Orlando. After the tragedy, “we will turn in on ourselves”

Orlando is a prosperous city, on a human scale (260,000 inhabitants) and growing thanks to the leisure industry. A city where insecurity, unemployment and racial tensions are less felt than elsewhere in the United States. On June 12, this model city turned into the unthinkable: the execution by a single shooter, Omar Mateen, of 49 people who were partying in a gay club. Release went to meet a population in shock, for several days, all over Orlando: members of the LGBT community, Latinos, Muslims … In order to understand their reactions, their fears and their hopes, five months before a presidential election crucial for the future of the country.

Calm seizes Thornton Park

Right in the city center, near the town hall, theaters and courthouse, Lake Eola is one of the many bodies of water that Orlando is dotted with and which gives it a unique appearance. Swans and ducks frolic there under the gaze of passers-by who strictly respect the prohibitions: “Don’t give palmipeds bread or popcorn.” In an open-air theater, whose shell-shaped scene is painted in turquoise, a large audience listens to hymns. Many raise their arms to the sky or hold hands, others are in tears. It’s a ceremony of worship, of worshiping God, five days after the Pulse massacre.

The Thornton Park district, which is always full on Friday evening with its bars and restaurants decorated with the rainbow banner, is “Much quieter than usual”, remarks Wanda Soto. This 49-year-old, petite and energetic woman has lived there for a long time. She is a hairdresser (she prefers to say a stylist) and works in the living room of her pretty bungalow, surrounded by greenery, as often in Thornton Park. The Pulse, she went there a few times, with her gay friends. “Monday, the day after the shooting, she says, I went to my gym class at the YMCA. In the locker room, TV was broadcasting CNN. We stayed on the screen for a long time. I have not heard a word of hatred or revenge. In fact, no one has said a word. You could only hear sobs. ” Wanda knew several of the victims, but she is also affected as a Puerto Rican: three-quarters of the victims were her compatriots. A million Puerto Ricans live in Florida, and Orlando is their capital: they represent 27% of the city’s population. “I arrived in 1993 with my husband and two young children, she explains. We managed a gas station in Puerto Rico and we had two robberies in no time. I wanted to raise my children in another environment. ” There were few Latinos in Orlando at the time. They arrived gradually, drawn to Disneyworld, the largest employer in Orange County. Thanks to boricuas (the other name of Puerto Ricans), who have an American passport, Disney has developed its strategy towards Latin Americans. “And in 1994, continues Wanda, the city hosted the Soccer World Cup, which boosted its notoriety and growth. ” For her, Orlando is the city that allowed her to raise her children in a serene climate. The eldest is finishing his studies in psychology in Puerto Rico, the youngest works at Universal Park, the most important after Disney.

Wanda witnessed racism: “I remember a sign, when I had just arrived, which said” Spics, go back home! ” [“rentrez chez vous, les espingouins”, ndlr] But it’s been over for a long time. ” She expresses her satisfaction in living in a clean and welcoming city. “I’m not going to assert that crime does not exist, but this neighborhood is quiet. I never close my car, and I only lock my door at night. ”

Daughter of a soldier “Who never fired a shot” (his father, a nurse, participated on the American side in the Korean and Vietnam wars), Wanda Soto is horrified by arms and is opposed to their free sale. The Pulse tragedy, she says, “Takes us back centuries”. But she is convinced that Orlando will get out of this ordeal “Stronger, more united, and more proud of its diversity”.

Tribute to Ana G. Méndez University

Thursday afternoon, commission Tony Ortiz, the mayor of 2e District of Orlando, could have accompanied Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden when they went to meditate in front of the improvised memorial in front of the Dr. Phillips Cultural Center. But he preferred to attend the tribute that Ana G. Méndez University paid to four of his students who were shot at by Omar Mateen. Four out of 1,400 students enrolled.

