For over a decade, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was a popular destination for the LGBT community in central Florida. It was opened in 2004 by Barbara Poma to celebrate her brother, who had died of AIDS. We speak to Orlando native Daniel Leon-Davis. He wrote a piece for Fusion titled “The Site of the Orlando Shooting Wasn’t Just a Gay Nightclub. It was My Safe Haven.”
AMY GOODMAN: Vigils are being held across the country following what’s been described as the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. At least 50 people died in Orlando, Florida, early Sunday morning after a gunman opened fire at a packed gay dance club. More than 50 others were injured. The victims were mainly Latino, many of them Puerto Rican. Three hours after the shooting began, authorities say, the gunman was shot dead when police raided the club. The shooting was the deadliest attack on the LGBTcommunity in American history. The attack came in the middle of Pride month. Witnesses described scenes of terror inside the club.
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JANIEL GONZALEZ: He just kept on shooting and shooting and shooting and just walking around.
REPORTER: Was it rapid fire? Was it single shots?
JANIEL GONZALEZ: No, it was rapid fire. It was like brrrrrr. And then he’d like change, put another ammunition, brrrrrrrr, and then change, put another ammunition. And I could just smell the ammo in the air, and I was like, “This is a gun. This isn’t fireworks. Like, we need to leave.”
AMY GOODMAN: For over a decade, the Pulse was a popular destination for theLGBT community in central Florida. It opened in 2004 by Barbara Poma to celebrate her brother, who had died of AIDS. President Obama addressed the nation on Sunday afternoon.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So this is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country. And no act of hate or terror will ever change who we are or the values that make us Americans.
Today marks the most deadly shooting in American history. The shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle. This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school or in a house of worship or a movie theater or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Authorities identified the gunman as 29-year-old Omar Mateen. He used a semiautomatic weapon that would have been prohibited under the Assault Weapons Ban that Congress allowed to expire more than a decade ago. Since 2007, Mateen had worked as a security guard at G4S, the largest private security firm in the world. He was born in 1986 in New York to Afghan parents. The FBI interviewed him in 2013 and 2014 for possible terrorist ties. According to The New York Times, he was placed under FBI surveillance for a time, but the agency eventually closed its inquiry. There are reports Mateen called 911 just after the initial assault and when he was inside the club, and declared his allegiance to the Islamic State, but no audio of the call has been released to the public. Mateen’s father told NBC his son had been angered after seeing two men kissing in Miami. Mateen’s former wife told reporters he was mentally unstable and used to beat her.
SITORA YUSUFIY: In the beginning, he was a normal being, that cared about family, loved to joke, loved to have fun. But then, a few months after we were married, I saw his instability, and I saw that he was bipolar, and he would get mad out of nowhere. That’s when I started worrying about my safety. And then, after a few months, he started abusing me physically, very often, and not allowing me to speak to my family, keeping me hostage from them. And I tried to see the good in him even then, but my family was very tuned into what I was going through, and decided to visit me and rescue me out of that situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now in Orlando, Florida, is Hannah Willard, policy and outreach coordinator for Equality Florida. Here in New York, we’re joined by Daniel Leon-Davis. He grew up in Orlando. He was a regular at the Pulse nightclub. He’s the senior creative director of Soze. He wrote a piece for Fusion titled “The Site of the Orlando Shooting Wasn’t Just a Gay Nightclub. It was My Safe Haven.”
Hannah and Daniel, welcome to Democracy Now! Hannah, let’s begin with you. You’re in Orlando near the scene of the crime. Can you describe what you understand took place and the significance of the nightclub where it happened?
HANNAH WILLARD: Well, thank you for having me. This act of senseless violence has left us all reeling. For this to have taken place during Pride Month, in June, adds an extra layer of horror to the LGBTQ community being targeted in this way. Gay nightclubs are absolutely safe havens for our community, for so many of us. They were the first place where we really could be our authentic selves. Pride Month is when we mark the Stonewall riots, when we come together to take pride in who we are. This act of hatred has left us all shocked and mourning for those we’ve lost.
AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the Stonewall riots, and many flowers were placed at the Stonewall here in New York, really the launch of the modern-day gay rights movement in this country. Talk about the significance of the Pulse in Orlando.
HANNAH WILLARD: Pulse nightclub is an institution here in Orlando. This is my hometown. I grew up here. I’m proud to live here. And Pulse nightclub is a place where all of us went to have a fun night out with our friends. You know, gay and transgender people, we want the same things everyone else wants. We want to be able to earn a living, provide for our families and go out dancing with our friends.
