My Personal Nightmare in Dallas

Posted by Adriana on August 26, 2016 in Personal Essays |

I was in Dallas for a sports event, and ended up having to re-think my opinion—or lack thereof—regarding gun-control. After a long day watching my thirteen-year-old daughter compete in the 2016 Summer Fencing US National Championships in Dallas on July 7th, I was ready for an evening of friendly chitchat with the other parents from our fencing club. Instead, I was faced by the worst America has to show, and my daughter and I had to run for our lives. In a time when gun violence has declined worldwide, here it remains steadily, unsurprisingly, even expectedly, high. The same way we come together to create the opportunities our children need to thrive in education, arts and sports, we must come together to stop the proliferation of assault weapons, and prevent any gun from getting into the wrong hands.

The Summer Fencing US National Championships is a shining example of American exceptionalism, where dedicated athletes, and their families, come together to compete, and to share in the camaraderie of the sport. The 2016 championships were held at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in downtown Dallas. A vast, well lit, and thank goodness, well ventilated venue. It was my first visit to Dallas, and let me tell you, that’s one hot summer spot, and bear in mind that I have lived in Florida for 6 years. If I was relieved by the powerful air conditioning running all day, imagine the fencers under 4 layers of gear. Think of hockey players with metal net masks covering their faces and surrounding their heads, moving without the aid of skates sliding smoothly over ice, but holding a sword instead, and attacking and defending at lighting speed—Fencing is the second fastest Olympic sport, losing only to Olympic Shooting. At the end of many hours of competition, as the athletes stepped out of their gear, you could have seen their bodies and faces covered in sweat, their hairs glued to their scalps. At the end of that day, it was in that state that my daughter, rolling her heavy gear bag behind her, stepped outside to face the Dallas heat by my side.

For my thirteen-year-old daughter, July 7th 2016 was the last of two days of intense competition doing what she loves, fencing. It was a rough day. She lost her last DE (Direct Elimination bout)—in the round of 64—3 to 4 in a tense, brainy bout. She finished the season ranked 47th in Y12 (Youth who are 12 years old in the beginning of the season). She was disappointed with her overall performance, and not just a little disheartened.  At the end of the day we were both exhausted, and very, very hungry.

We left the Convention Center, dropped her gear in our hotel, and walked three blocks to the Omni Hotel in downtown Dallas to have dinner with other families from our team in one of the restaurants surrounding it. Feeling much better after a nice meal among friends, we stepped outside and waited for an Uber, which never came. A couple approached the restaurant and stopped by our group. “Two cops have been shot, be careful out here,” the gentleman said. He pointed toward the crossing of Lamar and Young, some 700 feet from us. We crossed the street and there it was, from afar we saw dozens of police cars lighted up as the brightest Christmas trees. The glare made me blink. Could it be true? Could two police officers have really been shot? A security guard from Omni ran to us. “Quickly, step inside,” she opened a side door and rushed us in. We saw dozens of people had already found refuge inside the hotel.

As we walked toward the main lobby we saw protesters everywhere. Young and old, black, white, Latino and Asian, all leaned against the walls and columns, and each other. Many sat on the floor, their signs against violence resting on their laps. Regardless of background, creed, or color, all had the same look of fear, and some sort of morbid anticipation on their faces, like mourners waiting to carry a coffin. My daughter and I weren’t fully aware of the situation yet, but we would soon have the same look of dread.

As the main lobby came into view the doors opened up and a crowd ran inside. I turned back to where we came from. I unnecessarily called out my daughter’s name, and yelled run. She was already ten feet ahead of me. I ran after her and heard a shot. What to do, my brain raced as my eyes scanned all corners looking for a safe place to hide. Two more shots, one immediately after the other.

