This is Part II of an essay by Fox Frazier-Foley (read Part I here), 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.
During the moments that I drove into Binghamton on the morning of April 3, all 14 people who were going to die inside the ACA building that day were already gone—but no one outside of the building knew that yet. My parents called me while I was still on the road, asking me to come straight to their house. A state of emergency had been declared; downtown and the West Side were swarming with reporters from out of town; as other people called and texted me with conflicting details, it seemed that no one really knew exactly what was going on, besides the fact that there was an active shooter in the vicinity.
As I pulled into the driveway of my parents’ home, nestled in the scenic hills of the South Side, my phone buzzed with a text from my childhood best friend. Jessie was the daughter of a prominent local undertaker, and a large portion of our shared childhood had been spent playing in her father’s funeral homes. Although we were both rule-followers for the most part, we were verbally disciplined several times in elementary school for frightening the other children with stories about the conversations we’d held with ghosts. Jessie and I had recently reconnected in Manhattan, discovering that for years we’d been living only a few blocks apart. Now, her text message read, “I just saw a headline on Perez—what is going ON there??”
“I don’t really know—I think a guy with a gun is holding a building hostage downtown? We saw a SWAT team on our way in. I just got to my folks’ house.”
“Thanks,” I texted back, then put my phone in my bag and went inside to be with my family, whom I imagined were pretty shaken up. I was shaken up, myself, and I didn’t even live here anymore.
By mid-afternoon, local news outlets began to confirm deaths to the public; a waxing gibbous moon appeared in the sky, which was still mostly overcast but not yet darkening into evening. And then, for several hours, the city seemed to fall bizarrely silent. The memory of that heavy quiet unnerves me even today.
I am not alone in this aspect of memory: several people who contacted me after reading the first installment of this piece—who were also from Binghamton, or had lived there for a time—made unsolicited comments about the silence after the shooting. They used words like “strange,” “heavy,” and “heartbreaking.” I wonder if by “strange,” they mean the same sense of the surreal that I felt—as though I were moving underwater on an unfamiliar planet.
Perhaps more keenly than sadness or shock, though, I felt fear. This was probably at the core of my motivation for avoiding the West Side that day, after texting Jessie back and turning off my phone. I considered taking flowers to leave outside the ACA, or lighting a candle, but I did not do those things. I didn’t avoid the West Side because I feared a gunman. Rather, I feared that this heavy quiet meant we were in the eye of some kind of metaphysical storm—that high emotions in reaction to the shooting, combined with alcohol imbibed as coping mechanism, would render further violence.
I have never tried to articulate this out loud, because I am not sure I can admit it without sounding more dramatic than I would like, but the truth is that I felt that something evil had been unleashed in Binghamton and that—whatever it was—it was thick and deep and viscous, and there was no way that it would be done with us so soon.
Located diagonally across a four-way intersection from the ACA, Fitzie’s was doing solid business on April 3rd. Regulars had been ducking police tape to come in all day long and get their day-drunk whiskey fix. Fitzie’s is a shell of a former strip club, converted into what is arguably the divest of dive bars inside Binghamton city limits. Over the course of at least a decade, it garnered a reputation as a locale for Binghamton’s underbelly, mingling recreational sex, drugs, and violence in a semi-public bubble fueled by all the Irish whiskey you’d like to order. This ignominious éclat has rendered the bar a more marketable establishment than you might expect. Whereas similar spaces rely on signage to advertise their brand and attract patrons, Fitzie’s has only a crudely painted Irish flag as a marker for the entrance. The man who had been my high school sweetheart—and who would, five years later, become my husband—was tending bar at Fitzie’s on the day of the shooting. I asked him, once, whether he remembered the silence of that day the same way I remember it.
“People were pretty freaked out,” he said, and half-shrugged. “I remember the bar was packed. People didn’t stay home because of [the shooting], or anything. But I also don’t remember there being any fights that whole day. And I mean, that’s at Fitzie’s. So.”
The implication was that a day without altercations among the regulars at Fitzie’s was a form of unusual quiet. I’ve been to Fitzie’s a few times; he’s not wrong.
When I try to talk about the silence of that day, however, I don’t mean to imply that no one spoke. More particularly, I don’t mean to imply that no one said utterly heinous things while speaking from a place of fear and rage. They absolutely did—and no one ever really talks about that now. People were so traumatized in the days that immediately followed the shooting, though, that I think there’s some sort of tacit acknowledgment among Binghamtonians that many said things they didn’t mean, or wish they could take back. In some ways, it almost feels like an act of betrayal to discuss these things in a public essay. Because people said nice things, too. Of course they did. They praised the ACA and its work. They rallied around grief-stricken families and loved ones of the deceased, who were dealing with unfathomable loss. They mourned for the lives taken, in violence, before their natural time; they remembered, aloud, the special gifts and endearing qualities of those who had been taken from our community. Of course they did.
But—I think especially with the way the sociocultural landscape of America looks, ten years later—it’s important to try to parse some of the more horrifying reactions that people gave in front of me, personally. It’s painful, but I think it also reveals frightening, divisive impulses that have been at work for a long time in our culture, and that have likely colored the way we respond to many things, including senseless acts of large-scale violence. Which may help explain the national reaction (or, ultimately, lack thereof).
