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Monday, June 12, 2017

A Night of Terror, a Year of Racism - The New York Times


"ORLANDO, Fla. — A year ago today, a mass shooting during a Latin-theme dance night at Pulse, a popular gay bar in Orlando, Fla., left 49 people dead, more than 50 injured and the city — particularly its L.G.B.T. and Latino communities — shaken.

I woke up to about 60 notifications on my phone that morning. Most were from friends and family asking if I was O.K. My mother was crying, worried I had been at the club.

A drag queen from ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ who I love, performed there that night, so it was entirely possible. Three years before, as a freshman at the University of Central Florida, I often went to Pulse with my new college friends, all of us L.G.B.T. in one way or another and looking for a sense of community that seemed out of reach in straight daylight.

I was the editor in chief of the university’s digital newspaper at the time of the shooting. (I graduated last month.) So the rest of the notifications I woke up to were from my staff. I posted a Facebook status confirming my safety, called my mom to reassure her and rushed to divvy up the day’s coverage with my news team.

I remember being amazed by the swift and empathetic response from the city and much of the country. The shooting started at 2 a.m., and by the time most of the city was waking up, so many volunteers had headed downtown to help that blood donation centers were turning people away. Politicians of all stripes, including those who hadn’t seemed particular pro-L.G.B.T. or supportive of Latino communities, spoke of solidarity. Rainbows were painted all over Orlando; many still remain on the walls of the Walt Disney Amphitheater at Lake Eola or on the sides of police cars.
As a gay person of color, I found something truly comforting about this response. Part of me felt accepted, understood and even coddled in the midst of this harrowing event.

Another part felt more targeted than ever.

My mom is from the Dominican Republic, where I spent most of my childhood. I speak fluent Spanish and have been known to cook a mean rice and beans with tostones. But my dad is from Pakistan, and from him I inherited a thin nose, dark eyes and a full beard of coarse hair. I am used to being treated as a suspicious person.

When I fly, for example, my Spotify playlist is usually interrupted by a T.S.A. agent letting me know I’ve “been selected for additional screening.” At the Dominican barbershop where I get my hair cut, my barber was stunned when he heard me speak Spanish for the first time. “I thought you were one of those people who threw the bombs,” he said.

This stereotyping has gotten much worse since the Pulse shooting, because despite the outpouring of support for L.G.B.T. and Latino people, the tragedy became an excuse to vilify Muslims before the 2016 presidential election.

The day of the shooting, before most of the victims were identified, Donald J. Trump, then a candidate, tweeted: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” From that moment on, it was clear that the tragedy would not become a reason to champion noble or productive causes like gun reform. Instead, it would become Exhibit A in Mr. Trump’s justification for a ban on Muslims entering the country — despite the fact that the shooter was an American and Muslim refugees have not killed anyone in the United States.
The national coverage linking Islam to the massacre was inescapable.

And you could feel it in Orlando. In July, a month after the tragedy, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Muslim bias had spiked in our area: A Mason-Dixon poll found that 21 percent of Central Floridians held views on Muslims that were “more negative than before the shooting.”

In August, Mr. Trump’s campaign set up a field office directly across the street from the Pulse memorial as the presidential candidate continued to yell about a Muslim ban.

In September, an arsonist set fire to the Kissimmee mosque where the killer’s family had sometimes prayed.
According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, incidents of bias against American Muslims increased by more than 50 percent nationwide between 2015 and 2016.

It was impossible to block it out even on campus. The administration had pledged its support to the L.G.B.T. community after the Pulse shooting, but did nothing to prevent anti-Muslim rhetoric from circulating.

For example, a video of a tenured communications professor at U.C.F. surfaced from a few years back in which he called Islam “the problem” as well as a “religion of pieces — piece of body over here, piece of body over there.” He teaches a course called “Terrorism and Communication.”
I interviewed this professor for the school paper, and he told me that far from regretting his word choice, he feels emboldened by his critics: The video made his book sales go up and he gets more speaking invitations when Muslim advocacy groups report on his rhetoric.
When I asked him to consider whether his words might hurt my Muslim peers on our campus, he replied, “It wouldn’t make a difference to me.”
Muslim students have raised concerns about this kind of speech to the U.C.F. administration to no avail. The dean of the school of communication did see a problem with his professor’s insensitivity and exclusionary language. But ultimately, the dean told me, he prefers to err on the side of openness, allowing the university to be “a marketplace of ideas.”

This has become a common theme — and in some ways, an understandable position for administrators. Colleges are taking heat for their supposed liberal bias; it is bad press for them to be seen as “silencing” more conservative viewpoints. But this isn’t really political conservatism. Muslim students see a direct and detrimental correlation between this kind of talk and the increased threats and prejudice they experience.
This is not to say that I support censorship. I agree that listening to a variety of ideas can be enriching. But critics of students who seek to limit misleading or hateful speech rarely consider that we have experience with the consequences. Students aren’t trying to block points of view we haven’t heard. We are speaking out to change social narratives that we can see have devastating effects. And precisely because college campuses are bastions of free speech, we feel comfortable enough here to push back.

As was clear after the Pulse shooting, messages of solidarity by those in power speak volumes. The school could have issued a statement in support of the Muslim community on campus after the tragedy, and, in this delicate political environment, it could reconsider its commitment to professors who stoke the flames of Islamophobia.

The Pulse nightclub shooting was a terrible act of violence against a marginalized group of people. Attacking another marginalized group is not the way to prevent more shootings, or to help survivors heal.

Adam Manno graduated from the University of Central Florida this spring.

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