Into the Chaos: Facing gun violence as a student reporter
I woke up Sunday morning with faint images of a happy dream lingering in my brain. I couldn’t remember exactly what it was about, but I knew it had involved flying motorcycles. And being at peace.
“Good morning, love,” Finn said.
“Good morning!” I responded, grinning and stretching out my arms to hug him.
“You ready for work today?”
“I guess so. Gotta love the Sunday to Thursday schedule,” I said.
I was not ready for work. The day before I’d followed along as the details of the horrific shooting at a Walmart in El Paso unfolded in news coverage and press briefings. The night of the shooting, as Finn and I rode the D.C. Metro to see Once Upon A Time...in Hollywood at the theater, I looked out the window and wondered if this movie would be my last.
I was interning at USA TODAY, and, as Sunday’s only breaking news intern, I knew my day would be filled with the shooting’s aftermath — with the livestreamed press conferences, the terrifying footage of shots fired, the endless “thoughts and prayers” tweets.
“I have to tell you something,” Finn said. “There was another mass shooting last night. In Dayton. Nine people died.”
I turned away and closed my eyes. I took a deep breath and tried to will myself back to sleep. I didn’t want to face the world and I especially didn’t want to report on it.
Finn put his arms around me and kissed the top of my head.
“I know, love. I know.”
He understood. We all do. We’re part of a generation where mass shootings are the norm in our country, a fact of life that every few weeks or so will pop up in our push notifications. Sometimes, I’ve felt almost numb to it — until it hits close to home.
March 16, 2019 started out as an ordinary day in Ann Arbor. Well, not totally ordinary. It was St. Patrick's weekend and everyone was wildly drunk at frat parties. For the most part, though, it was a typical college Saturday. I went out with some friends during the day, ate a much-needed quesadilla at BTB and went home for a refreshing nap.
Nada texted our group chat, reminding everyone to come to the vigil in the Diag for the victims of the recent shooting at the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. When I woke up, Finn and I met and headed over with our backpacks, planning to study for our upcoming midterms after.
When we got there, I found my friends standing together holding plastic candles. I hugged Nada, and then squeezed into the crowd next to Soraya, who promptly grabbed my hand. In front of me, I saw Amara. We smiled at each other.
The vigil was powerful. I stood there silently, still grasping Soraya’s hand. As people got up to speak, sharing poems, terrorism statistics and the list of those killed, I imagined the pain and terror of the mosque-goers in Christchurch. I imagined that whatever grief and fear I feel, the Muslim community on campus felt it even more. Then, all of a sudden, I was running for my life.
I heard campus police officers shouting “MOVE! MOVE!” and I saw people scatter. Soraya’s hand was ripped from mine, and I saw Finn standing ahead of me. He grabbed my arm and yelled at me to run. It clicked in my head that someone probably had a gun and I ran. I accidentally bumped into another girl and whispered “I’m so sorry, I have to keep moving.”
We ran two blocks, then three, as an ambulance whizzed past. My mind jumped to blood and death and injury, and I felt my heart sink and a desire to scream. Finn kept dragging me along, but I told him, my throat raw, that I couldn’t run anymore.
At that moment, I saw Annika walking in our direction. She was late to the vigil, and she looked at our horrified faces with bemusement.
“What happened?” she asked.
I could barely get the words out. There may be a shooter, people might be hurt and we don’t know where the rest of our friends are. Annika still looked confused, and pulled out her phone to see if any of our friends had texted.
“We can’t just stand out here, let’s go! Right now!” Finn yelled, bringing us back to reality.
So, we ran all the way down State Street and into the Ford School. As soon as we entered the building, the reporter in me kicked in. I checked my phone and saw dozens of text messages from people in my clubs and my roommates. People on campus were confused and terrified, and alerts from the University weren’t coming fast enough. I knew I had to do something.
Finn, Annika and I piled into a classroom with a bunch of other people who had been having some conference in the building, people who at first were confused by our frantic faces and then heard the reports of a possible active shooter. We sat in the back, listening to the police scanner and whispering.
Mostly to keep my terrified thoughts at bay, I dove into action. Editor in Chief Maya, my co-Managing News Editor Grace, the Senior News Editors and I texted frantically, trying to find out what had happened, praying no one was hurt. We split up tasks and people to call, we started a Google Doc, but frankly, we didn’t know what to do. This wasn’t some abstract event we were covering as student journalists. This concerned our friends’ lives and our own.
Eventually, it became clear that this was a false alarm, and that everyone was, at least physically, okay. About three hours after the initial scare, police declared an all-clear. I holed up in my room and wrote the story as quickly as I could, scanning social media and conducting phone interviews.
I stayed in the thick of it, reliving every second of the afternoon, until Maya published the story online. It was only later that night when the reality of the day fully hit me.
I laid in bed, and when I closed my eyes, I imagined what would have happened if someone had shot into the crowd. What if I had lost someone I loved forever? What if someone I didn’t know, someone full of youth and promise, had been killed? And what if I had had to report on it, asking their closest friends to tell me about an unthinkable loss?
The journalist adrenaline keeping me afloat dissipated and I broke down. How does anyone do this work without feeling crippled by the horror around them? I didn’t want to be a journalist — I wanted to curl into a ball and sink further into my bed.
In the aftermath of the scare, The Daily dealt with the consequences of sending out tweets with unconfirmed information, ultimately writing an apology letter and refining our news emergency protocol. The News section wrote a follow-up story on the particular terror felt by the Muslim community. I helped a team of reporters write about the University’s emergency alert system. For the rest of the week I felt off, shaking at loud noises and suspicious figures.
But then I grew angry. News broke about mass shootings almost daily, and with each death toll, I felt my helplessness slowly turn into resolve. If no one reported on the violence, reminding people in power of every tragic death, nothing was going to change. Without persistent conversations on campus and push from students, the University felt pressure to improve its emergency notifications. Someday, maybe, this could finally register with national leaders.
So that summer Sunday morning, I pulled myself together and got myself to work. I faced the grueling details of the weekend’s shootings. After work, I distracted myself with the second season of "Fleabag."
Later that week, I watched from home as my coworkers were evacuated from USA TODAY headquarters after an active shooter scare. I thought about how scheduling a doctor’s appointment that day might have saved my life. And I felt a massive wave of relief when everyone was safe.
Every once in a while, even at the start of this school year, I glance at the Diag and remember the screams as people sprinted in all directions. I remember the sinking terror and adrenaline that consumed me. I hope that no one has to experience that fear again. But I know for the foreseeable future, that fear isn’t going anywhere.