In the entrance hall of the university, their photos are placed on a table decorated with bouquets of flowers. In the room where the “Ecumenical ceremony”, the teachers find themselves, still in shock. The lessons have been over for a few days, the exam period has started. Of the four missing, one particularly marked the teachers: the Venezuelan Simon Carrillo Fernandez. “He was a born leader, his smile lit up the classroom”, remembers Rosana Medina, responsible for the introduction to student life, the first course that adult students receive – the university’s campus hosts many Spanish speakers seeking a higher qualification. “Simon was enrolled in business management, specifies the teacher. He attended evening classes once a week from 6 to 10 p.m. He worked at McDonald’s and often came in uniform. “

On the university benches, Simon Carrillo, 31, had met Oscar Aracena, 26, from the Dominican Republic. He had become his companion. They died together. The four victims all had the same profile: between 26 and 33 years old, salaried and eager to progress in their career by improving their English and their knowledge. For them, an American diploma meant better salary.

The Ana G. Méndez University campus is located in the 2e Orlando district, where Tony Ortiz has been elected and re-elected since 2008. As the hall fills, he explains how mobilized the city was after the tragedy: “We have created a reception structure to receive the families of the victims, the airlines offer them plane tickets, psychologists in charge of listening and emotional support work voluntarily …” Even if he is the only Puerto Rican among the six district mayors, Tony Ortiz insists on the universality of his approach: “In the face of such a drama, there are no longer any partisan lines, geographic origins, genres, religions or social classes. This attack tore a piece of our heart but we are more united and stronger than ever. ”

Opening the ceremony, Professor Antonio Sajid Lopez read a few lines from Luis Cernuda, a Spanish poet of García Lorca’s generation, forced into exile by his anti-Franco and homosexuality. Before Tony Ortiz, addressing the audience this time, concluded: “A man’s fist cannot knock down a brick wall. But his hands can build it. ”

American Legion veterans

Supported at the counter in room 19 of the American Legion, a veterans’ organization, Alfonzo Livingston talks about arms. Suddenly, in the middle of the conversation, the man suddenly grabbed our hand and glued it to the right side of his belt. “Do you feel it there?” Did you notice? ” asks this former Baltimore police officer. Under his large T-shirt, you can guess the contours of a metallic object. “A 40 caliber Glock pistol”, says this forties, shooting instructor certified by the NRA, the powerful American arms lobby.

For several minutes, Alfonzo Livingston has been trying to explain that the AR-15 rifle, used by the killer of the Pulse, is not “Neither an assault weapon nor an automatic weapon, contrary to what the media keeps repeating.” “AR-15, he continues, is a semi-automatic weapon, in other words incapable of firing in bursts. For each bullet, the shooter must squeeze the trigger. If one or more customers of the nightclub were armed, they could have responded and put the assailant in trouble “, assures the ex-policeman. Alfonzo Livingston is far from the only ardent defender of the Second Constitutional Amendment and the carrying of weapons at this club, home to veterans of the military and law enforcement.

Jim Lachut is 59, including nine years in the US Navy, and four skull tattoos on his body. Quickly, he wants to show us a photo montage that circulates on social networks. We see two post-terrorist images, one in Paris, the other in Orlando, accompanied by this legend: “When France is attacked, it attacks terrorists. When America is attacked, it attacks our rights. “ Implied in the right to carry a weapon which certain elected representatives, in particular democrats, wish to slightly restrict.

When asked about the Pulse tragedy, very few regulars of the American Legion mentioned the LGBT community, as if the victims’ sexual orientation was irrelevant. On the other hand, all are pouring out the threat of Islamist terrorism and the need, in their eyes, for a strong response. A response embodied, for many, by the Republican Donald Trump. “If elected, Donald Trump will be respected around the world. He is strong and he says what he thinks “, said Jim, who favored the billionaire’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. “I am sorry for the Syrian refugees but we only have to protect them in their own country”, said the former marine. A woman, Cindy, agrees: “I don’t like targeting an entire community, but we have to build this wall and prevent Muslims from returning. We no longer know today who is entering our country. ” She is 54 years old, her grandfather served during the Second World War and in Korea, her brother in Vietnam.

