Approached by UCF Police
It all started as I, along with a survivor of the Vegas shooting, were standing next to our car in front of the building where the symposium was being held. We were trying to figure out the parking app (they don't have parking meters, all the parking in gentrified Parramore is app-based).
While fidgeting with the phone, we were approached by an officer who said, "If you park there you will get a ticket." The sign said 2-hour parking, which was more than enough for us.
"You can park in the garage over there for free."
"That's free public parking?"
"Yes," the officer confirmed.
"Okay, thank you."
"Oh, and by the way, I have your name badge," said the officer. I was wearing a badge with my partner's name on it as I was unsure if I would be let in using my own name since I have been critical of the nonprofit.
"But that's not yours," the officer said.
"Yes, it is. I have a badge already."
"Aren't you Zachary Blair?" the officer asked.
I was shocked. How did this armed, uniformed police officer who approached us out of nowhere know my name and identity? I have never been in trouble with the law.
"How do you know that and what does it matter?" I asked.
"Someone came in looking for their badge and it wasn't there. You had it." The officer lied.
I came to the symposium the previous day and asked some very serious questions. I held back tears and anxiety about confronting the folks who are responsible for turning the mass shooting at Pulse into a museum-tourist attraction through the OnePULSE Foundation.
You can watch it here:
The OnePULSE Foundation sponsored the symposium.
I said, "Ohhhhhhhkay....." and turned away. He also turned away. I said thank you for the parking situation, even though I didn't understand exactly what was going on.
The parking garage was permit parking only. We did not see a place for free public parking. Did he want us to get our car towed? What was that about?
We did not park there. We parked in a public parking spot at the Marriot Hotel.
Entering the Dr. Phillips Academic Commons Building
My friend and I entered the building. There was a table full of unclaimed name tags and the event planner running the OnePULSE Foundation's event already knew which lanyard to give me.
"How did you know my name?" I asked.
"I know everyone who is in attendance," she said.
"Yeah, but you don't know me," I replied. "How did you know my face?"
She explained that she knew people when they uploaded their photos to the app.
"But, I didn't upload my photo to the app," I said. "Did you Google me?"
She got defensive and was nervous that I was confronting her. The conversation went nowhere. I looked over and saw the same police officer now inside the building. I turned to him and asked, "How did you know who I was?"
"I did my research." He said bluntly.
Why would a police officer need to research an academic conference attendee?
I eventually asked for his name and found out he was UCFPD Detective Luis Rivera.
I told him that no one asked for the name tag that I had. That the lanyard I had from the previous day was my partner's name. And then he got aggressively defensive because I confronted him with a direct lie—that he knew my name because someone asked for the name tag that was in my possession, which was my partner's name.
He puffed up and said he wasn't going to argue with me. He changed his stance towards me.
Then they gave me this spiel about how they needed to know who was in attendance. I said that I understand that, but I'm clearly not a threat. They said I was welcome there, I said that I didn't feel welcome being approached by a uniformed cop who knew more about me than he should have. I said I didn't feel welcome knowing that people researched me.
We engaged in some small talk, in which the Officer asked me, "You live in Washington, right?" He also knew that I was a UCF graduate. He obviously researched me and wanted to let me know how much he knew about me. I let him know that I am a seasonal resident and then stopped talking to him completely.
Two people, one a cop, who I have never met, knew information about me that they had to dig to find. There was no reason for the cop to research me. I was never aggressive during the prior day's session or towards any participants. The only reason to do that would have been to intimidate me or make me feel uncomfortable.
This is apparently how the OnePULSE Foundation creates a welcoming and inclusive environment.
At one point, the event planner (Laurie) said, "Well isn't it good that you are well known?" And I said, "Not really. Not in this context, and I have no desire to be known." She is the same person who stepped in to end my comments at the panel conversation from the previous day (see above video).
"Controlling the Narrative:" The Session with Pam Schwartz of the Orange County Regional History Center
The session with Pam Schwartz started off fine. She was saying some things that made sense and that were things that I also support, like using the term "murdered" for those killed in mass shootings instead of the term "lost." You can actually find this in the Best Practices of VictimsFirst, which has been around years prior to the Pulse shooting.
