News & Opinion

My Search for Closure After the UNC Charlotte Shooting

On April 30, 2019, a former student walked into a full classroom in the Kennedy building on the campus of UNC Charlotte and began shooting. He killed two students, Riley Howell and Reed Parlier, and injured four others. The following is one student’s account of how the UNC Charlotte shooting has shaped their life over the last year. 

April 30, 2019, started out like any other last day of class for me. In fact, the beginning of the day was so normal that, at this point, one year later, I cannot say that I remember much from the early morning. The first memory that I have from that day is a memory that has been slowly chipping away at me since the shooting at UNC Charlotte. I offered to drive a classmate of mine to the library — it wasn’t far, but it would have saved her about 15 minutes of walking. I remember her face really well. When I have closed my eyes over the past few days to sleep, her image is branded underneath my eyelids. I keep asking myself over and over, “What is your name?”

After I dropped her off, I went to meet my partner and two of our friends to go out for lunch. We left campus for Midwood Smokehouse less than 10 minutes before the shooting started. On that day, I did not have to run, hide, or fight. I got out, literally, at the last minute. But when I got the notification from the school, my heart sank. My mom works on campus in the Fretwell building. My best friend, Heaven, was on campus that day. In fact, most everyone I know was within a mile of where the bullets flew that afternoon. Sometimes looking back on April 30, I have said that very little information was coming out, but that isn’t entirely true. In fact, so much disconnected information was appearing on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, in my text messages, and everywhere else that every horrifying scenario that could have played out did so in my head. 

I couldn’t get in contact with my mother for hours. I called her over and over and over again. No answer. Little by little, and well before I ever interacted with information about where exactly the shooting happened, descriptions of the people who had been shot appeared. One particularly sat with me. A woman of a nondescript age, with medium-length, brown hair, somewhere near the academic side of campus. This description could be anyone, and for me, for a few hours, it was my mother. While I later learned that she was doing her best to keep her employees safe, and to help evacuate an employee of hers who was pregnant at the time, words cannot express the fear and anxiety I felt before that, believing to my core that my mother could have been taken from me.

Next on my mind was Heaven. I called her immediately after I called my mom, and I must have called five or six times, but she couldn’t pick up. Not long thereafter, her sister called me. She too had been trying to reach Heaven, but she also had no reply. In that moment, her sister and I both believed her to be dead, and for a few hours, that was our reality. Once again, words cannot express the fear and anxiety I felt believing that I had just lost my best friend. 

With person after person, these scenarios played out relentlessly in my head, and nothing I did could get them to stop. I was scared. I was sorrowful. I was angry. 

I don’t know how long it was before I managed a coherent thought again. The next few days are hazy in my mind at best. I attended a vigil that Kristine Slade organized instead of preparing for her own graduation. Considering the circumstances, it was beautiful. Never before had I seen Charlotte with such a strong will to connect as a community. But, standing there with something like 9,000 of my classmates, I did not experience closure in the way that I thought I would. In fact, I only grew more and more frustrated as I realized that we were just going to be another data point on a chart. There would be no closure — our tragedy wouldn’t even be ‘bad enough’ for some publications to consider what happened at UNC Charlotte a mass shooting. 

UNC Charlotte shooting
Students gathered at UNC Charlotte’s Halton Arena for a vigil on the Wednesday following the UNC Charlotte shooting. (Photo by Katie Levans)

Soon thereafter, the UNC Charlotte chapter of March for Our Lives held a rally. I admire student organizers — especially those who can turn out several hundred students on a few days notice, regardless of the circumstances — and the students who organized Charlotte’s Chapter of MFOL did a good job at gathering students to have a platform with their elected representatives.

However, while our elected officials spoke at us, my friends and I grew more and more concerned that our problems weren’t truly being heard. We were told that if we “see something, say something,” a trope that is often used after shootings and blames victims while simultaneously stigmatizing black and brown people. We were told that our situation was tragic and that it shouldn’t happen. We were told that if we wanted change, we should vote. 

