Kronda Seibert, left, and Jamie McCurdy participated in "Colorado Rises," a human chain demonstration, on Sunday, July 22, 2012.
AURORA, Colo. – Linking arms in a human chain encircling a large swath of green grass in front of the Aurora Municipal Building, a young married couple vowed Sunday not to let anyone disturb mourners who had come to honor the city’s dead, and to pay their respects to its newly knighted police heroes.
“The point is to create a silent barrier,” said Jamie McCurdy, 25, as she stood next to her wife, Kronda Seibert. “We’re not engaging them.”
The “them” McCurdy was referring to were members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., who were rumored to have traveled to Colorado on Sunday to disrupt a memorial and candlelight vigil for the 12 people who were gunned down on July 20 during a midnight premiere of the new Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
The church and its members are known for protesting at military funerals, where they brandish jarringly unsympathetic signs that condemn the United States for its growing acceptance of the gay community. Emblazoned on the church’s website are the words “God hates fags.” Indignant that Westboro supporters might show up at a peaceful vigil meant to honor the dead, McCurdy, Seibert and hundreds of other Coloradans mobilized for a “Colorado Rises” demonstration.
Word of the planned human chain spread across Facebook on Saturday. By Sunday, McCurdy and Seibert were in Aurora, and linking arms with others at the memorial and vigil. Their goal? To create a protective barrier for the families of the shooting victims. In the end, the rumors didn't pan out. No Westboro members were spotted in Aurora, but it didn't stop people from staying in formation. The human chain had made them feel like they had put out a little bit of good in the world, a positive energy to counter the effects of what happened in the early morning hours of last Friday.
Recently married in a private ceremony, the women returned from a trip to Hiroshima, Japan, a few days before the shootings. In Hiroshima, they had relived the horrors of World War II, and the destruction that humans can inflict on each other. They’d taken their 13-month-old daughter with them to see the first city destroyed by a nuclear bomb, but not to the vigil. The baby was home with her grandmother because the couple wasn’t sure what to expect in Aurora. Like others who had made the pilgrimage from all around the Denver metropolitan region, they just wanted to remember the people, most of them young, who died in a movie theater before they could watch Batman save the world from evil.
Eric Moore, a college student from Aurora, sat in a soccer chair in the human chain, hobbled by a dislocated knee. He arose from bed rest last Thursday, and planned to see the new Batman film when the shootings occurred. The thought of anyone disrupting a memorial for the victims and their families drove him to participate in the demonstration. Plus, he felt a connection to shooting victim AJ Boik. The two had never met, but they knew a lot of the same people. Boik, 18, had graduated recently from Gateway High School in Aurora, and had scarcely started his adult life when he died from gunshot wounds suffered during the theater shootings.
Moore plans to see the new Batman film, but will wait until the public focus on the shootings fades. He worries about copycat scenarios. Beyond that, “I’m a huge supporter of Batman, and what he represents,” he said resolutely.
Brian Beckham, a Navy veteran originally from Knoxville, Tenn., stood quietly on the edge of the crowd, but didn’t join in the human chain. He wore a white cowboy hat, a guayabera shirt, and held a Bible under his arm that was zipped into a hand-tooled leather case engraved with crosses and other Christian symbols. He was ready in case anyone needed ministering and guidance.
Members of his church, the Calvary Church of Aurora, had been at the theater during the shooting, and had ministered to the injured and traumatized after they fled the theater in horror. It was bad enough when shootings occurred during wartime, but “to think that it happened here on the home grounds” was even worse.
“Their kids went off to the movies, something you do in the summertime, and their lives were forever changed,” the veteran said as he embraced his Bible.
The official death toll from the July 20 Aurora movie massacre stands at 12, but 58 other people suffered injuries during the shootings at the Century 16 Aurora Theater. Several victims remain in critical condition in Denver-area hospitals.
Suspect James Holmes made his first court appearance on July 23, and was represented by a public defender. True to early reports, he sported a head of Joker-red hair, but he wasn't laughing. Before the preliminary hearing, 18 Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers told the Associated Press her office was considering pursuing the death penalty against the suspect.
Holmes, 24, a former University of Colorado School of Medicine student, grew up in sunny southern California, and was studying neurosciences in Colorado. He was reportedly in the process of withdrawing from a doctoral program. University officials told the AP they were collaborating with police investigators, but could not reveal too much about Holmes’ academic records because of student privacy policies.
At Sunday’s memorial, no one wanted to mention the suspect by name, least of all Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who said the alleged gunman would be known only as “Suspect A” in the governor’s mansion.
“Colorado is a good place with good people,” Hickenlooper told the crowd to cheers. “We refuse to allow our state to be defined by an irrational act of violence.”