She also was upfront that Pulse was not a hate crime and that the narrative of early reporting stuck in the community that it was. This is true. However, what she left out, is that the OnePULSE Foundation (which she has teamed with) is perpetuating that hate crime narrative.
Schwartz acknowledges this on her own, while the OnePULSE Foundation perpetuates the false hate crime narrative through their fundraising campaigns (i.e. OutLove Hate) and slogans (i.e. "We Will Not Let Hate Win").
She also went on to talk about the Ocoee Massacre, making sure the specific that she did not work for the OnePULSE Foundation, and that the Orange County Regional History Center was not completely owned/funded by the County (that it is also a nonprofit), and that they deal with more than the Pulse shooting.
During her talk, she let us know that the day after the shooting, she woke up and wrote a 5-page plan for collecting and "preserving" memorial items with the Orange County Regional History Center. Yes, the next day—while we were trying to donate blood (and were turned away), getting and donating water and food for those in line, and waiting glued to the news to find out who among our friends were murdered at the Pulse Nightclub.
After talking for an hour, there were 4 minutes left for questions. I raised my hand and brought up three issues:
As a community, the items we left at the memorial sites were meant to be temporary and this should be respected. One person, for instance, left 49 rainbow-colored cupcakes at one of the sites. Those were not meant for a museum. We, as people who left memorial objects, were aware that leaving things out in the Florida sun in the middle of the summer heat and thunderstorms, they were not going to last. I let her know that as an anthropologist, my thought was to document the memorials by photographing them—not taking items that families may want. That the act of taking items from the memorials was a form of modern grave robbing. There was no consent. She responded by saying the museum put up signs, which they did, that told the community what was happening to the items and if anyone approached them they would be able to request the items and retrieve them. So, there were people who asked for their items back and did not want them to be in possession of the museum. People seemed to be okay with this answer, but what I did not have time to explain was that the museum put a grieving community in the position to have to reach out to a nonprofit and forced them to have a conversation over object ownership. Schwartz's method unnecessarily put the onus on those traumatized to get their items back. Shouldn't it be up to the families what they wanted to keep and what they wanted to donate? This process of taking and then asking and retrieving is backward, revictimizing, and places more burden on the victims and traumatized community.
During her talk, Ms. Schwartz talked about how they are storing some items from inside of the Pulse Nightclub for the owners. These items will eventually be placed in the OnePULSE Foundation's museum. She said the purpose of this was to prove that the shooting happened because of deniers and conspiracy theorists. My second point was that rather than use objects as proof to counter conspiracy theorists, we should look at how the conspiracies happen to begin with. I gave the example of a conspiracy theorist in South Florida who was arrested and claimed that because the floor plans released to the media did not show a second floor, the victims who were trapped on the second floor during the shooting were fake. Of course, we learned through our public records research that the second-floor office was unpermitted and the floor plans released to the media did not accurately reflect the actual layout of the building as it was on the night of the shooting. The floor plans were in an employee's inbox dated May 2010 and were never registered with the City's Permit Division because a permit was never pulled for the nightclub's extensive renovations.
I also asked her why her staff hasn't researched and gone through the public records that detail many of the issues at the nightclub, including the unpermitted renovations and code violations. I offered to give them to her for free. We have spent thousands of dollars and three years getting those records. She said, "I have them," as if she already knows everything. This woman who is an archivist was very dismissive of my offer to show her the facts. She blamed the museum for not reading them or incorporating them into any exhibit because they do not have the time and are short-staffed. They don't have time or they don't want the general public to know?
This was all in 4-minutes.
I didn't have time to talk about using the word "safe space" when the Pulse Nightclub was actually a death trap. I did not have time to talk about how her exhibits have helped spread false narratives about the nightclub as this nostalgic gay space where everyone and everything was perfect. This does nothing other than elevate Barbara Poma. As if Pulse needs to be this pillar of gay life in order for the mass shooting to be a horrific tragedy.
After The Session
After the session, I went up to her and I said, "Listen, I'm not against everything you are doing." I do believe that there needs to be some historical preservation. However, I believe it has to be done ethically and at the victims' families' request and leadership. It needs to be done on the victims' families timeline, not the timeline dictated by museum employees, regardless of their qualifications.
I told her I just read an article in the Orlando Sentinel about her, which reported that she now calls around from mass shooting site to mass shooting site to tell them about preserving the memorial items and offer her "expertise."
