When I think of graduation time, I don’t think about my own crossing the stage in cap and gown drag. Nor do I think of my kids.
I think about my cousin Stephen, who I saw as the second coming of my father. Stephen came to the U.S. an immigrant when he was 8 years old from the Philippines. He practically traced my father’s footsteps and then exceeded them. He received his B. A. in International Relations from San Francisco State University in 2014.
But there is a digression. The degree came a few weeks after his violent gun death.
It was a posthumous degree, but it didn’t have to be.
He was celebrating his impending graduation and was drunk one night. He went back to the tenement apartment on Mission Street in San Francisco, where he had lived for 18 years in one room with his family. He took the elevator to his apartment on the 5th floor. But got off on the 3rd. When you’re drunk it all looks the same. But it was the wrong floor, and the wrong apartment. And while there was no sign of a struggle or breaking or entering, he was inside an apartment that was not his.
The resident, a retired security guard, had a gun. And he knew the law. The Castle Doctrine says if an intruder comes into your home you can shoot to kill. No questions asked. It’s self-defense.
And that’s how my cousin’s life ended too soon. Single bullet. A mistake? There was no recourse.
I’ve lived out the drama as part of my “Amok Monologues,” which I performed at the Orlando Fringe Festival for the past two weeks. It was Asian American Heritage Month, and this was a story of diversity about Filipino Americans. And my cousin’s death caps that story for me.
But it’s one thing to relive that story of senseless gun violence on the stage. It’s quite another thing to visit the scene of what had been the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
Up until last year, Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub had been the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, with 49 people killed, and 53 injured.
It happened June 12, 2016.
This week, I took a break from the Fringe Festival to drive by and see the memorial the community had set up to honor the victims.
It was heart-wrenching. If you have experienced gun violence through a friend or close family relative, just multiply that by 49.
At the Pulse, a translucent pillar wall has been set up under the club’s iconic sign for people to leave a mark. Surrounding the club is a wall of photos and inscriptions that remind us that the club, which was heavily patronized by a young, ethnic, mostly LBGTQ crowd, represented one of the most diverse groups imaginable.
A museum will be set up in the main building to honor the dead. But the wall set up around the club is mostly to remember the event and the community’s response.
One sign reads (uncorrected): “I don’t care if you’re black, white, latin, Asian, Indian, muslim, straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, religious, atheist, republican, democrat, rich or poor. If you are nice to me, I will be nice to you. Simple as that.”
That’s a notice that is as diverse as it gets. It’s signed with a rainbow heart shape and the phrase “Orlando Strong.”
A foundation has been set up to complete a memorial museum project at the site. But already, it’s clear the emphasis will not be on anger or grief. Instead, the message is on unity, love, strength, acceptance, hope. It makes the memorial a guide for living with diversity. We can remember the dead. But the future is up to us. We just don’t seem to be learning fast enough.
Since the Pulse, the shootings in Las Vegas have overtaken Orlando as No.1 with a bullet. And then there was Parkland, and just recently Santa Fe.
On Memorial Day weekend, let’s not forget the war going on here. Mass shootings. Individual gun deaths. There’s violence everywhere. The gun industry has made the country into its war zone for profit. We can do something about it.
Emil Guillermo is a veteran journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund at https://www.aaldef.org/blog/. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok