Past Presence

Two years on, Pulse remains an ever-changing phenomenon.



The Pulse memorial, Friday afternoon, June 8, 2018

Roberto Gonzalez

Pam Schwartz has an understated description for the time that has elapsed since the Pulse nightclub attack. She calls it “two years of not how we expected our lives to go.”

Schwartz is chief curator for the Orange County Regional History Center. It’s a position she had been in for just a few short weeks when the mass shooting took place and she was suddenly confronted with the task of conserving history as it happened, supervising the collection, conservation, storage, and display of more than 7,000 objects connected to the attack and its aftermath—most of them from impromptu memorials and grassroots tributes from Orlando and all over the world.

An exhibit featuring some 200 of those artifacts is on display at the Center through June 17–a heart-rending collection featuring the likes of stuffed animals, memorial quilts, a rosary from the Vatican, a thousand tiny origami cranes, and a postcard-sized American flag on which someone had neatly printed, on the alternating white stripes: “I’m sorry we continually vote for people who won’t protect you.” (Schwartz is shown at left last year with one of the mementos that the History Center had collected.)

Admission is free this week to the exhibit, one of numerous commemorative events in Orlando. All are tied to the second anniversary of the mass shooting that claimed 49 souls and wounded 53 others two years ago. But there’s a different timetable for those who lost friends and family members in the attack, survived it themselves, or became caregivers and activists in its aftermath. For them, Pulse, true to its namesake, is an ongoing, changeable phenomenon, its pacing subject to both the course of the grief process and a parade of external events.

The trial of the attacker's wife shed a different light on his motives. A lawsuit against Pulse, claiming the club's security was at fault, threatens the solidarity of the victims. Mass shootings elsewhere have reactivated the horror, renewed the insistence of voices demanding change, and added other grieving communities to the rolls. 

Brandon Wolf, a Pulse survivor whose friend, Drew Leinonen, was killed in the attack, has become an outspoken advocate for gun control. Wolf is only 30, but he  already speaks of being inspired by what he calls “the next generation”: He has struck up an alliance with students from the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

“I saw the same pain in their eyes that I had when Drew was killed, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to have to go through this now,’ ’’ says Wolf. “They are born into a world where school shootings are routine. And that just inspired me to continue, to take a real hardline stance on this.”

Some of those students planned on traveling to Orlando to join forces in an “Honor Them With Action” Pulse rally Monday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. “to demand action from political leaders to end the epidemic of gun violence.”

Like both Schwartz and Wolf, Pulse’s owner, Barbara Poma, has encountered a steep and rapidly accelerating learning curve over the past two years as she oversees the creation of a Pulse memorial to honor those who died, comfort those who mourn, and educate the community at large.

In two years’ time she’s gone from being an inexperienced newcomer at that enterprise to the status of a veteran sought out for advice by newcomers to the fold. After the shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 people dead and 851 injured, Poma took a call from staffers at the Clark County, Nevada, Museum who were charged with collecting artifacts for future exhibits and memorials.

“They had the same questions I once did,” says Poma. “ ‘Where do we start?’ ”

Roxy Santiago, a key figure in Central Florida's Hispanic gay community who was a New York City police officer on duty near the twin towers when they collapsed in the 9-11 attack, says that in two short years, Orlando itself has become the leader among communities struggling to recover from mass attacks.

“Orlando is showing how to get it done,” she says. “We are all about acts of love and kindness. And that’s new, that’s needed, especially in a time in this country where there is a question about who cares about who, whether we care about each other at all.”

* * *

Here are key events scheduled for Tuesday, June 12:

Acts of Love and Kindness

This initiative created by One Orlando Alliance, a coalition of more than 30 Orlando LGBTQ+ organizations, encourages the Orlando community and beyond to engage in volunteerism, share stories and show support through acts of love and kindness. Those participating are encouraged to share their stories on social media using the hashtag: #ActLoveGive.  

Flag and Art Exhibit

A 25-foot section of the world’s largest LGBTQ rainbow flag—the complete flag is 1.25 miles across—will be on display at the Orange County Administration Office on East South Street.

Ringing of the Bells

At noon, First United Methodist Church on Jackson Street in downtown Orlando will ring its bell 49 times in honor of those who lost their lives at Pulse.

Annual Remembrance Ceremony

At 7 p.m., victims, survivors and first responders will be honored at the temporary Pulse Nightclub Memorial on South Orange Avenue.

 

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