As news of the horror in Orlando filtered out Sunday, activists across the state and the country organized impromptu vigils to mourn and to stand in defiance of an attack which President Barack Obama labeled “an act of terrorism and of hate.”
Vigils were held in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Battle Creek and East Lansing Sunday with more planned throughout the week in Kalamazoo, Ferndale and at Wayne State University, among others.
All are in response to the worst mass shooting in American history.
Facts About The Shooting
Early Sunday a gunman wielding an assault-type rifle and a handgun opened fire inside a crowded gay bar in Orlando, Florida, taking the lives of 49 men and women. At least 50 additional people were hospitalized, most in critical condition, officials said.
Pulse, a LGBT nightclub, was hosting a Latino night. The gunman, later identified as Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, entered the club around 2:02 a.m. armed with a .223-caliber SIG Sauer AR-15-type rifle and a 9mm Glock handgun. The Orlando Police officer assigned to cover Pulse engaged Mateen, returning fire. Despite those efforts Mateen was able to enter the club and began to open fire on patrons during last call. Two more officers arrived on scene and forced Mateen to retreat further into the nightclub, during which he began gathering people as hostages. Dozens of first responders and approximately 100 officers were then dispatched to the scene, including a crisis negotiator.
At 2:22 a.m. EDT, Mateen made a 911 call in which he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and referenced Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombers. Two and half hours later SWAT officers entered the building and the shooter was shot and killed.
ISIS has a long record of murdering members of the LGBT community in their conquered territories, often by throwing them off of buildings or stoning them to death. Despite the fact that Mateen claimed allegiance to ISIS, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee told The Associated Press that investigators have not yet found evidence of direct communication between the Orlando nightclub gunman and Islamic State members overseas. Mateen’s father has stated that the attack made by his son was not motivated by his faith. However Mateen’s father was quoted saying that he had seen his son get angry after witnessing a gay couple kiss in front of his family a few months prior to the attack, which he suggested might have been a strong motivating factor.
Multiple reports have come out stating Mateen has a history of violent behavior and is no stranger to hateful remarks.
Mateen, a U.S. citizen, was born in New York City to Afghan parents. He first became a person of interest to the FBI in May 2013 after he told coworkers at a contract security job that his family had ties to al-Qaeda, and he was a member of Hezbollah. He met twice with the FBI, during which he admitted to making the statements but explained that he said them angrily because his co-workers were teasing him.
“Their goal is to divide us,” Virg Bernero, mayor of Lansing told a vigil of over 100 people at the state Capitol Sunday night. “We’re united, exactly the opposite of what the terrorists want.”
Acknowledging the unity, Bernero pointed out Republican State Sen. Rick Jones of Grand Ledge was present at the event. He also gave a call out to Ingham County Barb Byrum, a long time ally of the LGBT community and to Jody Washington, a representative of the City’s First Ward on the City Council. Washington and Bernero have often butted heads over policy issues impacting the city.
“That council and the mayor disagree on a lot of things,” said Washington after the event. “But we absolutely agree Lansing will be safe for everybody.”
During the candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting, held under a heavy police presence, the cast of Riverwalk Theater’s production of “Rent,” sang “Seasons of Love.” Rev. Nicolette Siragusa, of the United Church of Christ in Grand Ledge, also spoke.
“We refuse to be silenced, refuse to allow fear to overcome love,” she told the crowd. “It is in this spirit that we unabashedly gather here, in public, on the steps of our state’s Capitol. We refuse to hide in fear, we refuse to shrivel up and die.
“In fierce opposition, we boldly declare June to be our month of Pride. The Pride movement was birthed in a nightclub, led by beautiful trans folk who refused to be beaten down and shamed any longer,” Siragusa told the crowd gathered at the Capitol. “LGBT clubs have long been our community centers, our safe-havens, our places where we may claim our God-given sexuality and celebrate that we are made in the image of the divine.”
Byrum fought back tears as she spoke to BTL.
“It isn’t very often I am at a loss for words,” she said. “The hate. The hate that is so prevalent. It is so disappointing. I do believe love will conquer all. Through love we’ll move forward.”
