ringed a fountain, and towering murals of the schoolchildren had popped up on exterior walls of nearby establishments. 

At the city’s west edge, just off Highway 90, the town cemetery was—as has been the case for a year now—alive with pickup trucks and grieving family members gathered around graves dug a lifetime too early.

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