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OPINION: A Spectacle of Unity Followed the UNC Charlotte Shooting

Different dimensions of violence

UNC Charlotte shooting
The Kennedy building at UNC Charlotte where a where a mass shooting ended in two deaths on April 30, 2019, one day later. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

One day after a former student opened fire in a UNC Charlotte classroom, killing two students and injuring four others, then-Chancellor Philip Dubois stood before a podium in a packed stadium. In the span of a day, grieving students managed to organize a spontaneous vigil to honor the shooting victims, their UNC Charlotte classmates and the community.

His voice constricted with emotion, Dubois addressed the crowd: “The students that we lost, Riley [Howell] and Reed [Parlier], and those who were injured are all so young, like many of you. With dreams and aspirations and a purpose in their lives.” When the indoor service concluded, the throng gathered outside, chanting: “Forty! Niners! Forty! Niners! No more! No more!”

A few hours later, at an off-campus housing complex, Javier Concepcion-Perez stormed away from an argument during a pool party. Eyewitnesses later alleged that he went to his car, picked up his gun, and shot 22-year-old Donqwavias Davis and two others. Davis died that night at Carolinas Medical Center in University City. 

It is now 2021. We have trudged through a year of togetherness. Every commercial, every email signature, every weird celeb-studded singalong video had one message: Despite “everything that’s going on,” we’re all in the same boat, suffering the same inconveniences. That this is a transparently oblivious take concealing a profound gap between downtrodden classes and the more privileged has been dissected to death by much better writers, but as we surpass one year since COVID-19 hit the U.S. and reach the two year anniversary of the day a student with a gun walked onto campus, I can’t help but return to it.

Let’s be honest, UNC Charlotte: We are not all in the same boat. Some of us witnessed the shooting and some of us did not. Some of us experience PTSD from April 30 and some of us do not. Some of us grew up in towns punctuated by shootings and some of us didn’t experience one until that day. We all suffered the same traumatic incident, but each of us felt a distinct impact.

There are dimensions of violence being Black, being poor, being transgender, being disabled, being a sex worker, and so on ad infinitum that not only affect how we process the shooting, but how (and whether) we continue surviving long after. And the responses we see to violence in University City sometimes obscure these dimensions in crucial ways. 

At times, it can be the things that UNC Charlotte as an institution does. Immediately after the attacks on campus, for example, the university increased police and security presence on campus. Security theater does little to prevent another domestic terrorist attack, but it does heighten fears students may have of racist police harassment and brutality on campus.

Those fears appear to have gone unnoticed by UNC Charlotte.

After it was found that John Bogdan, hired as associate vice chancellor for safety and security at UNC Charlotte in 2019, had previously served as warden at Guantanamo Bay, the university responded to backlash from Black, South Asian and Muslim students by releasing a statement from Chancellor Dubois commending Bogdan’s “sound leadership” during the April 30 attack. He went on to call Bogdan’s past actions “standard military practices,” as if that makes them any less barbaric. 

Sometimes it’s the things UNC Charlotte doesn’t do. This month, two Black trans sex workers named Jaida Peterson and Remy Fennell were murdered in Charlotte. Despite the fact that one woman was shot to death not even a mile away from campus, despite the escalating campaign in North Carolina and across the U.S. to criminalize trans people into nonexistence, despite the distress and fear UNC Charlotte’s Black trans students faced and continue to face, there wasn’t so much as a campus notice sent. 

This month in particular, I’ve been reflecting on the life and death of Donquavias Davis, which I covered in the hours following the May 1 shooting in 2019. He didn’t go to UNC Charlotte, but was known and loved by many at the university. He wasn’t on campus when he was shot, but he was surrounded by students and alumni. His family described him as loyal, a “protector,” utterly beloved, and gone way too soon. But when we talk about gun violence in University City, his story — like Jaida’s, like Remy’s — is largely left out. 

The work done these past two years to memorialize our lost peers and uplift our community is simply staggering. I do not wish to discredit it or any of the people who have kept this university afloat through those tremendously painful days. I’d be remiss not to point out, however, that this reaction stands in stark contrast with the university’s reaction — or lack thereof — to other forms of violence in our community. Our narrative is all about overcoming a uniquely tragic incident with collective support and unity, yet every day, uniquely tragic incidents happen in our community, and the university ignores them. Why?

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

When the people leading campus conversations about gun violence — memorial committee members, student organization leaders, and the administration — are primarily white and well-to-do, it comes as no surprise that those conversations sometimes feel hollow. I can’t talk about gun violence without also talking about the brutality I’ve been through because I am trans, or the domestic abuse I experienced because I was brought up female, or the trauma of past gun violence I deal with because of where I was raised. And that’s just a student’s perspective. How many University City voices are left out because they’re not directly affiliated with our campus?

There is a chasm between those of us fighting multiple dimensions of violence and those who never will. Judging by the actions (and inaction) of the administration, it seems they’re not interested in building a bridge with some of us. It begs another question: Why are we being asked to perform unity with people who do not understand and do not try to understand our own experiences with violence?

Chancellor Dubois concluded his 2019 remarks with a call for collective strength. “UNC Charlotte cannot be and will not be defined by this tragedy,” he said. “We must be defined by how we respond to it.” I agree. And I do think that UNC Charlotte’s response has been an incredible source of support for a significant number of students. But for those of us leading marginalized lives, there is a disconnect that the university has failed to overcome. 

So long as we ignore that divide, our shared narrative about violence on campus is incomplete. But if we choose to recognize it, and uplift those who occupy these margins, it can only unite and strengthen our community. 

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