My daughter kept changing directions to avoid colliding with other runners. I changed directions accordingly, to make sure I was between her and whatever was happening behind us. She made a big turn left, I miraculously followed closely. She’s a young athlete, I’m a middle aged woman who’s been leading a sedentary lifestyle of late. She ducked behind a group of people who tried to hide behind a low wall that encircled a bar area. Anyone coming through either side would easily get them. I looked to both sides of the street and didn’t see anyone. I didn’t stop. I didn’t crouch. I called her name and kept running across the empty street toward a restaurant. It was locked. I squashed my daughter’s body against the glass door as I hit it with both my hands. A waiter opened it up, and told me they were closed for the night. I pushed the door with all my strength and closed it behind me. “You don’t know.” I said, but couldn’t continue. Whatever I had to say, he noticed I was in panic for some reason. He showed me a booth and told me to rest. He walked to the bar and came back with two glasses of water. I still couldn’t speak. I looked at my daughter who told him what we’d been through.

They had three TV monitors above the bar that had been turned off for the night. They turned them back on and everyone watched in horror. At that time 11 police officers had been shot, 2 were dead.

When I moved to the US, back in 1997, I was in awe of the American spirit. To me, the “If you can dream it, you can do it” attitude was new and intoxicating. I was particularly impressed by how much Americans get involved in their children’s school activities, and volunteer in sport and art organizations to support their communities. I was in awe of how much Americans give to peoples in crisis, and how positively and energetically Americans act.

When I became a parent I jumped on the bandwagon. I volunteered for the Book Fairs, the Teacher Appreciation Lunches, and the neighborhood Swim Meets. I joined the PTA. I attended dinners to help build schools in Africa, and Bingo Nights to help buy supplies for the teachers, and other Bingo Nights to support the choir, the orchestra, and the visual art studio. I was hooked on the American way of getting involved, of getting things done, of making it happen.

How could such an extraordinary people let the pro-gun lobbyists, which are minority in the country, take over to such an extent that children leaving a sports event are suddenly in danger of dying from a gunshot wound? I’m having a hard time reconciling the America I chose to call home with this America, hostage to an association whose sole purpose is commercial. The NRA doesn’t care about our rights, they care about sales. “The NRA has successfully forged a partnership with the [firearms] industry—shielding it from criticism while protecting its product—to the point where it has become nothing less than a manufacturers’ trade association. The NRA’s “slippery slope” argument against gun control dovetails perfectly with the needs of an unregulated firearms industry searching for new markets. Both the NRA and the industry share a common goal: to increase gun sales and expand the universe of those who buy them. For the industry it means dollars. For the NRA it means members to fight their battles” (NRA Money, Firepower & Fear, 18). And we, the American people, are the hostages of their marketing strategy. A marketing strategy that invades American politics through the money they invest in the candidacy of congressmen and congresswomen who become their pawns once elected. Through its political action committee, Political Victory Fund, the NRA invests “millions of dollars… on direct campaign donations, independent campaign expenditures and on mobilizing [its] aggressive grassroots operation[s]. The NRA-PVF ranks political candidates – irrespective of party affiliation – based on voting records, public statements and their responses to an NRA-PVF questionnaire. NRA relies on a very simple premise: when provided with the facts, the nation’s elected officials will recognize that “gun control” schemes are an infringement on the Second Amendment and a proven failure in fighting crime. The importance of this premise lies in the knowledge that, as one U.S. Congressman put it: “The gun lobby is people.”” (www.nrapvf.or/about-pvf/, July 30th 2016). In 2004 the NRA-PVF PAC spent $12.8 million dollars mostly in “independent expenditures [which] include money spent on behalf of candidates. But not given directly to them, such as renting a billboard sign or airing a television advertisement endorsing John McCain  and opposing Barack Obama for president” (Gun Crusaders – The NRA Culture War, 226).