I asked her how long she waits until she contacts impacted communities and she said she calls immediately after—either the next day or a few days after the shooting, usually depending on her own trauma.
"I have a suggestion for you," I said. "Can you please wait until the victims are buried before you reach out to communities?"
"No," she said.
She explained that by that time, the temporary memorials will be gone, that sometime victims go missing or aren't identified for weeks (which made no sense), and that if she waited until the funerals were over she would miss her chance to be involved in any archival projects where mass shootings occur.
"Out of respect for the victims," I said. "Could you please wait until they are buried before you reach out and engage in any talk about museums?"
She was curt, arrogant, and let it be known that she didn't like "suggestion."
This seems to me to be a blatant disregard for mass shooting victims who are dealing with a loss far greater than what she experiences through her job—a job that is her choice. If Ms. Schwartz is traumatized by what she is choosing to do, she should stop doing it.
Mass shooting families do not have this choice.
Respect the families. Let them bury their murdered loved ones and family members. Victims should not an afterthought and take a backseat to historical preservation.
Just as with Pulse (remember, she formulated the museum's plan when she woke up the day after the shooting), her immediate concern was archiving disposable material objects for future exhibits while victims' bodies were lying in morgues, their families and friends were reeling from shock, and there was an outpouring of support from around the world to help the victims.
When I asked her to consider the victims first, she was both smug and arrogant.
I said, "I don't know if you know, but I'm also the Vice President of VictimsFirst"—an organization that makes sure that victims are not revictimized and taken advantage of.
"I know. I know who you are and I know what's going on," she said snarkily.
Clearly from her symposium talk, she was aware of the community's criticism of what she and the OnePULSE Foundation are doing—perpetuating a false narrative around an unsafe, unpermitted nightclub. She mentioned that one of the History Center's early exhibits, which she curated, told the story of the nightclub and not the victims because "they did not have all the facts" at the time.
Now the facts have come out, so Ms. Schwartz can either be a catalyst for the facts or an impediment to the facts. At this point, Pam Schwartz and the OnePULSE Foundation's museum and history-making efforts seem to be purposely disregarding the facts.
I've never heard of a museum that did not want to authentically present facts.
When I emphasized that she is affiliated with the OnePULSE Foundation, even though she doesn't work there, she said that without her they wouldn't have a qualified museum professional on the board on OnePULSE.
She was hurriedly and relentlessly packing her bag and unzipping and re-zipping its zippers the entire time I was talking. Assuring me that she was, in fact, listening to what I was saying.
Any session run by a museum curator called "Controlling the Narrative" should be a red flag for anyone concerned about the role of power in knowledge-making.
It is clear that the full story of the Pulse Nightclub is being manipulated by nonprofits with self-interest taking precedent over the facts.
Yesterday's session had 21 people in the audience. Today's session had about half that.
The 9/11 Memorial Museum folks sat in their suits and talked about how great museums do at loaning things to other institutions and ensuring that things are done appropriately.
Ms. Schwartz also gave them a nod during her talk and said they are replicating what they did in New York here in Orlando, with another institution handling the archival work while the large museum was being built (they didn't reference the other, smaller 9/11 Tribute Museum built to honor the victims).
Those from the Holocaust memorial were receptive and added meaningful dialogue. I appreciated them and I think they appreciated what I had to say as well.
When I got home, I saw that the OnePULSE Foundation live-streamed a pre-recorded talk given by Schwartz on the app.
Keeping in line with the "controlling the narrative" theme, this pre-recorded talk was not available on YouTube and was not representative of the actual session.
There were no questions, dialogue, or engagement with the audience. In other words, online viewers did not actually see the live symposium. They only saw what the nonprofit edited.
The OnePULSE Foundation, which is in control of streaming this symposium, obviously wanted to keep these conversations behind closed doors. They do not want the public to know. They are completely dismissive of critique, dissent, and calls for justice.
I am documenting my experience here, immediately following the session. The cop, the event planner, Schwartz... are not a friendly bunch. The event planner kept hanging around, obviously observing me.
The OnePULSE Foundation executives are NOT part of our community. They see me—a gay anthropologist with a shaky voice—as a threat.
Yesterday's support from friends and this fortune cookie were much needed.