A focal point of the effort, by some, to cast Wednesday’s “Together We Thrive” memorial to the victims of the Tucson mass shooting in a negative light has been the t-shirts that were distributed to the crowd. Businessman Kevin Wright, owner of Florida-based Thundershirts, sees the shirts in a different light, though. He’s selling copies of the “Together We Thrive: Tucson and America” shirts in an attempt to raise money for the victims, and getting hate mail for his trouble.
When I first saw Wright’s listing on eBay, I had the same cynical thought that many others obviously did, that the “portion of the proceeds” was probably a token sum, donated simply as a pretext to capitalize on the tragedy. The fact that Wright’s politically-themed shirts have a decidedly conservative slant seemed to add irony to the mix, as some conservatives have twisted themselves in knots to manufacture controversy over the real t-shirts.
The truth, as is often the case, is another matter. I contacted Wright, and he told me that, until he’s able to recoup some of the costs of the campaign, he’s donating $10 from the sale of each shirt to benefit the victims of the shootings, and coordinating his effort with the United Way of Tucson. Once those costs are recouped, he hopes to increase the amount by three to five dollars per shirt.
While Thundershirts specializes in custom sportswear, they also feature an extensive line of Christian-themed items, which Wright says has its genesis in the Columbine tragedy.
“We used the same kind of fundraising technique to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the Columbine victims.” Wright says. “We’re working with the established groups on the ground. The United Way is the big organization for community largess, but if they say (for example) that the Lutheran Council is taking the lead in distributing the funds, then the check may not actually be made out to the United Way. We’re focused on getting the funds directly to the victims, rather than have it siphoned off by bureaucracy.”
The reception, thus far, hasn’t been warm, according to Wright. “To be honest, I don’t know if we’re going to raise any money, it’s just been so ugly. You should see, my email box has been filled up with people saying ‘You’re sick! It’s Blood money!”
He responds to the criticism by saying, “If you can think of a better way to raise money for these people, you go knock yourself out! We’re just people that are hurting with this tragedy, praying for these people, and doing the best we can to get them some help in real time.”
Wright says he was conscious of people’s feelings as he researched the concept for his campaign. “You come up with an idea like this, and you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re making people’s grief worse. I think the President showed exactly the right tone, in exactly the right way, and for us to be reproducing this shirt, and offering it to a wider audience so people can participate in this on a national, or international basis, I think is the right tack to take on this. I mean, we’re not putting victims’ pictures out there.”
He also says he’s not trying to get rich doing this. “We expect to pay our rent, we expect to pay our employees, I don’t know if ‘profit’ is the word you would use. We’re performing a community service here. Going back to our Columbine campaign, I don’t think our accountants were happy with the quote-unquote profit that was made at the end of the day. The employees were paid, the expenses of the shop were paid. We really just wanted to share with people who want to share the message of healing.”
Wright really seems stung by the criticism he’s received, and reiterates that his critics ought to put their money where their mouth is. “Again, if anyone out there has a better idea for how to raise money, I hope they do it. I would actually like to see a telethon.”
In fairness to those critics, his eBay listing is vague about the amount being donated, and the idea of reproducing the memorial shirts is certainly open to varying standards of taste. Much as is true with the original shirts themselves, though, you can question their tastefulness, but it seems unfair to question the intent behind them. If you’re not giving directly to a charity, maybe you ought to buy one of Wright’s shirts, and maybe one for Michelle Malkin, too.
The University of Arizona, meanwhile, has said that there are only a few of the original shirts left, which they will give to victims’ friends and families, and that there are no plans to make more.
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