NRA’s most effective actions to influence the American political process though are executed by the ILA—Institute for Legislative Action, NRA’s lobbying arm—issues “legislative alerts [that are] mailed to members to inform them of proposed local, state and federal laws, [and] ensure that when the issue is gun-control, the NRA will be heard—en masse. Steeped in emotional rhetoric, NRA mailings portray every gun-control measure as a personal attack threatening the very life of each NRA member and his family. As a result, congressional offices measure NRA mails by the bag. At the local level, whenever the issue of gun control is broached the overwhelming presence of irate… NRA members at public hearings is guaranteed” (NRA Money, Firepower & Fear, 19). Currently the NRA-PVF Chairman “has administrative responsibility over NRA-ILA’s $30 million budget” (www.nrapvf.or/about-pvf/, July 30th 2016).

Growing up in Brazil, I was always conscious of the risk of being robbed. I carried my backpack as a front-pack against my chest, always having one arm around it. I wasn’t afraid of terrorists and bullets though. That came with my American citizenship. The change wasn’t sudden. It was a gradual process that for me started on September 11th, 2001. I had taken my older daughter on a play date in one of those giant entertainment rooms in a local McDonalds, and was sipping coffee while chatting with another parent, when a TV monitor hanging from the ceiling let us know we were under attack. I drove home in complete disbelief. Like everyone else, during the subsequent months, I panicked. I would collect my mail wearing gloves and open letters on my garage floor while wearing a mask. I watched the news closely and was terrified by the idea of chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists. I wasn’t sure we should have gone to war though. But most of my American friends were absolutely certain. I believed we should have proceeded with caution, kept our guards up. They thought attack was the best defense. But who should we attack? There were a lot of grey areas in the information being shared with the general population. I am part of the general population, and I was undecided. How easy it was to think that smarter, better informed people would decide what to do. How easy it was to fall for hasty generalizations. Like most Americans, I fell for the “hidden chemical weapons story.” I started thinking it’s OK to give up my privacy for safety. I started agreeing that attack is the best defense. I decided that we should always be prepared for the worst.

I didn’t think much about gun-control in the US though. In Brazil, where I grew up, guns are part of the criminal culture. Only police and army personnel can carry guns freely. To own a gun, a private citizen must go through a lengthy process, get all sorts of checking done—universal background and mental health included—and prove proficiency in the use of the weapon he/she intends to buy. Guns are sold only by establishments controlled by the army, which keeps a detailed file of all gun owners. So, I had this wrongful notion that guns would only be in the hands of bad people, or people who knew what to do with them under pressure. Prior to July 7th I had “experienced” guns in different ways exactly 4 times. When I was a teenager, as I left the English program I attended after school, I saw a man shooting the tire of a motorcycle being driven by a criminal trying to flee after a robbery. The driver lost control of the vehicle and fell by the curb where he stayed until the police arrived. In my early twenties a robber pressed a gun against my back at a crowded bus stop and asked for my student’s monthly share of public transportation passes. I had just collected them at the central station. He had probably followed me, waiting for the right moment. “Give me your bus tickets,” that’s all he said. I couldn’t have seen him. I just felt the gun touching my spine, right above my waist. My back pack hanged from my shoulders and rested against my stomach. I opened the front pocket and handed him the envelope. He didn’t take my wallet, or anything else. No one moved or spoke. I didn’t turn my back to try to see him. From my peripheral vision I saw him walking fast. I saw the back of his gun in his hand inside his sweatshirt pocket. In Brazil we know that if we don’t react, the robber goes away. After some time a couple of people approached me to make sure I was all right. Years later, already a resident in the U.S., while visiting my family in Brazil, I saw a robber in a motorcycle—very much like the one from my teenage memory—approach a car and point a gun at the driver ahead of me on a stop light of a busy street. Only that time there was no capable shooter nearby and the robber escaped. The driver handed the robber his wallet and once the robber left he drove ahead a few feet and parked his car. He must have certainly cancelled his credit cards, before he called the police to register the robbery.

