In 48 hours, law enforcement’s story about what happened in Uvalde has unraveled. What’s left is a mess of incompetence and horror.
In the aftermath of mass shootings, a lot of attention is devoted to the shooter’s motives. That’s not a path I’m interested in. The exploration of “but why” usually erases societal roles by hyper-focusing on individual “causes” like mental illness, rather than American conservatives’ full-on love affair with military-grade weapons. Instead, following Tuesday’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, I’d like to focus on the intentions of another group entirely: law enforcement.
A plethora of agencies were present at Robb Elementary School Tuesday afternoon, including U.S. Border Patrol, the Uvalde Police Department, and federal marshals. Officials, however, keep contradicting themselves, so the exact timeline of what officers were doing there is muddy. At first, officials said a school officer and the shooter exchanged fire. That can no longer be confirmed. What is known for certain is that the 21 victims — including 19 children — were in one fourth-grade classroom. Officials said the shooter was barricaded in that classroom for up to an hour. But did he barricade himself in, or did law enforcement trap him there? That’s also unclear. Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McGraw told the Associated Press, “[Law enforcement] did engage immediately. They did contain [the shooter] in the classroom.” It was a Border Patrol tactical agent who eventually killed the gunman.
But while the gunman was inside, other members of law enforcement were outside ignoring pleas from parents for them to help. Juan Carranza, who lives across the street from Robb Elementary, told AP that a woman shouted at officers, “Go in there! Go in there!” In desperation, parents reportedly considered storming the school themselves, with one saying, per AP, “Let’s just rush in because the cops aren’t doing anything like they are supposed to.” Carranza said police should’ve entered the school to confront the shooter, stating, “There were more of them. There was just one of him.”
Video also shows law enforcement not only milling about, but in fact tackling and detaining concerned family members and neighbors outside the school. One officer can be seen holding a stun gun. At least one parent, Angeli Rose Gomez, was arrested by federal marshals for intervening in an active investigation, she told The Wall Street Journal. After the shooter was killed and buses arrived to transport students from the building, Gomez saw another parent get Tased when trying to get his child off the bus. Gomez told WSJ, “They didn’t do that to the shooter, but they did that to us. That’s how it felt.”
On Thursday, authorities confirmed they’re reviewing the police response in Uvalde. These types of reviews are standard, but it’s “intensified in this case,” per Austin Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski, due to discrepancies in officials’ statements about what cops were doing and when. Regardless of what the review finds, Tuesday’s shooting highlighted what many already knew: Policing is woefully, evilly inadequate when it comes to keeping people safe. Officers can’t be trusted as impartial sources — we’ve known this for a while — and no agency is going to outright admit its callousness and incompetency right after 19 kids are killed. It’s never been more clear that good guys with guns are not the solution to stopping shootings. They can feel sorry for themselves though: One Texas DPS official lamented Thursday that investigators had to work the Uvalde case rather than be with their families. “I’m a father. I can’t go home tonight and hug my kids. That hurts,” he said, in a press conference about the deaths of 19 other children whose family members will never see them again, likely in part because of police inaction.
Now, I’m well-versed in the function of policing in the United States. While the Los Angeles Police Department’s “protect and serve” motto has become associated with all law enforcement, I know that police often don’t protect vulnerable people, and that includes children. Their service is to uphold the status quo which, in the U.S., is white supremacy. And while mass shootings are an exceptional example of how our society produces premature death, it’s not the only form. Whether it’s police officers literally shooting children of color, or otherwise upholding other systems that kill us young, they play a fundamental role in the killing.
Whenever I hear about a mass shooting, I want to disconnect as much as possible. But as a journalist, I often have to read and think about them in-depth. While law enforcement’s contradictions were growing, I spent yesterday sorting through memorial tweets and reading about slain children. One, Amerie Jo Garza, was shot while trying to call 911 to save her classmates. Her best friend was covered in Garza’s blood; Garza’s father found out his little girl had been killed from this blood-soaked child. Today, I read an NBC News interview with a Robb Elementary School teacher, who told a reporter, “What do you want me to say? That I can’t eat? That all I hear are their voices screaming? And I can’t help them?” As people argued that we shouldn’t be too hard on law enforcement for hesitating to confront a teenager armed with an assault rifle, because of course that would be scary, I was reading about the two slain teachers, Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia, who died protecting their students.
Knowing that these shots are coming won’t stop me from collapsing when one of them connects just right.
I also read a 2017 article about what guns to do bodies, in which Dr. Amy Goldberg, from Temple University Hospital in North Philadelphia, reflected on the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. “The fact that not a single one of those kids was able to be transported to a hospital, tells me that they were not just dead, but really really really really dead,” Goldberg said. “Ten-year-old kids, riddled with bullets, dead as doornails.” For reference: The Sandy Hook shooter used two pistols and an AR-15. The Uvalde shooter also had an AR-15. And as I read that parents in Uvalde were asked to give DNA samples to help identify victims, I wondered how disfigured a child’s body has to be where even their own mothers and fathers wouldn’t be able to conclusively identify them just by looking.
Like I said, I know all about policing. It was ACAB well before Uvalde. Yet that doesn’t erase the disgust I feel towards law enforcement for their response to Tuesday’s shooting.
At this point, I expect mass shootings. I expect them to target people who are vulnerable, like kids or the elderly, and in locations where they’re supposed to feel safe, like churches, schools, or grocery stores. I don’t ponder the motivations of individual shooters, because I get that they are echoes of the past manifesting today. The U.S. is a society built on the violence of settler colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Why wouldn’t that violence adapt itself with assault rifles? Why wouldn’t lynching as a public spectacle evolve into the shooter who killed 10 Black shoppers in Buffalo, New York, this month streaming his attack on Twitch?
On Twitter, a snarky, “Oh, you’re surprised?” reply is the common response when people reflect on law enforcement in moments like this. But it conflates a person having emotions in general with them being surprised. Like I said: I’m not surprised the cops were ghoulishly idle while kids were being killed. I’m not surprised they stood around with their guns holstered while an 18-year-old was wielding his on children. But that doesn’t mean I stop hurting. I practice martial arts. I expect to get kicked, punched, and kneed. But that shit can still hurt. And knowing that these shots are coming won’t stop me from collapsing when one of them connects just right.
In Islam, my favorite hadith is: “Beware of the supplication of the oppressed, for it ascends to Allah as if it were a flare” (al-Mustadrak 118). Reflecting on this hadith brings up a lot of emotions for me. Perhaps that’s the point of this essay. Knowing that law enforcement will never be the solution to mass shootings doesn’t mean that we cannot be disgusted when we see their actions prove that in real time. After all, mass shootings aren’t going to end without a revolution, and that won’t come from being detached. It comes from caring enough to be furious. Caring enough to take the world you know, rip it to shreds, and sacrifice to build up something new.