For example, a woman who had been a friend of mine for decades told me, in a conversational tone on the morning after the shooting, that the violence that had transpired at the ACA was the “fault” of “the white women” who had been gunned down during the shooting. She had never met any of the women in question, but described their whiteness as “symbolic” of the oppressive side of Binghamton’s culture. She felt, at least in the moments that we spoke of it that morning, that their presence had attracted the shooter to target the ACA. I remember pointing out that there were plenty of white women all over town, and that most of them probably better exemplified oppressive whiteness than the teacher, or the caseworker—an immigrant herself, born in a refugee camp—both of whom had dedicated their lives to service of others, via their work at the ACA. The man who was sitting with us nodded and said—in a tone that suggested he was agreeing with me—that there were surely more white people in the area who deserved the same fate. The people making these statements were both white; I can only imagine that they must have been trying to come to terms with their own feelings of guilt when they blamed murder victims for having been murdered.
That evening, in a bar, I heard someone else I knew say that this was one more example of why we shouldn’t “put up” immigrants in “our town”—we bring them in, we let them stay here, he said, and then they try to kill us all. We should run them out of town, he said, before they get the chance to kill any more of us “real” Americans. I remember pointing out that many immigrants are also ‘real’ Americans. There’s a whole process for it, I said. It’s called naturalization. They have to take a citizenship exam, on American history and civics, stuff like that. My best friend in college became a naturalized citizen when we were sophomores. She moved here when she was five years old. She knows more about America than you do. I remember him rolling his eyes at me. But also, I said, the guy who shot up the place mainly shot other immigrants, in a place designed for immigrants to gather. If you mean that only you and your friends are ‘real’ Americans, then what you’re saying doesn’t really make any sense, anyway, because he wasn’t coming for you or your friends.
In both of these exchanges, my words were met with long, baleful stares, and then more silence. Eventually, in both situations, the other parties responded something to the effect of, “I’ll just let you have this one,” in tones that suggested they were contemptuously indulging me—letting me get away with some sort of transgression because of our foundational friendships, respectively. I wish I could say that I’d had some sort of forceful, illuminating responses—pressing the issues, not letting things go, making people apologize for saying awful things. I’ve thought many times of the intelligent, well-developed, articulate, erudite repudiations I could offer, today, of those hateful statements. But the truth is, after I gave the responses I’ve already described, I just sat there, staring back at them silently, until they looked away and “just let me have this one.” I remember trying to hide how bewildered and shaken I felt—how at a loss, wondering what was happening inside of their brains to produce such vicious, violent language.
Afterwards, I reminded myself that everyone was extremely upset, and probably afraid. That people say and do awful things sometimes when they are upset or afraid. I flashed to a childhood memory of being outside during a rainstorm, seeing ants tackle and stand on top of each other in a puddle—desperate to survive, willing to kill their kin in order to keep breathing.
The sort of rhetoric I’ve just recounted was along the lines of what I had both feared and expected on the afternoon of April 3rd. When people are reminded of how cruel and violent the world is, and how little control they have over anything that happens in it, they often—we often—become deeply angry, in response to the terror that stems from our vulnerability. It is a gutting kind of loneliness. In Binghamton, however, my surprise was largely in reaction to hearing these kinds of words from these people—people I had known for much of my life, whom I liked and respected. I remember the sensation was as though I’d broken through the surface of that surreal, alien ocean I’d felt trapped under. As I looked around, expecting to recognize my surroundings, nothing quite made sense.
I had feared soapboxes, megaphones, and gathering mobs; but when I heard people say these sorts of hateful things in the days that followed the shooting, it was all uttered in near-whispers. They spoke as though they were afraid of the sounds of their own voices. I remember thinking that if we knew ourselves well, our conversations might provide us comfort and familiarity as we experienced the surreal aura of shared shock. But if we had been lying to ourselves about who we really were, our voices would be rendered uncanny to us now. And perhaps that is really why I felt unnerved—so much of what I had considered familiar had been suddenly and very starkly rendered unfamiliar, and it caught me off-guard because it was all so insidiously quiet. It was disarming. You think you were raised in the sleepiest of semi-rural towns, and one day someone kills 14 people, a few minutes away from your childhood home. You think you know and love decent human beings, and then you hear them suggesting that we all go out and kill strangers, or drive them out of town, based upon their skin color or where they were born. And there’s no reason for any of it.
What I’m trying to say is that I think we were, as a town, blindsided by the shooting in some less obvious ways—ways that are hard to talk about, because we want to honor and emphasize the good in ourselves, our neighbors, and our town. We want to focus on commemorating the victims, rather than on judgment and infighting amongst ourselves that would seem to only further divide a damaged community. We want desperately to heal. And I do not think that Binghamton, as a community, has been able to fully heal.
The shooting and its aftermath made me realize that I did not understand Binghamton as well as I had thought I did. I’ve never felt at home here, but I thought I had a pretty thorough understanding of the town and the people in it. Hearing people speak in such ways made me realize that I did not know my friends, or this place, nearly as well as I had thought I did. And those ugly revelations combined to make me question whether I knew myself as well as I wanted to, or could bear to.
While I struggled to look into the hearts of my erstwhile neighbors—and, indeed, into my own deepest selves—the world looked away. I would be reminded of this, in particular, six years later: while the Fitzie’s bartender and I were living in California as a married couple, the San Bernardino shooting transpired at the Inland Regional Center. My husband, due to unlikely circumstances, happened to be in that general vicinity on the day of that shooting. The San Bernardino shooting and the Binghamton shooting share several striking qualities: 14 people were killed at a government-funded, non-profit center intended to assist and help provide for a vulnerable and underserved demographic of people. But on December 2, 2015, I watched America respond very differently than it had on April 3, 2009.
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