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There’s a longstanding tradition in Washington that during the president’s State of the Union address, there are these special guests in the audience, avatars for what politicians want to get done.
Tuesday night, President Joe Biden is said to have invited the family of Tyre Nichols, who was killed at the hands of Memphis police. A former Afghan ambassador will be in the audience, too. Each member of Congress has their own guest list. That’s how Brett Cross was invited to be one of those guests.
In truth, Cross wishes he could be anywhere else. An invitation was extended to him because of the public tragedy he’s living through. Back in May, his 10-year-old son, Uzi, was killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. When I asked Cross how he wanted to use his time in Washington, he said, “I want to talk about my son and enlighten people on him and the devastation that the inactions of other people have caused the families such as myself.”
You could say the guests in the audience tonight are political props. But Brett Cross is trying to make himself more of a political stumbling block—unavoidable, there to trip you up if you’re not paying attention. He knows what it means to be stonewalled by politicians. Right after Uzi was killed, Cross came to D.C. to advocate for an assault weapons ban. When he met with his local congressman, a Republican, it didn’t go so great.
“There was a bunch of our families there and everybody was asking questions and talking, and he did his regular spiel. And so I asked him, ‘Are you in support of [an assault weapons ban]?’ And he wouldn’t answer, and he wouldn’t answer,” Cross said. “And I said, ‘No, sir, I asked you a question and I need a yes or no.’ And then finally he said, ‘No, I believe in our Second Amendment’—the same BS that everybody spills.”
Even after all this, Cross, who will not be able to attend Tuesday night’s State of the Union, keeps coming back to Washington. It’s almost like he can’t help it.
He’s done other, more personal things, to remember Uzi too. Like, he got tattoos—one of Spiderman, Uzi’s favorite superhero. But the other is an upside-down flag. On the white stripes, he inscribed a quote: “The sounds of children screaming have been removed.” That was the warning that was put at the top of the video showing the way police officers waited in Robb Elementary’s hallways while kids were dying. “That always stuck with me,” Cross said, “because the sounds of their screaming wasn’t just removed from that video. It was removed from life. Their screaming and yelling at PE and playing and laughing and their voices—everything has been removed now. All we have are videos and recordings. There is a void there that hurts. It literally aches. I feel like I’m doing an injustice to Uzi and other children if I’m not fighting.”
On Tuesday’s episode of the show, I spoke with Brett Cross about what it’s like to be forced to the center of the fight for gun safety in this country. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: May 24, 2022, is the day Brett Cross’ life changed in ways he is still trying to understand. That’s when an 18-year-old gunman walked into Robb Elementary School and killed his 10-year-old son, Uziyah, along with 18 other fourth graders. Two teachers were killed too.
The trauma of that day continues to ripple outward now. Losing a kid in a mass shooting means you suddenly have to make all kinds of decisions. Like, do you go back to work? Before Uzi died, Cross worked as a wind turbine technician. He took time off to grieve. Then he started wondering if he could ever go back at all.
Brett Cross: I recently got let go, so my boss was absolutely amazing and he tried to help me as much as he could. I took off the FMLA and everything because that is a very dangerous job. You’re working around 35,000 volts of electricity and 300 feet in the air. It’s a very hazardous job, and I wasn’t able to get back to that. And they sent me a letter saying if I didn’t show up Jan. 2, then I was fired. I showed up, and I was only able to do it for about a week. My boss helped get me in the office. But the office is where I got the phone call that day.
That there was a shooting at the school.
I’m opening my work phone for the first time in seven months, eight months, and the first thing that pops up was the messages to my wife when we’re trying to find Uzi, messaging back and forth. Because we were informed that kids ran to the funeral home. They ran to the neighborhood and the hospital. So we’re texting back and forth: “Have you found him?” “Is he at the hospital?” “Is he out?” And it just … man, that’ll make you spiral hard because it takes you right back to that day.
