After the shooting, Uvalde becomes a new stop on a grim American circuit

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

UVALDE, Tex. — The cowboy drove 1,213 miles from his Ohio farm and erected a blue tent and sign asking “NEED TALK?” on an empty corner lot. The Dallas artist painted a mural on tall canvas set up across the street from Robb Elementary School. The parents of a mass shooting victim flew down from Buffalo, advising new members of the terrible brotherhood created by yet another rampage.

As this small town grieves for 19 children and two teachers slain at school by a gunman, it has also swelled, becoming a pilgrimage site for mourners, relief workers, therapists, proselytizers and voyeurs. In a region that typically grows busy with summer vacationers cooling in the Frio River or fall hunters prowling the Hill Country, hotels are now unseasonably full, restaurants bustling.

There are hordes of media, of course, with tents and cameras and vans and bright lights. But other outsiders came, too. Police vehicles from other Texas towns — Cactus City, Irving, Amarillo — cruise the streets, filling in for a local force facing intense scrutiny over its delayed response to the shooting. Whataburger employees from other store locations arrive each day so the Uvalde outlet’s staff can take time off. The Billy Graham Rapid Response bus, the American Red Cross, Christian bikers, San Antonio mariachi musicians and Florida therapy dogs have pitched up at makeshift memorials.

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

“These shootings are always the same but always different,” said Sandy Phillips, whose daughter was killed in a mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. in 2012, and who now travels with her husband from one massacre to another. Uvalde’s survivors, she said, are “family now — unfortunately, a family you never want to become a part of.”

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin, in an interview, described visiting media as intrusive and frustrating “to no end.” But he called the counselors and spiritual leaders who have descended on the town a “blessing.”

“Not only will these families need help… you’ve got as many citizens that are traumatized by this,” McLaughlin said.

The cowboy from Ohio, David Graham — no relation to Billy — set up his minimalist “Cowboy Cares” operation a half-mile down Main Street from a memorial in the town plaza. He had just been in Buffalo, where 10 people were fatally shot at a supermarket, and said he wanted to avoid the “circus” — the surreal festival vibe that overlays the quiet tour visitors take around piles of wilting bouquets and crosses dedicated to each victim .

Many there have an agenda, Graham said. He wanted only to offer an ear, and had found remarkable success: About 100 people a day had been pulling in, he estimated.

Graham, 62, stands on the corner in his white hat, giving thumbs up and clapping at passing cars. He looks each visitor in the eye and asks: “How are you sleeping?” Rarely is the answer well; tears often flow. On a recent evening, Graham chatted with a man who came to thank the cowboy for his presence, and who flipped off a Grapevine, Tex. police car as it passed.

Next was an off-duty Uvalde County sheriff’s deputy, Andrew Davila, bearing two bottles of water for Graham. “People are seeking for why — why this happened,” Davila, 47, told Graham. “The one constant I’ve come to realize is sometimes people just do bad things.”

Karina Arango, 34, rolled up in a Mini Cooper. She was definitely not sleeping well, she said, and soon she was sobbing. Her friend’s daughter was in the ICU, gravely wounded by bullets. Graham offered Kleenex.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” Graham told her, kneeling at her window. Arango perked up when he told her he planned to stay at least through the last funeral, then mentioned she had just hosted at her home a clown from Houston who couldn’t find a hotel room. “It was amazing having her,” she said, smiling.

Phillips and her husband, Lonnie, departed Buffalo in a hurry, leaving behind the RV that carries them from gun massacre to gun massacre, where they distribute a survivors’ tool kit to mortuaries, schools and more. Uvalde was the 19th mass-shooting site they have visited since their daughter, Jessi, was killed in a movie theater.

“We have talked about just setting up a table and having this information there for whoever may need it. But we always hesitate to become part of the circus,” said Sandy, describing street preachers and motorcycle ministers. “They were just loud and obnoxious, and it made me sad that this quiet little community was being inundated.”

It was calmer on Thursday evening in the town plaza, where Knights of Columbus from various Texas chapters flipped burgers in 91-degree heat. A teacher from Albuquerque sang a Sarah MacLachlan song and explained to those gathered that she knew Uvalde would be different from what she saw on television, so she “had to be here.” The crowd, mostly locals, sat in camp chairs and seemed appreciative.

Earlier that day, 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 come from Buffalo.

“Every time, there’s another one. Just like yesterday, Oklahoma,” Green said, referring to a shooting Wednesday at a Tulsa hospital that killed four people. “I just try to offer light and hope so people can be able to move forward. It takes time.”

Over at Robb, onlookers walked slowly past another memorial. A few houses away, a woman sold brisket from her driveway to raise money for the family of one dead child. She was relieved, she said, that the television vans with their lights had thinned.

Across the street from 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 granted him permission. “I don’t trespass,” said Marquez, 60, who wore a black cowboy hat.

When the Uvalde shooting occurred, Marquez had only recently arrived home to Dallas after nearly three months painting in Ukraine. This was his mission now, Marquez said: Going from crisis to crisis — migrant caravans, the Surfside condo collapse — to create art.

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

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

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

“I said, ‘I don’t know, but how you sleeping?'” Graham said. “Then I got the idea that people needed to talk.”

Graham spent weeks there. Buffalo was next.

In Uvalde, he has had a window into the town’s ongoing trauma. The uncle of a child who called 911 from inside Robb stopped by, Graham said. Teens who fretted they would feel shame telling future college classmates where they were from came. One man 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 moving them away, and they won’t even get to see the healthy part of this town come back,” Graham recalled.

McLaughlin, the mayor, said he is concerned about victims’ families having long-term support and resources, even after all the visitors have moved on. But their departure will also reveal the town’s true character.

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

Graham does not doubt that. Uvalde, he said, is more open and close-knit than any place he has visited.

“All I want to do is just 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 post-sunset dark.

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 instead to a hotel room — one that, a week after the shooting, was finally open.

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