Yet, Coloradans and other observers can’t help but remember the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School Massacre, which claimed the lives of 12 students and one teacher, and many are asking why another tragedy like this has happened in Colorado.
For the victims and families of Columbine, the scars are still there, and Coloradans still remember the cold spring day in Clements Park in Littleton, Colo., when thousands gathered in shock to mourn and remember the victims of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. That day, there were crosses, prayers and piles of flowers, too. In the weeks following the shootings, there were national debates over violence, gun control, and whether or not the Founders had assault rifles in mind when they crafted the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Since then, Colorado has worked hard to overcome its tragic past, and to maintain its image as a world-class winter playground and backcountry mecca for skiers, snowboarders, rock climbers, kayakers, and other adventure seekers from around the globe. Denver, the “Queen City of the Plains,” has become a national hub for the aerospace industry, and the region boasts top collegiate programs, national research labs, and a vibrant music, art and museum scene. Boulder, about 25 miles west of Denver, ranks among the healthiest and smartest towns in the country, and recently landed atop a list of cities with the most high-tech startups.
Ute and Arapaho Indians have lived in the region for millennia, and Spanish-speaking settlers traveled north from the New Mexico territory to found Colorado’s oldest town, San Luis, in 1851. Waves of Anglo pioneers, miners, fur trappers, gold prospectors, and immigrants followed suit, and Colorado gained statehood in 1876, earning its official nickname, the Centennial State. Despite the state's deeply diverse cultural and historical roots, Colorado’s population remains overwhelmingly monochromatic, but that is changing rapidly. Since the 1970s, the state's rising population growth has been fueled by in-migration from Texas, California and other states, and immigration from Latin America, Russia, Africa and Asia. The pattern isn't unlike the demographic changes seen across a region that has been dubbed the "New West" for at least 15 years. Change keeps knocking on Colorado's door, too, often at the expense of the state's Western heritage, longtime residents complain.
Aurora, a sprawling suburb east of Denver, has bucked the state’s demographic trends for years, and is one of Colorado’s most diverse communities. It has become a sort of United Nations, where more than 50 languages are spoken, and large immigrant populations live side-by-side. The city’s school superintendent speaks Spanish fluently, and reaches out to communities of all backgrounds as part of a sweeping strategic plan to raise academic standards, and funnel Aurora students into local colleges. The city boasts a large military community, and is home to Buckley Air Force Base. A few miles from where the theater shootings occurred is the University of Colorado’s gleaming Anschutz Medical Campus and its adjacent biosciences research park.
At Sunday’s memorial, thousands of people of all skin colors, ages, shapes and sizes showed their support for the victims and their families, congregating around a courtyard and fountain in front of Aurora’s courthouse. A Catholic bishop, a rabbi, and black preachers led prayers before the large, ethnically diverse crowd.
Terry Lee, 53, of Aurora, his daughter, Dina, and his grandson, Michael, 5, sat in soccer chairs near the front of the crowd so they could catch a glimpse of Debbie, Lee’s wife, who was scheduled to sing in a church choir.
“This is our way of letting everyone know we’re with them,” Lee said as he clutched his tiny grandson on his lap. His daughter, a student in her 20s, said her son had asked if they could go to the movies over the weekend. She told him they couldn’t go, and they have protected him from the grim realities of the shootings. Soon, she hopes to take her son to the movies again.
“We can’t forget the families and the tragedies,” she said. “But we can’t stop living, either.”
At the back of the crowd, Anne Marie Rossi and her children, Malia, 12, and Kaden, 9, all of Denver, joined complete strangers in the human chain.
“We came here to allow people to mourn in peace,” Rossi said, her voice cracking, and tears slipping down her cheekbones as her family stood before homemade signs.
She and her daughters hope to organize a large community garage sale to raise funds for the families of all 12 victims, and will donate the money to the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance (COVA).
On a sidewalk not far from where the Rossis stood, members of a Colorado motorcycle club watched a procession of police officers as they glided through the crowd to cheers and applause. Everywhere they went, whether on foot or on bicycles, police officers were treated like rock stars, and their chief was heralded as an icon of heroism, fortitude and leadership. The bikers, who wore blue jeans and matching vests, extended their arms to shake officers’ hands in gratitude for all they did to save shooting victims’ lives and ferry the injured to hospitals in squad cars.
Two of the bikers, Vietnam veterans, argued that the shootings made a good case for citizens’ rights to carry concealed weapons. The alleged gunman wore a bulletproof vest and other protective padding, but a bullet could have penetrated his gas mask, said Ray Hoskinson, whose A.K.A. Nite Train is embroidered on his riding vest.
