This is Part I of an essay by Fox Frazier-Foley, which will appear in coming weeks on the Agape blog in serial format. The essay reflects on a mass shooting that took place in Frazier-Foley’s hometown in 2009, resulting in the deaths of 14 people. The event slipped quickly from collective memory and is rarely mentioned in contemporary cultural conversations about American gun violence. Frazier-Foley interrogates that rapid erasure, examining its relationship to other aspects of American cruelty, including our treatment of immigrants and of the mentally ill, rhetorical aggression and partisan apathy, and recreational consumption of violence and grief via news media portrayal.
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.—T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Near the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers, there’s a small park situated at the edge of a bridge. A broken column stands in the center of the park; in a circle around this column, thirteen small boulders are affixed to the ground. They’re reminiscent of miniature gravestones: a single name is engraved upon each, with a photograph of the deceased and kind words from loved ones. Above the stones, thirteen doves are sculpted in upward flight, as though they’ve been startled by some unkind sound and are fleeing—perhaps towards the refuge of a calmer, gentler place. Or, at least, towards a greater remove from this one.
The top part of the broken column—an exposed core—lights up at night. The image, on rainy evenings and dark foggy mornings, is that of a literal candle in the wind, surrounded by the soft luminescence of white birds hovering above it in static flight.
This is where we gather to remember our dead.
Even before April 3, 2009, I had a strong affinity for those lines from Eliot’s Waste Land about April being the cruelest month. I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the winters in this desolate pocket of upstate NY are notoriously cold and bleak. I usually explain the psychic pain of our Aprils as comparable to recovering from the early stages of frostbite—when you’ve gotten so cold that trying to return to a relatively normal body temperature is excruciating. Rubbing your hands together or running lukewarm water over them won’t help; you just have to wait for your body to readjust and for the pain to pass, hoping that you haven’t incurred any permanent damage.
Among our standard wintry elements are: double-digit negative temperatures, blizzards, freezing rain and sleet, and skies that look like a painter’s palette of black and grey. It doesn’t stop snowing until May. And spring (and summer, and autumn) don’t always bring the desired relief: in 2018, for example, Binghamton averaged 314 overcast days, 212 of which constituted, in the opinion of the National Weather Service, “heavy cloud cover.” These statistics are not anomalous for the area. Even when it gets warmer, it’s a dark place.
The general sense of malaise I associate with Binghamton is what I thought I was driving home to, on April 3, 2009, as I ventured upstate from Manhattan to visit my family and fulfill a professional obligation. I’ve always had a tense relationship with Binghamton, because it’s always been the kind of place that was destined to prominently feature in a Vice photo essay about Donald Trump’s supporters. The kind of town whose residents remain embarrassingly excited for years over the fact that the film Rounders and the television show The Office have both mentioned it by name in characters’ dialogue. They are, too, fiercely proud of claiming Rod Serling—creator of The Twilight Zone—as one of their own. Serling was raised here, and he modeled several episodes and settings of his television show after Binghamton and its landmarks (in particular, the park during which the climactic scenes of Season 1, Episode 5, “Walking Distance,” take place is modeled after Binghamton’s own Recreation Park. Rec Park, as the locals call it, is also occasionally referred to by college students as Beethoven Park, due to its location at the corner of Beethoven Street and Seminary Avenue. My husband and I both attended the high school that borders this park).
Most of the people here who would be first to mention Binghamton, in conversation, as the place of origin they share with Rod Serling would unequivocally revile Serling’s liberal politics. However, they remain almost aggressively gratified to share a sense of geographic affinity with someone so famous. And, though I have never felt at home here (and though I’ve been known to hold plenty of grudges against Binghamton and its inhabitants), the truth is that I can’t hold these small thrills against Binghamtonians. I think they react this way to almost any external attention because it’s a place that has been forgotten. It was once called The Parlor City, named after the homes of affluent businessmen and bankers who owned property here; it was considered a cultural jewel of upstate New York. Those homes are now, for the most part, physically decrepit, long ago converted into substandard apartment housing by local landlords who make their money by continuously raising the rent on working-class tenants. Being forgotten is not the same, of course, as never having been noticed in the first place. There is a kind of pain in being deliberately discarded, in having your existence first noted and then dismissed out of hand.
Media as varied as Lord of the Flies, the writings of Michel Foucault, and jejune Hollywood films like Hollow Man have suggested that a sense of being unobserved can erode moral accountability—can corrupt human behavior and values. And Binghamton was, to my mind, a forgotten place well before the mass shooting ever occurred (and after it, forgotten again). Perhaps this sense of abandonment and dismissal, accrued over several generations, accounts at least partially for why Binghamton, like many small and isolated towns, is verily a brutal place. I quasi-affectionately refer to it, in all its dreary strangeness and curdled xenophobia, as the Twilight Zone. Its culture of brutality seems to come particularly alive during the winter months, when a large segment of the adult population turns to recreational binge-drinking as one of few available means of entertainment. The sorts of violence you might expect are often exactly what ensue.