She paused and looked away. Then quietly, almost to herself, she said, “It’s just horrible. It’s just horrible.”
“For us, we mourn along with the nation the loss of life,” Thasin Sadar said after the candle light vigil. Sardar is the former president of the Islamic Center of Greater Lansing, located in East Lansing. He also serves on the advisory board for the Council on American and Islamic Relations of Michigan (CAIR). “We are here not as Muslims, but as Americans. We wanted to join the community here.”
This was just one of many gestures of solidarity, large and small, Sunday night as the greater Lansing community came together to mourn and process the terror attack.
Another 50 people gathered at Michigan State University. They gathered at a place known as The Rock, a boulder in the middle of campus that is painted regularly to advertise political events, student organizations and to make social statements. Students there struggled with the reality of watching a space most LGBT people see as safe, violated and “defiled.”
Later in the evening about 200 people gathered in the parking lot of Spiral Dance Club in Lansing’s Old Town. They spoke quietly while 50 lanterns were lit to honor the deaths in Orlando. Each of the lanterns were released.
Watching quietly from one side of the lot were Bernero, Lansing Police Chief Michael Yankowski, Lansing Community College Trustee Andrew Abood, and Lansing City Councilmembers Patricia Spitzley and Kathie Dunbar. On the other side of the lot was Lansing City Council President Judi Brown Clarke and her husband, 54-A District Court Judge Hugh Clarke.
Braun Court, Ann Arbor Vigil
“My friends, my comrades, my siblings, my sisters, my brothers please repeat after me ‘We are Orlando,'” said LGBT legend Jim Toy in his opening remarks to the nearly 250 LGBT and allied folks gathered for a vigil June 12 in Ann Arbor’s Braun Court. The court was packed as people stood shoulder to shoulder, many holding white candles that burned for the LGBT lives lost at Pulse nightclub.
“The last time we had a spontaneous gathering of this size in Braun Court it was for a very happy event – the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality. We gather again spontaneously, or nearly spontaneously, under sad and tragic consequences. The shooting happened at a gay club. I’ve heard several commentators refer to it as a sanctuary,” Keith Orr co-owner of /aut/Bar and Common Language bookstore said.
“I do not believe that there is a member of the LGBT community who has not lived in fear at some point, if not been the victim of actual violence. This horror really is a nightmare of a whole community,” Orr said.
Travis Gonzales and his friend Leo Cartier attended the vigil. For nearly an hour they held two white candles that slowly dripped into a cup held in their hands. Gonzales works multiple jobs including driving for Uber and Cartier works for the Ann Arbor Convention and Visitors Bureau. Both of them were collecting themselves when they agreed to speak with BTL.
“We’re here in solidarity. You can’t just hide. One of my friends posted on Facebook that he was afraid to go out tonight because of what happened today and you can’t let that just force you back. You gotta support the LGBT community. We’re all one. Whether we’re in California, Oklahoma, New York… we all go through the same troubles and I believe that we all have a connection to what happened,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales and Cartier frequent Pronto, /aut/Bar and Necto. They like going to those places because they feel safe and included. Gonzales said that the folks at Pulse came out that night to feel safe and they were robbed of that safety.
“There is risk in attributing too much cultural meaning to the actions of a solitary killer for it amplifies and gives power to the despicable. But it is also true, of course, that today’s murders seem to stand at that too imaginable intersection of virulent homophobia, zealotry and gun culture,” said Ann Arbor Mayor Chris Taylor.
Ypsilanti’s mayor Amanda Edmonds pushed through some suppressed tears and some that snuck through.
“This day brings to me a message that hits home about the importance of me as an LGBT elected leader,” Edmonds said. “Though I am a leader, today, in front of you I feel powerless and small as probably a lot of us do.”
Also in the audience was State Representative Adam Zemke, City Councilwoman Julie Grand and County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum. Other speakers included: Angie Martell of Iglesia Martell Law Firm; Leon Golson, director of prevention programs at Unified; Sandi Smith of Trillium Real Estate; and many more including faith leaders from the community.
A GoFundMe was created to help raise money for the victims’ families. To donate visit https://www.gofundme.com/2942a444. As of press time the page had gathered $2.2 million.