UNC Charlotte students gather for change during Rally of Remembrance
Gabe Cartagena, 21, has twice seen guns send his school into lockdown.
It first happened over a decade ago, at Mountain View Elementary in Hickory, when his teacher told the class of 7-year-olds to hide against a wall, following a threat from a cafeteria worker.
The second time was this past week, as a student entered a UNC Charlotte classroom and began shooting, killing two students, putting another four in the hospital, and turning the last day of classes into a day of utter chaos.
“You kind of always expect that one day, it will happen to you,” said Cartagena, a junior. “I was raised with it, I guess.”
In the wake of that deadly — and so far, unexplained — attack, the reaction on campus was one of grief, and fear, and trauma. But it was not one of shock: An incident like Tuesday’s shooting, he and other students said, was going to happen eventually. It was only a matter of time.
Like much of the UNCC student body, he is part of what some have called “Generation Lockdown”: They grew up with news of Sandy Hook and Parkland, and they remember crawling under tables for drills in elementary school. When it wasn’t a drill this time, they knew more about response protocols than many adults on campus.
But that’s also perhaps because it wasn’t the first time many of those young people, like Cartagena, were facing this kind of incident.
Since 1999, more than 226,000 students have experienced gun violence at school, a Washington Post analysis found. In North Carolina alone, there have been at least 13 incidents in that time period, according to The Post.
Researchers have found conflicting data on whether the incidence of those shootings is in fact on the rise in the United States, though the number of people killed has increased. (Under some definitions, the attack at UNC Charlotte would not be counted because fewer than four people died.)
But culturally speaking, the fear and awareness of those incidents is undoubtedly on the rise.
“People think going and shooting places up is what you do when you don’t have anything else you can do,” said UNCC senior Sena Sarikaya, but “that’s something that goes through people’s minds in this culture right now.”
For some families, the second school shooting in months
Sarikaya, 21, had already seen the alert that flashed on her phone screen Tuesday evening, telling her to “RUN, HIDE, FIGHT.”
It was the same one she had heard in high school, as she went through lockdown after lockdown preparing for what might happen. And it was the same command her 17-year-old sister Amela repeated at home last fall, when it did happen: one student fatally shot another right across the hall from her classroom at Butler High School.
Now, Sarikaya said, her parents are telling her not to return to campus, for fear that more violence will occur. And the family is simply awaiting the day when their youngest sister, now in middle school, will face a shooting.
“If it isn’t her middle school, it’s going to be her high school,” she said. “If it’s not her high school, it’s going to be her college.”
Closer to campus, Rania Hamdan, 21, found out about the attack as she was driving back to pick up her graduation cord. In the midst of the chaos, she spoke over the phone with a friend from Switzerland.
“How are you being so calm about this?” he asked her.
Hamdan’s answer was simple: This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, she said. A few months ago, she frantically woke up to a call from her mother. There was a shooting going on at her high school.
“To be doing that for the second time in several months,” she said, “that’s when I really started to get upset.”
On any other Tuesday, Hamdan would have been leading a Model UN meeting a few yards away from the site of the shooting in Kennedy Hall. She would have been with many of her closest friends.
“When we do see it in the news, we’re so desensitized to it, because it’s happening so much,” she said. “But when we see it happening in our community again, it’s not just a headline.”
And yet, Hamdan said, the shock doesn’t last that long.
On Monday, the day before the shooting, Butler High commemorated the six-month anniversary of the attack on its grounds and the death of sophomore Bobby McKeithen III. Administrators put a plaque up in memory of McKeithen and asked all faculty and students to sign a “Butler Strong” pledge.
Two days later, with the hashtag #UNCCStrong trending on Twitter, the high school students all wore green. At UNCC, the crowds of college students who poured onto campus to a student-organized vigil, lighting candles in memory of the two students who had been killed.
UNCC student body president Chandler Crean described Tuesday as “the saddest day in UNC Charlotte history.”
“We have to stand strong together, love one another and stand up for each other,” Crean told the crowd.
Hamdan, the senior, heard her classmates — those who were not too afraid to return to campus — say that “this isn’t Charlotte.” But she pushed back against that idea.
“How is Charlotte any different than Baltimore? How is UNC Charlotte any different than Virginia Tech? How is Butler any different than Parkland?” Hamdan asked. “We’re all living under the same circumstances. It can happen anywhere.”
Their class project: A memorial for mass shootings
Nick Jensen, 19, was with Cartagena, driving to Plaza Midwood when he heard about the attack at Kennedy Hall. He said he was equally unsurprised: A threat had shut down his high school, Southeast Guilford near Greensboro, about four years ago.
“As much as I didn’t want it to happen, it was a thing that I expected would happen,” Jensen said. “It’s something that’s expected at pretty much every university and high school and is eventually happening at every university and high school.”
He had also spent much of this semester thinking about mass shootings, tasked with designing a memorial in his architecture class with Professor Rachel Dickey. Without a specific location, the project instructed them to respond to and memorialize shootings in some way.
“It is such a ubiquitous concept that my professor felt it was important to acknowledge it in our studies,” Jensen said.
Jensen went to the Wikipedia list of mass shootings in the U.S. and wrote them all down one by one in order to try and grasp the extent of the problem, jotting down the location and death toll for each one.
He designed a field of posts, where the height of each post corresponded to the number of people killed in each shooting, as a way to visualize the epidemic.
“If you’re presented with having to stand at look at something, it kind of brings the issue into scale,” he said. “It’s become so common that we don’t realize just how big a problem it is.”
A call to action, and a call to arms
Like many others, 21-year-old Dalton Kirby, said Tuesday wasn’t his first brush with the issue of guns on campus.
Growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn., Kirby said he had done plenty of active shooter drills in high school. Once, the threat became real when a shooter in the neighborhood tried to seek shelter at his high school.
He was nearby, but off-campus, when Tuesday’s shooting put UNCC on lockdown. And he said that having gone through another incident makes him want to own a gun.
“If somebody walks through my house with a gun, they’re getting shot. Plain and simple,” Kirby said.
But he’s likely an outlier on campus, and nationally, as similar incidents across the country have sparked a wave of youth activism calling for gun control, he’s an outlier.
The UNCC chapter of March for Our Lives NC had been formed barely a few months ago. In the wake of this past week’s tragedy, they rallied around the clock to put together a “rally for remembrance” on campus Friday. And this time, it was political.
“The type of culture that we live in normalizes this violence,” said junior Cade Lee, 19, the chapter leader. “We recognize that a large majority of our politicians aren’t doing anything to stop this problem.”
On Friday afternoon students and elected officials told a crowd of about a hundred students — many of them still wearing green — to express their anger and emotions following the shooting when they go vote.
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a former college professor, said that she never felt afraid while teaching on campus. But she’s fearful for her grandson, who will head off to college in the fall.
“It’s all about power, and you have it,” the Charlotte Democrat told the crowd. “But you have to use it.”
Students’ signs echoed the same messages: “Ballots not bullets.” “Guns don’t vote, but I do.” “You can put a silencer on a gun, but not on the voice of the people.”
Kristine Slade, a senior who planned the vigil earlier in the week, told the the crowd that the deaths of Riley Howell and Ellis “Reed” Parlier in Tuesday’s shooting should motivate them to keep fighting for change — for solutions, and for stricter gun laws.
“This has got to end,” Slade said.
An hour away in Greensboro, she said, there had been reports of an active shooter threat at North Carolina A&T.