News reporter and Orlando native Emily Topper attended a vigil for the Pulse nightclub shooting victims June 19.
It is Sunday, June 12.
Shooting at Orlando nightclub kills about 20, police say.
7:30 a.m.: I’m still bleary-eyed and not yet caffeinated. The New York Times headline about my hometown doesn’t hit me right away. But it will hit me later, when I go back to read the article. It will be a knife to the heart.
10:00 a.m.: I pull out my phone at the Starbucks on Thonotosassa Road in Plant City and click on the headline. Now it’s called a mass shooting. The nightclub has a name: Pulse, a spot for gay partygoers and a place some of my friends often go. It was Latin night. There are calls for gun control, prayer and racial profiling swarming my news feed on social media.
10:30 a.m.: Alone in my car, I call my mom. She answers. I start to cry.
11:00 a.m.: I pour through the social media pages of my friends, especially those who belong to the LGBTQ+ and Latin communities. Were they there? Where are they? Why did this happen?
11:15 a.m.: My friends start to mark themselves “safe” online. Facebook is calling it “The Shooting in Orlando.” The media is calling it the deadliest mass shooting in United States history. The death toll climbs. Blood donations are in high demand.
11:45 a.m.: I pull into the parking lot of Hope Lutheran Church, where a OneBlood bus is waiting. I’ve never donated before. I climb inside.
12:00 p.m.: There are others waiting to donate. I sit in a plastic booth and wait for paperwork. You have to try to calm down, another donor tells me. She sees my puffy eyes. You can’t donate if your blood pressure is too high.
12:30 p.m.: The OneBlood woman prods around for my vein. She pokes in a needle and gives me a stress ball. I squeeze every three to five seconds.
12:45 p.m.: My blood donation is done. I’m tied up with a yellow bandage and given a OneBlood t-shirt, a snack and the next date I’m able to donate.
2:00 p.m.: The City of Orlando starts to post the victims’ names online. I look at the names, not seeing any I recognize. I think about the mothers, fathers, friends and co-workers who can’t say the same.
7:30 p.m.: My friends in Orlando are safe, but they’ve seen names they know: Luis Vielma, who worked alongside former high school friends of mine at Universal Studios. Stanley Almodovar, who rode the same school bus as a girl I grew up with.
11:00 p.m.: I climb into bed. The victim list hasn’t been fully released yet, but we know the final count: 49. Forty-nine lives, taken too soon.
How do we begin to heal?
It is Sunday, June 19.
I am standing in a crowd at Lake Eola Park in Orlando. The sun is beating down as a Sikh man in a turban hands me a water bottle with a smile. I am surrounded by the melting pot that is Orlando: gays, lesbians, straights, Caucasians, African-Americans, Muslims, Hindus, transgenders, Indian-Americans, Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans.
There are 50,000 of us. Fifty-thousand people who have spent the last week lining up outside of blood donation centers, who have manned crisis hotline calls and donated the last dollars in their pockets to the shooting victims and their families.
Fifty-thousand people who heard about one of the most hateful, homophobic and racist acts of violence in the history of our nation and responded with love.
In the week since the Orlando shooting, I have seen an outpouring of love from communities across the globe.
I’ve also seen hatred for the victims’ sexual orientation and for the shooter’s race and religion.
When are we going to get it? When are we going to understand that when we respond with hate, we lose?
As an Orlando native, I know my hometown will not allow one of the few safe spaces these minorities have to be torn away from them again — nor will we allow for an entire group of people to be blamed for the actions of one person.
Orlando is not a hateful place. Orlando is concerts and film festivals. Orlando is open mic nights and improv shows, coffeehouses and taco joints. Orlando is a loud and proud purple Orlando City bumper sticker. Orlando is a breathtaking downtown skyline, a brick-lined street, a family’s first theme park trip, a pub crawl.
Orlando is a gay bar on Latin night. Orlando is a pride flag. Orlando is love without discriminations based on race, gender, orientation, religion and ethnicity.
Orlando is 50,000 people coming together to show that we can, that we will, do better.
That is my Orlando.
That is our America.
Contact Emily Topper at [email protected].
From Plant City Residents
It was shocking to here that such a tragedy happened so close to home. You hear about these things in the news happening across the country, but never expect it to happen in your own city. I'm thankful we have such a strong community that has pulled together to support these victims and their families in this time of need. --Ericka Lott, UCF student
Orlando is resilient. It is a town full of tolerant, happy people who have bonded around this horrific event. The tragedy does not define us; our compassion and humanity show the world who we truly are. -- Courtney Paat, Orlando native