“It could have stopped a lot of killing,” he said. Instead, the shooter was the only one who was armed, so “the outcome was 100 percent up to him.”
During the three-hour memorial, the Aurora Symphony Brass Quartet played the Ode to Joy and other songs that wafted from speakers hanging from large cranes that flanked the courthouse. Victims and their families sat on folding chairs beneath white tents, and several dozen members of the armed forces stood solemnly in uniform, guarding a pathway to the fountain that allowed mourners to lay flowers, candles, balloons, and stuffed toys beneath a large floral wreath.
Three of the soldiers carried a bouquet of white roses to the fountain, where one of them kneeled and closed his eyes in prayer. Then all three rose and saluted the impromptu altar as cameras clicked loudly and the crowd fell in hushed silence.
Overhead, wind buffeted a large U.S. flag that hung at half staff atop the courthouse, and the crowd sighed as officials released dozens of purple balloons, which floated past SWAT team members who stood on top of the building, their binoculars trained on the crowd and the surrounding area.
To the right of a speaker’s lectern and an awning that protected VIPs from sporadic rain, a large crowd of reporters from around the globe trained television cameras and telephoto lenses on anyone who showed a bit of flash: a nun tooling around the fountain in a wheelchair; Cub Scouts bearing bouquets; citizens raising their arms in prayer; people who held signs thanking Aurora police officers; and mourners who unfurled a large banner that read, “Angels walk with those who grieve.” People swayed in the damp heat that rose from the grass beneath their feet, and a woman collapsed, prompting two officers to carry her to a first-aid station.
As a choir sang “Jesus is a rock, a shelter in a time of storm,” lightning flashed, and news helicopters buzzed over the courthouse. The crowd stirred in excitement as a rumor began to circulate that President Barack Obama would make a surprise appearance at the memorial. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. The president had visited victims and their families earlier in the day.
“This isn’t normal security,” a man said as he pointed at armed police officers, men in dark suits, and SWAT members on the roof.
Several minutes later, the crowd deflated as Air Force One flew overhead before banking east. As he continued with his speech, Gov. Hickenlooper read the names of the shooting victims and asked the crowd to remember their names.
“We will remember,” the crowd intoned after the governor read each name.
When he was done, two dozen heart-shaped mylar balloons rose and floated toward the movie theater, and into the darkening western skies.
Aurora Shooting Victims: We will remember.
Jonathan Blunk, 26
Alexander Jonathan “AJ” Boik, 18
Jesse Childress, 29
Gordon W. Cowden, 51
Jessica Ghawi, 24
John Larimer, 27
Matt McQuinn, 27
Micayla Medek, 23
Veronica Moser, 6
Alex Sullivan, 27
Alex Teves, 24
Rebecca Ann Wingo, 32
Aurora resident Terry Lee, left, and his daughter, Dina, sit with Dina's son, Michael, 5, at a memorial Sunday for the 12 victims of the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings.AnneMarie Rossi, in black T-shirt, and her children, Malia, 12, and Kaden, 9, all of Denver, stand in the human chain with homemade signs. The family is raising funds to help the shooting victims, and all proceeds will go to the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance (COVA). For more information, go to https://www.givingfirst.org/aurorashootingvictims
Gary Osburn, left, and Naomi Tomaszewski, both of Broomfield, Colo., take their place in Sunday's "Colorado Rises" human chain.
Eric Moore, sitting, and friends form a human chain at Sunday's memorial for the 12 victims of the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings.
More members of the human chain.Members of the motorcycle club Veterans of Vietnam America pose at Sunday's memorial. Ray Hoskinson, A.K.A. Nite Train, is third from the right. For more information, go to http://www.vovmcco.comMembers of the Aurora Police Department pose before getting back to work during Sunday's memorial for the 12 victims of the shootings in Aurora, Colo.
Aurora police officers were welcomed with applause, cheers and "thank yous."
A minivan toting a stuffed teddy bear and a U.S. flag drives past the Century 16 Aurora Theater on July 22, heading toward a makeshift memorial.
A man holds a sign with signatures that reads "Thank you Aurora Police Department for your courageous acts and your care. You are in our thoughts and prayers. From a very grateful community."
Aurora police officers walk past the human chain as citizens applaud them for their life-saving efforts.
The Century 16 Aurora Theater marquee flickers to life at sunset on July 22, 2012, just before the start of a candlelight vigil for the 12 victims of the theater shootings in Aurora, Colo. The theater is about a half mile from the Aurora Municipal Building, where the memorial took place.
© Story and photos by Deborah Méndez Wilson. All rights reserved.
Colorado band the Flobots sing "Rise."