Most gun violence in Brazil is either robbery or drug related. “The northeastern region of the country [is the worst where] over 60% of the homicides have a direct connection with drug trafficking” (“Northeast Brazil: The Most Violent Region in The World,” http://www.pravdareport.com, January 28th 2014). Poverty is another factor. Brazil has “one of the highest rates of inequality in the world: its 2012 GINI index (51.9) was the 16th highest out of 136 countries worldwide (the United States ranks 42nd” (“Crime and violence in Brazil: Systematic review of time trends, prevalence rates and risk factors,” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/, September 18th 2013). Outside of such extreme environments, criminals would rather not kill anyone to avoid harsher punishments. So, growing up in São Paulo—one of Brazil’s southeastern region states—I developed this perception of guns as threats, but the rules of engagement were clear, and in my mind there was a certain sense of clarity about it. I knew that, to have a gun, a criminal would had to have robbed it somehow. I knew that, Brazil being a developing country with unemployment rates fluctuating from 3.5% to 12% and few social programs, many would have no alternative but to be on the streets, either begging or robbing. I also knew that I should avoid certain areas, whenever possible. The fact that now I feel my family’s safety threatened as much as I used to worry about being robbed in Brazil is shocking.

In my early forties, having seen the fatal attraction Americans have for guns I decided to hold one. During a holiday weekend at a resort that offered skeet shooting, I gave it a try. “Place one foot behind you and one ahead as if taking a step,” the instructor said, “this will help you hold the kick. Now, rest the riffle against your shoulder and take aim.” I was amazed. At the force of the kick, at how loud a shot is, and at how hard it is to actually hit those flying clay saucers, I was amazed. Above all, I was confronted by how emotionally disengaging the process of shooting is. The distance between the act of pulling a trigger, to the skeet exploding in the air—when I finally managed to hit it—felt like watching a cartoon. I exploded one skeet and there was another one, exactly like the previous one, flying through the air. Far away. They looked exactly the same. They were the same. From afar, so are we. The physical distance creates an emotional distance that allows for a disengagement between action and consequence. I haven’t seen, or touched a gun since. On July 7th, in Dallas, I heard it well though.

If people feel safer having guns, let them have it, I used to think. I saw a robber being prevented from fleeing the scene of his crime and being captured by the police because of a private gun owner once. Live and let live. As years passed though, I learned that some people, not a lot, but unfortunately quite a few think: “I wish to die and kill other people in the process.” And for those people, it’s very easy to make that happen in America. I used to think the issue didn’t affect me directly. I live in a safe neighborhood in California, a state with rigid gun-control legislation. Let each state decide as it chooses, I used to think. Then, one day, I came so close to the risks of the bad consequences of America’s lack of federal gun-control legislation that I had to reconsider my position. I had to say something.

On July 7th I learned the difference between the ideological fears cultivated through the media that make us want to dig a moat around us, and isolate ourselves from reality, and the real fear for my child’s life that made me realize we can’t always hide from danger, but we can work to make America safer.

Nowadays all of us Americans fret. We fret about war. We fret about terrorist attacks. We fret that someone mentally unstable may start shooting in our neighborhood school. But we are used to fretting from our sofas. Seating in front of our TV monitors we watch the world looking like it’s about to explode at any minute. Yet, somehow, we don’t think it will ever affect us directly. On July 7th it hit me in the face. It became real to me, a middle class American, while on the very American duty of a “soccer-mom.”

Hours after we had to run for our lives, we walked to another hotel—seven blocks from the one we were staying in—which was inside the perimeter of the siege. We finally lay down to rest, on July 8th at 1:30 AM. Exhausted as I was, I couldn’t have fallen asleep. I tried to focus on the beautiful sound of my living daughter deeply asleep by my side, and that’s when I started shaking. Contradictory sensations crashed within me. I shook strongly, but couldn’t have brought my body to stand up. I felt a great weight over my chest and had the distinct impression that the bed was moving. I became nauseated, but couldn’t have walked to the toilet to throw up, if it had come to that. I don’t know how long it lasted, but the first morning light was coming through the curtains when I finally fell asleep.