Call for courage at Al-Rahman mosque

At the Al-Rahman Mosque. “This flag is proof that we are as American as Trump”, said the imam. (Photo DR)

Night has just fallen on Orlando. On this Ramadan evening, the faithful of the Al-Rahman mosque, located in the east of the city, perform the prayer of thehere, the last of the day. A few minutes pass. It is a little after 10pm. In the room, refreshed by ceiling fans, a hundred men and thirty women are getting ready before going home. Imam Muhammad Musri, who heads the mosque and presides over the Islamic Society of Central Florida, wants to address them first. “What happened in this nightclub has nothing to do with Islam, he begins. We know who we are, we are not violent people, but in the current context, perception is unfortunately more important than reality. ” Fueled by Donald Trump and a fringe of the Republican Party, this “perception” returns to the image of a threatening Islam, incompatible with American values. “We have to stand up and show our pride in being Muslims. We have nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of, ” adds the religious, who calls on each of the faithful to give a good image of Islam. “Be good to your neighbors, your colleges, your employees, you will help dispel fears and hatred.”

However, the imam recognizes that “It takes courage” when the threat of violence hangs over the Muslim community. After the attacks of November 13 and the attack on San Bernardino, carried out in early December by a radicalized couple claiming to be ISIS, Islamophobic crimes were multiplied by three in the United States, according to a study by the University of California. In the days following the Pulse shooting, the Islamic Society of Central Florida received “Hundreds of messages of insults and threats”, says Imam Musri. “It is difficult for families who have lost a loved one, but it is also difficult for us. On the evening of the drama, there was hardly anyone at the mosque. People were afraid “, explains Annela Mohammed. Fear, this mother says she feels it every day: “Whenever I take my son to school, I wonder if a fool is going to roll me over just because I’m wearing the veil.”

On the ocher facade of the mosque, two huge American flags are hung. Hassan, in his forties, sees it as an essential symbol: “This flag is proof that we are as American as anyone, starting with Donald Trump and his children.” With less than five months to go to the presidential election, the Republican candidate and his proposals – such as that of monitoring the mosques – are obviously in everyone’s heads. Exasperated, Imam Musri decided to launch the response. On his initiative, a national march of American Muslims will be held in Washington on July 23, the day after the Republican convention which must officially nominate Donald Trump as candidate. Whatever the outcome of the November election, Annela Mohammed is worried about the consequences of the Trump campaign. “It brings out the negative side of people, she regrets, referring to the property magnate’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Even if he is not elected president, these feelings that he fuels will continue. “

Relatives at the Kissimmee funeral home

Rafael Rivera, left, comforts Jeannette Gonzalez, as they mourn the loss of Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, one of the victims killed in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting, inside a funeral home during his wake Thursday, June 16, 2016, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo / David Goldman)Relatives of Eric Ivan Ortiz Rivera, one of Omar Mateen’s 49 victims, pay tribute to him at the Kissimmee funeral home on June 16. (Photo D. Goldman. AP)

Luis Rivera and his companion parked their car in the small parking lot of the funeral home. On the side of the highway, forty minutes from downtown Orlando, the Funeraria San Juan, in the town of Kissimmee, hosted funeral evenings of victims of the shooting for several evenings in a row. On Thursday, his relatives came to Eric Ivan Ortiz Rivera to say goodbye. The back and forth is permanent between the parking lot and the big room where the body is exposed. Gray suit, white shirt and red tie. The coffin will soon be closed. Dressed in black, Luis and his boyfriend approach, hold tight by the waist. After a few minutes, they walk away, their eyes red. “I lost five close friends on Sunday and I knew a dozen other victims. Tonight is my third death vigil. I have another friend in a coma. This afternoon, I was told that an injured person was dead. I’m afraid it’s him. “ When asked what the Pulse meant to him, Luis Rivera, in his thirties, sighed. “It is thirteen years of my life. The Latin evening on Saturday was unique. We felt safe there. We were ourselves. I’m talking about gays but there were also a lot of straight guys. And they too were more themselves. ” He was not at Pulse on the night of Saturday to Sunday. “I wanted to, but we were invited to a wedding in Tampa, and my boyfriend insisted on going. I gave in. “