I read that you built a memorial—at home, with some of Uzi’s favorite things, like the water bottle that the school gave you back with his name on it. Do you still have it? Do you still add to it?
There’s a case where his urn is, and we add to it when certain things come in or we see something that reminds us. And we have a little memorial out in the front as well with a bench and tons of paintings and prayer rocks and tear bottles and Bibles and quilts and stuffed animals and everything like that.
I hadn’t thought about that, how the stuff might keep coming. And I know it’s all well-intentioned, but I don’t know if it feels heavy when you get it.
Kind of. It was especially rough in the beginning. But we still get stuff occasionally. And we got so overwhelmed with stuffed animals—I’m talking about 40, 50, 65 animals that people just kept sending—so we donated them to a women and children’s shelter.
Was there a moment after the shooting where you felt like you had to decide who you were going to be? Maybe it’s a choice you’re constantly making.
I don’t really feel like there was a change. I can tell you the exact date I decided I wanted to fight. Uziyah’s funeral wasn’t until June 13, and the day after his funeral, I was just like, I’m going to fight. And then that’s when they were doing that House committee. I showed up every day to those House committees. They wouldn’t let me in, but I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to start fighting. But I knew that I had to. So I just started showing up.
Explain about the House committees. This is in the Texas state Legislature?
Yeah, they did an investigation into it. But then they started coming down here to interview officers and teachers and everything like that. But I was there every day, just to even hear anything. And then I started that same weekend protesting.
There was a lot to protest over. A state investigation found that while nearly 400 officers responded to the shooting, it was unclear who was in charge of them all. There were school safety officers, Border Patrol agents, city police, sheriff’s deputies. There were nearly 100 officers there from Texas’ Department of Public Safety, or DPS. And yet the shooter was able to tuck himself inside fourth grade classrooms and murder people, one by one.
What I realized early on was that everybody was passing the buck. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for their part. The school blamed it on the cops, and the city blamed it on the school and DPS. Everybody’s pointing fingers when there were failures on every front, from the school to the officers that responded to our state laws to our federal laws. It was a catastrophic failure all over. And I just realized that nobody was going to take accountability. And the only time that the school made changes was after we did this 10-day sit out.
Can we talk about that? This is in September, and you decided to camp out in front of the school administrative building, so they couldn’t avoid you. When people came in, you were there saying, “No, no, no, what I want is for you to place the safety officers who were on duty when my child was killed on leave until you figure this out.”
Exactly. It wasn’t a crazy ask. It’s something that should have been done. It’s what other places do. If an officer is involved in something, you put them on leave until the investigation is complete. These officers were out on the streets and at our schools within a week.
I told my kids that I would always be there to protect them, that nothing bad would happen to them. And that school made a liar out of me, so I wasn’t going to let them do it again. So, yeah, for the next 10 days I didn’t go home.
The Uvalde school district eventually suspended its entire police force. And they didn’t really say that it was because of you and your protests. They said it was because of “recent developments.” Did it feel like a win to you?
Absolutely. And I wouldn’t say that it was all because of me and the sit-out either. Shimon from CNN has been one of the investigative reporters that has really dug his feet in and has not let this go. And he had found that they had just hired a DPS officer who was there at Robb that day that was caught on camera saying, “If it would have been my children in there, I’d be in there.” So I think it was the heat from both sides.
Would you have even considered yourself political before this year?
No, absolutely not. And honestly, I still don’t consider myself political. Unfortunately, it’s the politicians that have made these political issues. They shouldn’t be issues. It is not right for children to not be able to go to school and come back home. That shouldn’t be political. That is basic humanity. It shouldn’t be political, but it’s the politicians that make it political. It’s the NRA that makes it political. It’s the money funneling into these people’s pockets that makes it political.
I wonder if you’ve had that conversation with people who disagree with you on this issue.