We all dread bad things, but when you put together fear with the “go get it” American attitude, there’s a sense of angst I’ve never experienced. That need to act, to avoid feeling helpless and afraid, pushed us to a rushed decision, and into a war, back in 2003. It certainly pushed me to agree with it. That same kind of feeling, that kind of fear of the unknown, makes us susceptible to the gun for protection rhetoric to the point that every time we have a mass shooting in America, gun sales go up. It’s a disturbing pattern. “Spikes in background checks, which must be conducted for any gun sale from a licensed dealer, have followed a number of devastating mass shootings [in 2015], including the deadly incident at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., in June [2015] that killed nine, the shooting at Umpqua Community College in October that killed nine and injured nine, a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., in November that killed three and injured nine, and the latest shooting in San Bernardino, [California]” (“This Year’s Gun Sales Could Set Record for U.S.,” Time.com, December 7th 2015).

But contrary to what the NRA says, all those guns aren’t making us safer. They aren’t protecting us. They are injuring and killing us instead. “Every day, nearly 300 people are shot in gun related violence. Of those almost a third die. In 2015 over 13,000 people were killed by firearms. In 2015 over 27,000 people were injured by firearms in over 53,000 incidents. In 2016 we’ve already had 27,624 incidents, 14,738 injuries, and 7,145 deaths. From 1968 until 2011, research shows that more people died from gun violence in the US, than in all wars we participated in, from the American Civil War all the way through the Iraq War” (“Guns in The US: The Statistics Behind The Violence,” BBC.com, January 5th 2016).

The NRA invests millions to influence American politics to steadily increase its market size. Our elected representatives should be on their case, but they aren’t. It’s time to question the ability of the congress to make the best possible decision for our safety, and to demand change.

I was so numb by everything that happened in Dallas, I didn’t pay attention to a nagging pain on my left foot. I only managed to see a doctor five days later. Turns out my foot was broken when someone stepped on it during that insane run on July 7th. It will take six to eight weeks to heal. On the other hand, the emotional scars, I believe will stay with me far longer. Speaking up about my experience that day is part of my healing process. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. But how to forgive? I’ve been conflicted about that. Even though empathy is a beautiful word, practicing it is so very hard. “Why did that man wanted to kill white cops, mom?” my daughter asked. I had to think about that, but finally I asked her, “Do you remember when you had the flu, and you wanted to say something to me, but couldn’t because your throat was too sore, and you felt so weak and frustrated that you cried? And there was nothing I could do, but be there and hug you.” She nodded. “Then, a couple of weeks later you told me you felt like you would never be able to speak again, and that made you so very, very sad. Remember that?” “Yes,” she answered. “Sometimes, things happen that are so sad, we feel voiceless like that, and that can make some people lose hope. Being hopeless can make us very sick emotionally, and that may lead to terrible choices.” “He needed to be hugged, right mom?” she asked. “Hugged, heard, accepted, and respected,” I said. Sometimes we face moments of terrible social injustice that lead to deep feelings of despair. That understanding is also a way for me to forgive and focus on a better future. Talking about her athletic disappointment my daughter said it right: “Mom, I have a lot of work to prepare for my next year’s championships. I’m so glad I’m alive to have another chance to do better.”

I believe we all need to do better. This fatalistic attitude of accepting the worst is un-American. If there are people, sponsored by the NRA, taking the time to call and put pressure on congress to maintain the pro-gun status quo, so must we, against it. If we can organize weekly swim meets, and soccer games, and fencing tournaments, mostly through volunteerism, we can certainly come together and flood the congress with clear messages pro-strict-gun-control.

In Dallas my daughter and I had the privilege of seeing American Olympians preparing for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. We are the country of the largest Olympic Delegation in the history of the games. It takes a lot of work, patience, dedication, determination, and belief to pull that off. If we, the American People, use our resolve to change the gun-control tide, we certainly can do it.

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