Pulse: How Orlando Fatally Failed the LGBTQ+ Community
On July 30, 2016 — a little over a month after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida — the Orlando Sentinel published an article about Pulse’s unpermitted fence. Embedded was a diagram that showed how Pulse’s exits were blocked by this illegal fence; a fence that violated city codes and limited patrons’ routes to safety. Those who did escape through the nightclub’s backdoors had to knock down and jump over this six-foot-tall obstruction.
As the article documents, the City of Orlando knew about the fence 6 years before the shooting, documented the violation with photographs, but never cited the owners, never revoked their liquor license, and never shut down the nightclub.
The City has a duty to the public to enforce building codes, municipal ordinances and ensure code compliance. But this was never done.
Not only did it ignore the fence, but the City of Orlando also knew that Pulse owners made a number of other unpermitted renovations to the interior of the building, resulting in a second-floor office area and DJ loft, the covering of required windows facing Orange Avenue, remodeled bathrooms, remodeled bars, and an expanded outdoor patio.
All of this was done without permits. None of it was ever inspected or approved by the City. And, all of this is documented in public records.
It would be one thing if Pulse owners Rosario and Barbara Poma implemented these unpermitted renovations without the City’s knowledge, but the City of Orlando knew about these modifications.
Recently uncovered public records show documented complaints made by the public, a letter of concern written by a reputable fire alarm company that installed Pulse’s fire alarm, and fire inspections done by the Orlando Fire Department that noted improper building alterations.
Despite all of these warnings, Pulse was never brought into compliance.
Furthermore, Pulse was never permitted to operate as a nightclub. The Municipal Board gave Rosario Poma the permission to operate Pulse conditionally as a martini bar and restaurant. On multiple occasions, the City specifically stated that Pulse was not allowed to charge nightly cover or have a dance floor.
This included a written request to remove the dance floor when Pulse opened. Mr. Poma responded, in writing, that he would remove the dance floor to be in compliance with the Pulse’s conditional-use permit.
Except, Mr. Poma never removed Pulse’s dance floor or applied for a new conditional use permit. On June 12, 2016, 20 people — 98% people of color — were murdered as they danced upon the dance floor that was never supposed to be there to begin with. Even more were wounded on the dance floor.
To date, there has been no investigation into Pulse’s code violations.
The City of Orlando provided both the FBI and the media with unpermitted building plans that were never officially recorded within the City, but were instead sitting in a City employee’s inbox at the time of the shooting. This employee, who failed to bring Pulse into compliance for years, was, unbelievably, then promoted after the shooting from a Division Manager to Deputy Director of the City’s Economic Development department.
Records also show that the unpermitted renovations did not just create obstacles for fleeing victims during the shooting, but they also created a problem for First Responders who did not have access to Pulse’s building plans the night of the shooting.
To navigate the building and rescue hostages, First Responders had to hand draw Pulse’s layout based on verbal intel provided by a traumatized employee of the Poma’s. The prolonged rescue response was heavily criticized as it took three hours to locate and rescue surviving victims.
Pulse co-owner Barbara Poma, who is partly responsible for turning Pulse into an unregulated death trap, has used her proximity to the shooting to gain access to celebrities, corporate elites, and politicians by incorporating the OnePULSE Foundation. On September 15, 2020 — in the midst of climate catastrophe, a global pandemic, and Hispanic Heritage month — Ms. Poma posed for a “photo opp” with singers Ricky Martin and Luis Fonsi on the grounds of Pulse where this grisly murder took place.
Ms. Poma, with the backing of Orlando’s corporate elites and prominent politicians, has sought to turn the site of the tragedy and a nearby property acquired with public funds into a privatized memorial-museum complex. Her true intent with her nonprofit has always been to turn the mass shooting into a tourist attraction, which is documented in her appearance in front of the Orange County Tourist Development Council.
Despite opposition from mass shooting survivors and over 45,000 petitioners, Ms. Poma has continued to raise funds using the photographs and stories of those murdered without the written consent of their families.
Ms. Poma also personally profits off the shooting, taking home $150,000 annually as CEO of OnePULSE — this, even as she and her husband are being sued by surviving victims and when survivors had to raise money for medical bills and living expenses through small donations on GoFundMe.
You read that right. A straight, white couple has successfully commodified the murder of queer Black and Latinx while victims of the Pulse shooting continue to struggle. Ms. Poma even put a gift shop on the Pulse property that sells T-shirts and trinkets, feet away from the bullet holes that pierced the building.
The scholarship program that launched this year by OnePULSE is window dressing that seeks to give legitimacy to the foundation’s education-based mission. While 49 students have benefitted from the program, only six recipients of the inaugural scholarships were directly affected by the mass shooting.
The scholarship program also serves another function: silencing survivors and family members who have vocally opposed Barbara Poma and OnePULSE. For working-class families who lost a parent, sibling, or loved one — as well as survivors who can barely afford basic necessities — the possibility of getting a $10,000 check has turned speaking out against the foundation into a foreclosure of a better future.
It didn’t have to be this way.
The Poma’s did not have to put people’s lives at risk by blatantly disregarding the law to maximize their own profit. They could have paid for permits and operated their business responsibility without putting the public at risk.
Pulse was supposed to serve the LGBTQ+ community. Those of us who went to Pulse, particularly after it was renovated, trusted that owners followed the law, that those building improvements were approved and inspected, and our safety was not put in jeopardy for renovations that served to increase the owners’ revenue.
The Poma’s could have also accepted the City’s above-market offer to purchase the Pulse property after the shooting, allowing the City of Orlando to turn it into a dignified, public memorial park. But, they didn’t. The market for Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ murder is more lucrative than a single real estate transaction.
The City of Orlando has not been forthcoming about these issues. Perhaps, because of their own culpability.
The Orlando City Council has not yet answered the questions that I have posed to them a month ago through emails and virtual appearances in City Council meetings, nor have any answers been provided for questions posed by Pulse survivors, friends, and family members through the #49Questions campaign.
All of my requests for information made over the past year to the City’s Public Information Officer, the Economic Development Department, and the Orlando Police Department have been redirected to the City’s Public Records department. This department does not directly answer any questions and only provides records requested using precise search parameters. This has turned into a costly endeavor to uncover the truth as records are not provided for free.
Perhaps if people did the following, we could get answers and justice for Pulse victims:
1. Email the Orlando City Council and ask them to publicly address the issues of Pulse’s unpermitted renovations and code violations:
2. Sign this petition to demand an investigation into Pulse’s unpermitted renovations and code violations, akin to investigations done at the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island and the Ghost Ship Warehouse in Oakland, California.
The Poma’s may have owned Pulse, but they are not the proprietors of Orlando’s grief. The public needs to know that they created the building conditions that maximized Black and Latinx death and are now profitting off mass murder.
There’s nothing ethical about staying silent about the injustices being done to our queer, Black, and Latinx brothers and sisters in Orlando, Florida.
For more information and to see the documents and public records for yourself, go to the following sites:
*This blog post originally appeared on Medium.