Reflections on the Santa Monica College shooting, one year later

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SMC community members set up a memorial for those killed. (Photo: Avishay Artsy)

A memorial at SMC following the shooting (Photo: Jenny Radelet)
A memorial at SMC following the shooting, June, 2013 (Photo: Jenny Radelet)

Terror arrived at my college a year ago this month. On June 7, 2013, a man, wielding a .223 caliber assault rifle and a handgun and strapped with 1,300 rounds of ammunition, killed his brother and father in Santa Monica and set their house ablaze. Then he commandeered a passing car, shot up a bus and sprayed bullets across an intersection, before ordering the driver to take him to Santa Monica College.

His stroll westward across the campus took about 10 minutes—10 minutes in the history of a college in existence since 1929. The shooter walked from the eastern part of the campus, down a corridor and finally to the library—maybe 300 yards total. He fired dozens of rounds. In that time, and in that space, he murdered three people.

Police at SMC after the shooting. (Photo: Avishay Artsy)
Police at SMC after the shooting. June 7, 2013 (Photo: Avishay Artsy)

I have taught at Santa Monica College for 30 years, which is not unusual. The average tenure of full-time faculty here is nearly 16 years. Over many years, we relive the same sorts of encounters every semester—drinking coffee, chatting in the parking lot, watching robed students march across a stage. Faced with terror, do these years of shared rituals mean anything? How does a college, a place filled with curiosity and hope, recover from an attack by a shooter who lashes out in white-hot rage?

The day of the shooting, I dropped by my office and left an hour before the shooting. Like many of us at the college, I found myself asking: “What if?”

My old office used to be in the Liberal Arts Building, near where the shooter began his rampage. If you worked or studied at the college—as so many now-prominent Angelenos did when they were first finding their way—you had a memory centered on this building. It contained the English Department offices and the charismatic Dick Dodge, who taught Dustin Hoffman and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Some 20 years ago, I taught Monica Lewinsky in Liberal Arts 136.

When I got a full-time job at the college in 1988, my windowless office was just off the hallway in Room Liberal Arts 110. The shooter walked past that door, clad in black, his semi-automatic spraying bullets, ripping up the walls and ceiling.

Carlos Franco, a gardener at the college for 22 years, was driving his daughter, Marcela, out of the parking lot when the two were shot. He died at the scene. The life of his daughter ebbed away hours later. On his day off, he had taken his daughter to the campus to buy books. She was going to take a summer course at the college.

SMC community members set up a memorial for those killed. June 2013 (Photo: Avishay Artsy)
Memorial to Margarita Gomez one of the victims. June 6, 2014 (Photo: Caitlin Shamberg)
Memorial to Margarita Gomez one of the victims. June 6, 2014 (Photo: Caitlin Shamberg)

The library is a place where “we inventory human capacity, we arrange, we remember, we heal through knowledge,” historian Kevin Starr told a gathering of people at Santa Monica College just after 9/11. Two years later, the new library was completed and dedicated. Gone were polished card catalogues. Expanses of concrete and glass and rows of monitors proclaimed an era of digital exploration.

The shooter was headed toward the library when he took aim at 67-year-old Margarita Gomez and killed her. She was known around campus because she frequently stopped by to collect cans and bottles for recycling. The shooter considered other targets and made his way up the shallow steps toward the library’s automated glass doors.

Some students fled from the library; others set off a stampede toward the rear emergency exits. Library staff and students who were behind the front desk rushed into a small room and hit the floor before the firing started. Bullets ripped through the door and past their faces. The chamber empty and cartridges spent, the shooter wheeled around and began firing his automatic weapon into the library.

The path of terror for the shooter ended in the library, where he was “neutralized”—shot dead by campus police. The terror, however, was not neutralized. Campus leaders improvised a crisis center, providing round-the-clock counseling. Healing happened slowly and quickly, with anguish and with deliberate thought. With distance, minute piled on minute and the shooter’s haunting image receded.

Constructing narratives can provide a way out of the terror— reshaping memories into narratives that allow for recovery. A therapist suggested to the library staff that they reframe what happened. Out of hundreds in the library, only one person died: the shooter. The staff protected people, kept them safe.

Nearly a year later, I have heard dozens of intense stories, from students and colleagues, about those 10 minutes last June. I urge others to listen to the stories. As soul-wrenching as some are, they come from a safe haven—a college, where our minds can be unsafe, take risks and discover. In the face of terror, go, be brave. That is all we can do—and that is enough.

Gordon Dossett is a professor of English at Santa Monica College in California. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

Editor’s Note: KCRW, Which Way, LA? and this blog are located on the campus of Santa Monica College. On June 7th last year, our staff was evacuated in the aftermath of the shooting. Here’s our account of that day and the subsequent coverage of the shooting.