When I went to the Pulse Nightclub on the night of June 10, 2017, the first thing I saw was a sign posted with rules of the nightclub parking lot turned memorial. "We ask that visitors maintain proper etiquette, personal behavior, and conduct at all times." This need to construct sacred space through disciplining bodies was a disturbing reminder of the oppressive forces that are always at play. Partnered with an ever present police force, memorial tourists striking somber poses in front of a makeshift alter and banners emblazoned with messages about love that have become cliché, and podcasters broadcasting their show live on-site, the Pulse Nightclub has become an eery charade of modernity's tragedy.
I went back the next day to see how different it was during the day. In preparation for tomorrow's one-year memorial events, what has officially been designated by the City of Orlando and Orange County as "Orlando United Day," there were swarms of news vans camped out in the blocks surrounding the nightclub. A new mural that stood about 20 feet high was being installed, showing images of all 49 victims, survivors, and those who have been politically active following the tragedy. More specifically, it included depictions of Christopher "Drew" Leinonen and his boyfriend Juan Ramon Guerrero embracing in front of a portrait of Matthew Shepard (the victim of one of the nation's most notorious anti-gay hate crimes, which led to today's hate crimes legislation); local gay and lesbian politicians, Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith and Commissioner Patty Sheehan; new anchor Anderson Cooper; and perhaps most perplexingly, front and center appears to be a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi – Myanmar leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her incredible non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights, but who more recently, was criticized for her anti-Muslim sentiments (at best) and (at worst) her role in the oppression and reported genocide of the Rohingya Muslim minority in the northern Rakhine state.
The puerile incorporation of these symbolic figures on a mural meant to memorialize the mass shooting at Pulse is both perplexing and problematic. It appears that this was a failed attempt to provide comfort and commemoration through global icons of gayness and non-violence. However, these images leave me asking: Why is a news anchor being recognized when he never danced inside of Pulse, and instead, was busy making a profit off of his life in the closet? Is it appropriate that a recognized anti-Muslim leader is being commemorated (front and center) when anti-Muslim violence was both a reported cause and effect of the mass shooting? My point here is not to criticize the artistic expression of the artist(s) or even the mural itself, which is actually quite well done. Rather, I am simply reflecting upon how the Pulse shooting continues to be conceptualized, communicated, and experienced as a shared, and global, tragedy through paradoxical interpretations and a lack of criticality; making precariousness not only dependent on circumstances beyond one's control, but also dependent on the mutually constitutive discourse of tragedy and mourning. The language and symbols used in these communal spaces and rituals of mourning convey and perpetuate larger social understandings of tragedy and inequality, which, in turn, reproduces violence through the mass reproduction of flawed and uncritical subjectivity. Celebrating these figures "out-of-place" in the context of trauma, healing, and social justice not only ignores and conceals violence and injustice, but creates an alternative narrative that lends itself to the reproduction of violence.
Strikes against my sanity kept coming as I tried to attend to my own grief through my effort to make sense of it all. The making of a spectacle continues to be one of these blows. It's hard to be at Pulse at all knowing that your friends were killed there or survived the trauma, but it is made even harder when you are surrounded by news vans, police, and other onlookers who are watching your every move–to make sure you are not vandalizing the property and in their own effort to determine appropriate behavior at a site of mass murder. In this commercialized world increasingly defined by the intersections of terror, social media, and corporate infiltration, the spectacle seems to have become the only valuable (in terms of both profits and effectiveness) method of mass communication.