But then, of course, there are the kinds of violence that you don’t expect. That morning in April, I tensed up as I recognized the freeway exits bringing me closer and closer. It’s difficult to articulate the peculiar blend of loathing and comfort I feel for the Twilight Zone; it is the proverbial, and literal, devil I know. I drew nearer with a combination of anxiety, resignation, and anticipation beating in my chest. During these same moments, a 41-year-old man named Jiverly Wong awakened in the heart of Binghamton, in his family’s home. I can’t help but wonder if he, too, felt anxiety, resignation, and anticipation as he dressed himself in body armor and gathered the small stash of weapons he’d amassed.
Once Wong had gathered his loaded magazines, hunting knife, and two Beretta handguns—a 9 mm and a .45, both of which he had permits for in New York State—he stepped outside his family’s home and took his elderly father’s car. Anyone who knew him might have thought that he was simply driving to the appointment he had made for himself at the local employment agency; but Wong skipped that appointment, instead driving to the American Civic Association, located just off Main Street on the West Side of town. The Civic Association shares a parking lot with the church in which my daughter and I were both baptized; it’s the church where I ran the nursery during my late-teenage years, where my mother and I co-taught Sunday school; the church where my husband’s grandmother faithfully attended services well into her 90s. The church where the new, “radically” liberal Reverend Heath said to me in frustration, as she and her husband were dropping her daughter off at the nursery early one Sunday morning, “You know, I don’t like the way people have taught the Old Testament, traditionally. Take Noah and the Ark—I don’t like that vicious mentality of, God wanted to punish all His people as hard as He could. Maybe that story is a metaphor: maybe what the flood washed away represents the parts of ourselves that are bad. Maybe God has to help us wash those parts of us away, even when we resist it and want to hold onto them. He does that out of love, to help save us from ourselves.” Her words hung in the air, and although I was annoyed by her frustrated tone, I also felt as though she had stuck one of her manicured index fingers through a thick, wooden ceiling, and torn it open like a piece of marbled stationery. I could see daylight passing through the cleft her words had created, onto the pews and the floor; I wanted to sit under the light.
The American Civic Association is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization, founded in 1939—the numbers of my street address growing up, an odd coincidence. The ACA’s stated mission is to help immigrants and refugees, and to “build bridges of understanding between foreign- and native-born communities.” In effect, the ACA offers both practical and moral support to immigrants and refugees, fostering a sense of kinship among the center’s attendees as their own core group of friends and colleagues, while also helping them integrate into the larger local community. The ACA arms immigrants and refugees with language and job skills, as well as a sense of camaraderie and a social life at the Center.
Wong briefly attended ESL classes at the ACA, though he had stopped showing up several weeks prior to the shooting. In lieu of the community at the ACA, Wong focused his free time and energies on being active in a local gun club. Binghamton, like much of upstate New York, has a strong gun culture; it seems possible that Wong was seeking social acceptance through shared interests with his co-workers (and, of course, that he genuinely enjoyed using firearms). He regularly engaged in target practice at a local range, and his co-workers said that he boasted about his firearm ownership at work—more specifically, that he carried one of his pistols illegally in his glove compartment (he did not have a permit to carry). Wong seems to have identified, at least socially, with his co-workers and his fellow firearm enthusiasts at the gun range, more so than he did with the local immigrant community of which his family was known for being pillars, or his classmates at the ACA.
On the morning of April 3, Wong parked his father’s car behind the American Civic Association, using it to barricade the back exit shut from the outside. He then walked around the block in the rain. It was a light rain, with the air temperature hovering around 50 degrees—warm for the area in early April, though the weather that morning was also gusty, and (of course) overcast. Wong entered through the building’s front door with two handguns, and wordlessly shot both receptionists. He shot the first woman through the head, and she died shortly thereafter. He shot the second woman in her stomach; she thought quickly enough in the moment to mimic the death of her colleague. Satisfied that both women were dead, Wong moved on to a nearby ESL classroom, where he shot 13 of the 15 people inside. They died together, within a few minutes:
Parveen Ali, age 26, from northern Pakistan. Parveen and I were approximately the same age when she died. She was known among friends and acquaintances for her sweet demeanor, and always being willing to help out. She was an active community member in the Islamic Association of the Southern Tier. Her obituary in the local paper described her as her family’s emotional and spiritual backbone.