I do try. I’m a gun owner. I have a gun. I have it for my protection at my house. But what I also know is that my .357 pistol does the job. I don’t need an assault rifle to do that. So I get that a lot: “You don’t know.” I do know. And that’s why I’m telling you that this is an issue—I understand guns for hunting. But what I have a problem with is the rhetoric that, “Oh, well, it’s because they’re fun.” Yeah, that shooter thought it was fun, too.
Brett Cross says, in some ways, showing up in Washington, the way he’ll do Tuesday night—it’s easier than the work he’s doing back home in Texas. That’s because guns have become non-negotiable, politically, in his home state. But that hasn’t stopped him or other Uvalde parents from pressing their case, anyway.
Recently, a number of them teamed up with Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez. They’ve vowed to show up at the state Legislature every week, bringing more bills with them each time. They know an assault weapons ban won’t fly in Austin, so they’re trying other things instead.
We’re going to just stay at ’em. There’s several laws that Roland Gutierrez is trying to push through that will help, by raising the age to 21 to buy an assault rifle, and then I want qualified immunity to be thrown out because these people—376 officers—sat outside for 77 minutes and did nothing.
And they can’t be sued because it was in the course of doing their jobs.
Exactly. If a doctor or a nurse comes up on a crash, they are bound to help. There are standards held by other entities. Why isn’t it held by these cops?
There’s been some reporting in the past few weeks that after the shooting, parents in Uvalde disagreed about how to press for change in the community. And I know that you have a nonprofit and there are many others, too, in Uvalde. Do all these organizations agree on what they want?
So with the families, we pretty much all agree. We all work together, and we’ve all agreed. The only issues that we had was with the community itself, because a lot of people just wanted to sweep it under the rug. “Oh, it happened, but let’s move on. You’re only ruining our community by fighting.”
So community members, who obviously know what happened, feel like somehow the school system has been attacked.
Yeah, and we get it with the police, too. Like, “Oh, you just want to run off all police or you’re anti-police.” I’m not anti-police. My stepfather is, was, a chief of police. I’m not anti-cop. But I’m anti–cops not doing their damn job, sitting around for 77 minutes while children were bleeding out and screaming and crying and begging to be saved.
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Your protest in front of the school administrative building in Uvalde reminded me of another school shooting dad who’s gotten a lot of attention. This guy named Manuel Oliver.
I know Manny. Yeah.
His son was killed in Parkland, Florida. My listeners might remember him because he’s the guy who stood up when President Joe Biden announced new gun legislation and basically told him it wasn’t enough. When you talk to Manny about the path forward now, what does he tell you?
What we talk about mostly is just the grief. He told me early on, “You’re in it. You’re like me. And I know that you’re going to give them hell and give it your all. And you got to do that. But you also have to take care of yourself. You can’t fight if you’re not well enough to fight.” So, I’m grateful to have met him. I am grateful for his experience. But I also hate it that he is in the position to have to give me that knowledge, because that means somebody else’s kid was murdered.
When you think about trying to convince people, people who may be way on the other side of this issue from you, what do you think about saying?
I wear a shirt with Uzi’s face on it almost daily. Imagine your child’s face on a T-shirt. If you can’t bear that, if you can’t live with that, if that is something that is terrible for you, then stand up and help us fight for change, because it’s not a matter of if it will happen to you. It’s a matter of when, nowadays. I am full of regret for not ever standing up and fighting after any of these other school shootings. I’ve called parents of victims, I’ve called survivors, and I have apologized. I’m sorry that when your shooting happened I was like, man, that that sucks, but I’ve got to get back to work. And I didn’t fight. So, which side do you want to be on? Do you want to say that you have done everything that you can in case your child is murdered? Or do you want to be full of regret like I am, thinking I didn’t do anything to help change that before it happened because I was one of the ones that thought it couldn’t happen to me?
Update, Feb. 7, 2023, at 1:07 p.m.: This post has been updated with the news that Brett Cross will not be able to attend the State of the Union.