Being in a mass shooting event is one of my greatest fears. Saying that, most normal people don’t hope to be targeted by a shooter or claim to thrive in that situation.
What I mean is that when I worked in a grocery store alongside my girlfriend, we had a plan for what we would do if someone came in with a gun. How we would have to rely on our own abilities to get out and get help.
What I mean is that I paid extra for groceries to be delivered to my car so I wouldn’t have to go inside.
What I mean is that I used to give my girlfriend my debit card information so she could go to the store for me if I only needed one or two things.
What I mean is that I chose online classes over a physical campus, not only because it was better for my work schedule, but because it meant I could stay at home.
What I mean is that I used to have hours to myself on end in factory work, and during many of those hours I fantasized about where I would hide, how I would get to my phone, how I could slip outside if a shooter came in.
So, I think about it a lot. The possibility of being in a shooting event motivates a lot of my decisions and occupies a significant portion of my mind.
For as long as I’ve been afraid of them, it wasn’t until the Black Lives Matter and police brutality protests that it became a real, immediate threat.
A warm and dry evening in Brookings, South Dakota, and a peaceful demonstration in memory of the victims of police brutality and systemic oppression is scheduled. We gather with nothing besides megaphones and cardboard in hand, masks over our mouths and noses.
“No justice, no peace,” we chant. “Black lives matter,” we shout. We march between city buildings – the post office, the county clerk’s office – and all we lift are our voices.
Downtown Brookings is loud with the cries of protest.
Speakers lead the stops in front of each building, telling stories of their experience with injustice at the hands of those meant to serve and protect. They remind us of how prevalent racism in our society is.
To say I march is a misnomer. I’m wheelchair-bound for a walk this distance, unable to regulate my heart rate when standing. For my safety, and to keep up with the demonstration, I’m in my wheelchair. I’ve gone to protests in it before. I stay on the edges of the crowd as not to get in the way.
The protest heads to the police station then crosses Main Street. And here we meet our first anti-protest demonstrators.
White men in a hulking military vehicle boast American flags and an air of superiority, but otherwise are only there to record faces of protestors. None of us are breaking the law, and we know this. Instead, we chant louder for his phone. We raise our fists in resistance. These men are an annoyance at most. A reminder of why we need to keep fighting.
Then, standing at the corner of the block, is a man with a rifle.
Much as we have every legal right to gather for peaceful protest, somehow this display is protected by the law. He is legally allowed to terrorize groups with his masked identity and his tool for taking lives in great numbers.
And I am terrified of being caught in a mass shooting situation. I live in constant fear that I’ll be targeted for doing nothing wrong. Until now, I’ve not had to face this fear head-on.
The moment I see the weapon intended to kill strapped across his chest, my heart sinks. Then it races as my eyes fill with tears. My body goes numb. My limbs shake and my breaths come short and ragged.
We pass him. He stands and watches. He knows the terror that he’s inflicting. A silent reminder that he can take any life he chooses. A warning that, while he is only one man, he has enough bullets to take out the hundreds of innocent, legally gathered civilians in front of him.
In front of the police station, each protestor takes a knee. We sit in silence for eight minutes, as long as George Floyd had the knee of an officer on his throat.
Those eight minutes are the longest of my life. Because I’m in a wheelchair, getting to my knee is impractical and not a fair request. I bow my head instead.
I bow my head, and my chair shakes with how badly I’m trembling. I keep my sobs as quiet as I can.
Every sound of a car on the road sends jolts of deep terror through me. Is it an engine revving, or is it a bullet spearing the air, aimed at any of these protestors, completely at the mercy of the moment? Is it going to tear painfully through my chest, or will my life suddenly go black as my brains splatter my friends?
I didn’t pet my cat goodbye. I haven’t told my family I love them today. I don’t have enough planned out for someone to continue my stories after my death. I’ll never graduate college.
Death comes to people with opinions all the time. Those who challenge the status quo put themselves in danger. To be executed because I believe in equality and justice is not the worst fate I could’ve imagined for myself. Not a victim, but a martyr. Our deaths could change the course of history. I’ll die for this. I’ll die to keep others from a cruel-er fate.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid. There were so many things I wanted to do: write a great story that touches lives, help make games I’m passionate about, cross the graduation stage once more, get married to my love…
I take out my phone and open my camera. I send a video to my family where I tell them that someone has a gun and I don’t know what will happen. At least I can have control of one thing in my death. I can say goodbye.
In some alternate timeline, that man opened fire on everyone in attendance. Maybe he went down in a “blaze of glory,” and maybe no one remembered our names.
But that isn’t the timeline I’m living. My friends took me out of the event as it wound down, while my panic attack continued for thirty more minutes.
I went back home, and I snuggled my cat. I opened an email from an editor. My girlfriend held me still.
Even though they had bullets for each of us, we outnumbered them easily ten to one. All that the other side could cling to was their violence because they had no logic, reason, or empathy that could sway us. The only way for them to even the score would be to kill us.
And because that man didn’t kill me, I know now that I’m stronger in my convictions than ever before. I remember the things I’m fighting for. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to go home and calm down after believing they were about to die. Living in a war zone or a criminal penitentiary means that the threat of violence is inescapable.
Nothing makes you remember that you’re brave like coming face-to-face with a coward.
Black lives matter. No justice, no peace.