Almir Olimpio Alves, age 43, from Brazil. He held a PhD in Mathematics and was serving as a visiting scholar at Binghamton University. He was an active member of the Main Street Baptist Church.
Marc Henri Bernard, age 44, and Marie Sonia Bernard, age 46, a married couple from Haiti, with two young children. They worked at McDonald’s and took English classes together at the ACA in their spare time. When they didn’t arrive to pick their children up from school after the shooting, the principal took them home and waited with them until family arrived.
Li Guo, age 47, from China, who was working at Binghamton University as a visiting research scholar. She was also developing an exchange program between Binghamton University and her home university in Shenzhen, for both students and faculty. She only had three months left to stay in Binghamton, and would then have returned home to her family in China.
Lan Ho, age 39, from Vietnam. Her husband, Long Huyhn, was taking the ESL class with her; when Wong entered the room and started shooting, Long acted quickly to protect his wife, throwing his arms around her and trying to shield her body with his body. A bullet passed through his elbow—one of three times that Wong shot him—and killed her immediately. Lan had been working for ten days at a nail salon at the local mall. Her husband cried silently, so that Wong would not know he was still alive and continue shooting him. She was survived by her husband and their two young children.
Jiang Ling, age 22, from China. Her family was so physically and emotionally exhausted by their grief over her death that they were simply unable to write an obituary. Local community rallied around them, donating meals, other in-kind goods, and even appointments with grief counselors.
Layla Khalil, 53, held a degree from a prestigious university in Iraq, and had worked as a librarian before coming to the United States. from Iraq. She was a mother of three, and a grandmother. Her adult children recalled that, during the Gulf War, when electricity was sporadic in Iraq, she would get up in the middle of the night to do their laundry. Her husband, who had been living in Jordan, had come to visit her in Binghamton on the day of the shooting.
Haihong Zhong, age 54, had immigrated from China and was a local landlady. She performed basic weekly cleaning on all of the units she owned, a service that she generously included in her tenants’ rent. She also performed all the building maintenance herself. She was beloved by friends and tenants and remembered for her charming, extroverted personality.
Roberta “Bobbie” King, age 72, an English teacher whose favorite hobby was collecting and restoring antique dolls, and who, like Mrs. Zobniw, was not supposed to be working at the ACA that day. Mrs. King had received a call that morning asking her to substitute for the regular teacher, who was on vacation to celebrate a wedding anniversary. King had substituted at local schools for many years; her photograph was easily recognizable to me. She was the mother of ten children.
Dolores “Dinah” Cabonilas Yigal, 53, had recently immigrated from the Philippines with her husband, who was born in Alabama and raised in Tennessee. They lived in the Philippines for several years, until she was able to get an American visa. She was survived by her husband and her adult daughter—whom Dolores adopted as a week-old infant when her biological mother abandoned her in Dolores’ care, without any warning.
“Amy” Mao Hong Xiu Marsland, age 35, had immigrated to the USA from China approximately three years prior to the shooting. In China, she was raised on a farm, worked in a factory, and eventually ran her own delicatessen. In the United States, she worked first as a server and then as a nail technician. She was a newlywed; she did not live to see her first wedding anniversary.
Maria Zobniw, age 60, was born in a refugee camp; her parents emigrated from the Ukraine as refugees when she was four years old. She was President of the local chapter of the Ukrainian Women’s League, and a part-time caseworker at the ACA—a career trajectory motivated by her desire to help other immigrants. She and her husband had planned a weekend getaway to Washington, D.C., for April 4th and 5th, to see their daughter in Maryland and then to walk together enjoying the cherry blossoms in the big city. She was not supposed to be working on April 3, but received an early-morning phone call asking her to come in and assist; she went.
Many of the shooting victims had physical injuries so grotesque that the coroner would not permit family members of the deceased to see their bodies (a standard part of the usual postmortem identification process).
Once Wong had passed the reception area, the second woman he had shot, Shirley DeLucia, aged 61, dialed 911 while bleeding from her stomach and lying next to her dead colleague. Shirley was a trooper—despite the severity of her wounds, she was able to remain on the line for 39 minutes.
Within 3 minutes of opening fire, Wong—in the parlance of our times—turned the gun on himself. Although his time of death is recorded as 10:33 a.m., police would not empty the building until 2:33 p.m. A hostage negotiation team repeatedly tried to make contact. No one inside the building was able to communicate that Wong was dead: those who had survived the actual gunfire were too grievously injured to communicate, or thought he was elsewhere in the building. Most people in the building hid, terrified, cramped together in the basement boiler room.
Fox Frazier-Foley created Agape Editions. She currently lives in the country, where she walks on the earth and in the water.
All photo credits for this essay (unless otherwise noted): Fox Frazier-Foley