The young man takes a tissue and dabs his eyes. Around him, you only hear Spanish. Eric Ivan Ortiz Rivera had arrived from Puerto Rico five years ago. In 2015, he married his companion, who survived the massacre: he left the club shortly before the shooter’s arrival. Several people wear a T-shirt with a photo of the deceased and the inscription: “March 25, 1980 – June 12, 2016”. Man approaches Luis and hugs him saying “Otro mas”. One more. The next day, they will meet again at the cremation of Luis Conde and Juan Rivera Velazquez, who ran a hair salon and were soon to get married.

Luis Rivera is also a hairdresser. Born in Puerto Rico, he returns there regularly. “I am fortunate to have a family that accepts me as I am, even if it was not easy.” He notes that the day before, an important security service was present, while only one policeman is on duty at the Funeraria San Juan. He pursues : “Many friends have not come, they are afraid. Homophobic religious fanatics have called for the disruption of vigils and funeral ceremonies. ” For the young hairdresser, Orlando’s gay life will never be the same again. “The frequentation of clubs and bars will drop, we will fold in on ourselves and party in the apartments.” The owners of the Pulse have announced their intention to reopen the club, but Luis cannot imagine setting foot there again: “Dance where my friends were killed?” It’s unthinkable. I will never go back. ” The following day, the death of victim number 50 was denied. And Luis told us by text that his injured friend had “Open your eyes”.

Microphone open at Austin’s Coffee

On a wooden table, at the back of Austin’s Coffee, hangs a small beige notebook. A vintage microphone drawn in black ink adorns the cover, surmounted by these words: “I already have a weapon of choice” (“I already have a weapon of choice”). This alternative café in Winter Park, a small residential town north of Orlando, serves vegan cookies, organic coffee and Jamaican beer. And every Wednesday, those who wish to deliver their words and their thoughts during an evening of poetry and open microphone. On June 15, three days after the attack, the place was packed. Many Pulse victims had their habits here.

“After the shooting, I thought about canceling the event. It was too fresh in my head, says evening host Stephen Moonsammy. But after chatting with a friend, I realized that we should celebrate the lives of the victims by coming together, laughing and loving each other as much as possible. “ On the small podium against the cafe window, the speakers follow one another. They all evoke, in their own way, with emotion, sadness or anger, the drama that strikes their city.

Kira, doll face and piercing green eyes, approaches the microphone. With her throat tied, she tells the first thing that crossed her mind when she learned of the killing: “I told myself that some parents were going to learn at the same time the death of their child and his true sexuality. They will realize that they never really knew their child and that by now it is too late. “ Kira knows what she is talking about. 21-year-old daughter of a US Army officer who passed through Iraq and Afghanistan defines herself as “Queer and pansexual”, an identity that his parents, religious and conservative, ignore. “After this tragedy, I hope to find the strength to raise the subject with them, says Kira. Because I too could have died on this dance floor. “

Elexsa Perello, she wrote an ode to Orlando called A Poem for My City (“A poem for my city”). Powerful voice, sometimes on the verge of tears, this 20-year-old student portrays “A city where I was taught that love is love and that diversity is magnificent”. A town “Where my gay friends had shelters, until pieces of heart were snatched from them.” The long-haired, red-haired Hispanic concludes with a rage at the gun lobby, whose main argument is to reiterate that gunmen, not guns, are responsible for the daily killings in the United States. “I grew up in Orlando where 49 souls have disappeared. But guns don’t kill people, do they? People kill people. False. People with guns kill people. And hate-filled people have access to it every day. ”

François-Xavier Gomez


Frédéric Autran