For the families of Uvalde, a call for answers is getting louder and louder

UVALDE, Texas – Kimberly Rubio and her husband, Felix, took to the stage Sunday night at Uvalde Plaza next to City Hall while holding a photo of their slain daughter, Alexandria Aniyah Rubio, known as Lexi, and read aloud part of the Uvalde Police Department’s mission statement.

The department is “committed to providing superior policing to the public in order to protect lives,” Ms. Rubio said, her voice shaking. She remembers testifying before Congress to advocate for more gun control measures in the wake of the mass shooting in her town.

Then she looked up and gained fire in her voice. “What I want, no one can give me,” she said. “I want my daughter back. If I can’t have it, then those who let it down will never know peace.

In the days following the Robb Elementary School massacre, parents like Ms. Rubio and others close to the victims responded with silent shock and grief. Residents of this mostly Mexican-American community in South Texas hunkered down and fended off strangers as they buried the dead and embraced in intimate family gatherings.

But as time passed and officials largely failed to explain why it took officers more than an hour to confront the shooter who killed 19 children and two teachers, the shock faded and the anger that started to set in at first only intensified. In recent weeks, families have lambasted their elected officials at city council meetings. And on Sunday, hundreds of people marched through the city in their first collective call for accountability.

The event, which organizers called the March and Gathering of Unheard Voices, began at the elementary school, still covered in flowers and photos of some of the 21 victims more than a month after the tragedy. Marchers braved the sweltering weather, carrying signs that read “Remember their names” and chanted “Save our children!”

When reunited at Uvalde Plaza, which became a solemn gathering place for mourners, relatives of the fallen took turns reading the names of their loved ones and remembering their shattered dreams of becoming baseball players and community leaders. Among those present was Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor.

Javier Cazares, whose 9-year-old daughter Jackie was killed in the shooting, said the seed of the gathering was planted the day he stood over her body and vowed that her death would not be in vain.

“I want his name to be remembered,” Mr. Cazares said. “I promised him we were going to fight.”

Mr Cazares said the families were seeking a detailed explanation of what happened during the May 24 response and demanded that those responsible hold those responsible accountable. State Police Chief Steven McCraw called the response an “abject failure.”

An official familiar with the inner workings of a Texas House investigative committee said lawmakers plan to release their findings in a private meeting with the families within a week or 10 days.

Many of those who marched also want more than justice. Some families are pushing for stricter gun laws and background checks. But in a predominantly rural and socially conservative county where gun culture is ingrained in daily life and many own guns for protection and hunting, gun control can prove an elusive goal, said M. Cazares and others.

An American veteran and lifelong gun owner, he once considered himself a strong supporter of gun rights. But something in him has changed since the tragedy, he said in an interview.

Mr. Cazares recalled in vivid detail that he forgot his gun in his truck as he rushed to his daughter’s school when he heard there was a gunman inside. interior. Once there, he said, he pleaded with the armed officers to burst in and tackle the shooter. He later learned that his daughter was lying dead in a nearby hospital.

A preliminary law enforcement report suggested responding officers waited about 78 minutes to enter classrooms where the gunman was terrorizing a teacher and children. Mr Cazares said the memory of Jackie, whom he described as a ‘firecracker’ who dreamed of one day visiting Paris, was what motivated him to get a full checkup and demand that the school district Uvalde reinforces its security measures before the start of the school year. year.

“I’m not afraid to speak my mind and I will continue to do so, so these families know they are not alone,” he said.

Much of the anger in the community has centered on school police chief Pete Arredondo, who was one of the first to arrive at Robb Elementary and, according to state police, was the incident commander on scene. He denied in an interview with The Texas Tribune that he was responsible, and has since been placed on administrative leave from his post. He also resigned from a city council seat he had won before the shooting.

Vincent Salazar, who lost his granddaughter Layla Marie Salazar in the massacre, came to the march sporting a black T-shirt with a picture of Layla wearing angel wings. He said he wanted the resignation of every officer who failed to come through the doors and stop the shooter in time.

“If you took a badge to protect people, protect babies, why didn’t they?” He asked. “This is just the first step, the first step. It’s far from over.”

This anger has also manifested itself in recent town hall meetings. During a packed meeting at the end of June, Velma Lisa Duran, the sister of Irma Garcia, a teacher who died in the shooting, denounced the authorities’ lack of transparency. Grieving families like hers, Ms Duran said, were tired of “listening to empty words”.

Visibly upset, she pointed out to the mayor the damage an automatic rifle, which was used by the Robb Elementary shooter, could do to a body. “These children were devastated – my sister was devastated,” she said, adding that attending her sister’s funeral was an agonizing experience. “It was a closed casket. I couldn’t kiss her. I couldn’t touch her. I couldn’t say my last goodbye.

Fighting back tears, she asked the mayor to explain why the officers in the hallway didn’t know that children under constant attack were calling 911 for help.

“There are a lot of children who could have been saved,” she said. “It wasn’t supposed to happen. We have a meeting after a massacre happened. We need change. Enough is enough.”

Mayor Don McLaughlin tried to assure Ms Duran and the other families he felt ‘their pain’.

“No, you don’t,” she replied abruptly.

Elsewhere in the meeting, Tina Quintanilla-Taylor, a local activist who unsuccessfully ran for a school board seat in 2020, stood, looked at the television cameras in the room, and introduced herself. addressed to the politicians of the State Capitol. “Show your face,” Ms. Quintanilla-Taylor said. “Answer our questions. Now.”

A few days after the meeting, she recalled pulling her daughter out of school moments before the attack. Ms Quintanilla-Taylor remains haunted by the sound of gunfire as dozens of police officers waited outside. Now she feels an urgent need to continue speaking for those who have been lost.

“We want accountability at all levels – local level, county level, state level, federal level,” she said in an interview. “I also want people to become more active. Sign up and vote. She added that if officials don’t address people’s concerns, “vote them out.”

Leonard Sandoval, who lost his grandson Xavier Lopez at Robb Elementary, believes he can change minds through activism. Once a quiet family man, he has openly expressed his desire for a total ban on assault weapons like the one used at Uvalde. He also advocates uniform mass shooting tactical training for all levels of law enforcement.

He has personally lobbied President Biden for more gun regulations and plans to join future marches to rouse people from apathy, he said, adding that a recent law passed by Congress to prevent dangerous people from legally obtaining firearms did not go far enough.

At Sunday’s rally, Xavier’s mother, Felicha Lopez, took the microphone, surrounded by family members, and urged lawmakers in the State Capitol and Washington to listen.

“We’re asking to change the gun laws so they can stop selling them to bad people,” Ms Lopez said, her voice cracking. “Please change our laws so that no more babies can be taken from us.”

Rick Rojas contributed report. Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.