Bloodied But Unbowed: Some Shootings Surprise, Others Don't

Investigators collect evidence at Salon Meritage hair salon where a man shot nine people, killing eight of them, on October 12, 2011 in Seal Beach | Photo by David McNew/Getty Images
Investigators collect evidence at Salon Meritage hair salon where a man shot nine people, killing eight of them, on October 12, 2011 in Seal Beach | Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

"Town's sense of safety is pierced"--so read the headline of a recent Los Angeles Times feature story about the dreadful aftermath of the Seal Beach massacre. That's an understatement, if I ever read one. The October 12 incident in which a man opened fire in a beauty salon on PCH, killing his former wife and seven other victims, was the deadliest shooting in Orange County history.

Dreadful, as I said. And a tragedy that's become sickeningly familiar in this country--a person distraught by domestic, financial and/or emotional issues decides to take out their anger on innocent, totally unsuspecting folk with an assault rifle or a semiautomatic. It goes without saying that this is a tragedy no matter where it happens.

But the fact it happened in Seal Beach, a picturesque coastal town that describes itself as "Mayberry by the sea" elevated this particular tragedy in the media's eyes to something beyond surreal, almost beyond comprehension. Fatal shootings simply don't happen here, let alone shootings; one resident in the Times story mused that having a police force in Seal Beach feels very close to unnecessary. The old town section of Seal Beach where the grisly event happened is small, close-knit, a neighborhood where everybody knows each other.

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In short, the murders were so far removed from anybody's imagination, there was almost no context in which to talk about them afterward. (One resident described the shock in town as something akin to how the country felt after the 9/11 attacks.) But what's notable to me was that almost no one in Seal Beach now views Seal Beach--cozy, idyllic, heavily white--as any less safe or desirable. Terrible as the shootings were, they were widely seen as a freak occurrence, a hurricane that blew in, wrought some damage, but then blew out. That view is probably accurate. The deep-rooted faith in Seal Beach as a good, stable place to live is its greatest asset, and it was virtually untouched.

I can't help but contrast this kind of civic self-confidence to what happens when shootings occur in places like Inglewood or South Central. In these places the picture feels inverted: chaos and violence are the norm--the context, if you will--while stability is the freak occurrence. That's an exaggeration, I know, but the fact of the matter is, when shootings happen in my neighborhood and hereabouts, the media doesn't exactly rush out to find out how people feel about it or how it's impacted the good reputation of the community. When reporters do go the scene, residents tend to express grief, frustration, condemnation--but rarely surprise. A killing is simply one more point along a historical continuum that defines and re-defines black and brown communities as inherently bad places to live.

The photo that went with the L.A. Times story was familiar to me--a candlelight vigil with dozens of sober-faced people gathered together at the scene of the crime. Very likely there will be flowers and candles left at the beauty salon for months to come. Such makeshift altars have marked my part of town for a long time. Seal Beach is one of those places I don't think I've ever even stopped in or driven through, but now I can say we have something in common.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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