Well, we did vote. We voted for the people who stood there on that makeshift stage in our home and told us that our only solution was voting. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Susan Harden specifically implored us to vote and hold our elected officials accountable. In response, I did all I felt I had the power to do as I stood there in disbelief: I sent out a tweet asking students to organize and demand the change that Harden said we could push. I didn’t believe her. I didn’t believe that anyone cared. 

I remember sitting by the front door of Atkins Library, cursing and concerned that we were going to be locked out and people would leave. My partner, Nic, tried to comfort me. They sat with me, furiously scrolling through their socials to help organize as well as they could. Nic hadn’t really ever taken time to organize before, but I was and still am particularly grateful for their quick willingness to help and learn. 

One by one I saw students walking towards us. The sun had barely come up, but as if they had class, a group of about 12 showed up before the library opened. All of them sat with us and prepared materials for a goal that we didn’t even know of yet. 

Throughout the day, more students showed up, sat with us, helped compile gun-violence data, sift through literature reviews, public policy analyses, testimonials of victims, and a plethora of other things. Many of the students who answered the call to organize I had never met before. We formed a semi-democratic structure and voted on what issues mattered the most to us, what we wanted to push, and we organized a press conference for 4 p.m. on May 7. That evening, we would present the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners with our wants, needs, and demands moving forward for basic measures to curb gun violence. 

UNC Charlotte shooting
Gabe Cartagena (center) and fellow student organizers with Real Change Now gather outside of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. (Photo courtesy of Real Change Now)

When we stood up to speak to the all-democratic board of commissioners, I expected a mostly sympathetic audience. Of course, no elected official seems to enjoy when their constituents berate them for their failures, but at least we would be speaking to their ideologies and campaign promises. Many of the commissioners had their eyes glued on us, clearly concerned. There appeared to be an agreement among them, while we spoke, that our asks were reasonable, and most of them signed our not-at-all-ambitious pledge to support basic, introductory, bipartisan reforms, and to not take money from the National Rifle Association. 

However, when we went to collect the forms, two commissioners stood out for their absence; Pat Cotham and Vilma Leake had both refused to show support. Leake added that we had no right to make any demands of her. I was once again disappointed, angry and sad.

Later that week, then presidential candidate Cory Booker hosted a town hall in Charlotte to discuss gun violence. I was invited alongside the other student organizers from Charlotte to attend. This particular forum was not so much to organize as much as it was to be heard.

At the town hall, I spoke briefly with Sam, a friend with whom I had met many months prior to discuss potentially running for city council to raise awareness about investment in mass transit and sustainable neighborhood development. He asked again if I was still considering a run (which I had by that point mostly ruled out). I told him no. Then I said yes. Then I said no, then maybe. I was still in a state of shock from April 30, and I knew that if I ran, I would want to shift focus to gun violence — a topic that the city council does not realistically have that much control over.  

I spoke with many people over the following weeks about what I should do, and if I would even be able to  be an effective advocate for issues that mattered to me and my community — especially the students with whom I was organizing with after the UNC Charlotte shooting. What I wanted the most was for people to actually take us seriously when we ask for issues that are literally killing us to be solved. Eventually I came to the conclusion that people would not take us seriously unless we started voting, running for office, and winning at greater rates. I decided to run. 

I could write a lot about that campaign, but that’s not the point of all this. Looking back now at all that I have done over the past year to find closure is seemingly ridiculous. This has taken over my life in a way that I could have never imagined. Even with everything I have tried, I still cannot sit still in classrooms. My eyes are always darting around to make sure that I’m “safe.” I am still disappointed and deeply frustrated in the perpetual state of indifference of our elected bodies. I feel so beaten down that I often ask myself if getting out of bed is even worth it. I wonder why it took a global pandemic to cause the first noticeable decrease in school-shootings in my lifetime.

But I do have hope. Because now, one year later, there are still young people organizing communities affected by these shootings all around the country. We have not yet seen the change we have been fighting for, but I have faith that through our sustained organizing we can actually honor those who have survived and those we have lost in these senseless shootings. My story can only hope to be a small footnote in the greater records of my generation’s struggle, and I am proud of the work that we have done. 

At 5:10 p.m. today, UNC Charlotte will host “United: A Remembrance Program,” a virtual event in memory of the victims and all those traumatized and affected by the UNC Charlotte shooting. Click here to participate. 

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