And yesterday I was at a small gathering where someone asked, “Will we be able to make Pulse safe again?” And my answer is, I’m sure we will, because gay and transgender people have always carved out safe spaces for ourselves amidst adversity. Our community is no stranger to violence, to hatred and to antagonism, and we’re no stranger to getting back up and moving forward stronger than ever. I’m thankful for the solidarity that our community has felt yesterday and today in the midst of our grief.
AMY GOODMAN: Hannah, do you see this as a hate crime?
HANNAH WILLARD: There’s no question that homophobia and hatred and bigotry are alive and well here in Florida and across our country. We may never know exactly what was in the heart of this man that inspired him to commit this act of hatred and violence, but what we do know is that in the midst of this grief, we are more committed than ever to uproot the homophobia, the hatred and the bigotry that sparks this kind of violence. We’re committed to uprooting that anywhere it exists, be it homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, sexism, racism, anywhere it exists. That’s our commitment as Equality Florida.
AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Leon-Davis, you know, in the list of names, overwhelmingly Latino, they’ve identified 49 of the 50 now dead.
DANIEL LEON-DAVIS: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the names is Daniel Leon.
DANIEL LEON-DAVIS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Your name is Daniel Leon-Davis. You grew up in Orlando?
DANIEL LEON-DAVIS: Mm-hmm. I think — I think something that’s very important to add to the conversation is that it’s not just Pride Month, it’s also Immigrant Heritage Month. Right? And so, the process of taking in, as a gay Latino who grew up literally — like, I went to Pulse all the time.
AMY GOODMAN: How many times do you think you went there?
DANIEL LEON-DAVIS: At least over a hundred times. Like my friends and I literally called each other and said, “Had I been in Orlando last night, chances are I would have been at Pulse.” Or, the night before. And so, it’s like, processing that —
AMY GOODMAN: It was Latin night.
DANIEL LEON-DAVIS: Yeah, and it was Latin night. And so I think there’s definitely — there’s a home that’s gone now. Right? Like Pulse wasn’t — a lot of people view gay clubs as just clubs, but the reality is, gay and trans people get pushed out of churches all the time, and oftentimes our safe havens become nightclubs. Right? It’s the place that you feel safe. It’s the place you feel like you can be yourself. And so, to have something like this happen at a nightclub, a gay nightclub, is just like — it hurts. Right? It’s home. It hurts. And this morning I woke up and, when the updated list of the victims’ names came out, literally had to call two of my friends to let them know that the people that they had been looking for had been murdered.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know people yourselves — do you know people yourself who died at the nightclub?
DANIEL LEON-DAVIS: I don’t know — there’s no one on the list that I’ve seen thus far that I know. I still have one friend I haven’t been able to get in contact with since yesterday.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re wearing a T-shirt, Daniel, that says “Bulletproof #BlackLivesMatter.”
DANIEL LEON-DAVIS: Yeah, it was very intentional this morning. I was rummaging through my closet trying to figure out what I was going to wear. And one of my dear friends, Damon Turner, created this T-shirt as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. And something that came to me was just thinking about the fact that so much of the work that I do and that we do as a movement is around intersectionality. Right? Like, this wasn’t just a gay club. This was a gay club with so many young people of color who really took it as home.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, it was also used as a place for political meetings and —
DANIEL LEON-DAVIS: Yes, yes. It was definitely — I mention it in my Fusion piece, but it was definitely — it was almost like a community center. Right? Like, there were weeks where I went to Pulse like three or four times. And it wasn’t all about dancing and drinking, right? It was about actually building community. And I think, for me, it was the first place I built community where I felt safe.
AMY GOODMAN: The owner, Barbara Poma, her brother died of AIDS?
DANIEL LEON-DAVIS: Mm-hmm, yeah. I think the story of how Pulse came together — something that’s been running through my mind is, do you — do you even open up another Pulse? Right? Do you — do you just let this be and let it go? And I think something that’s been running through my head is like all the experiences that have happened inside of that nightclub and everything that’s like the history that’s almost like been built there, right? Like Orlando is one of the gay-friendliest cities in the entire nation, but the reality is that it’s still the South.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a quote of Richard Kim, Richard Kim who wrotein The Nation, “That was my first lesson that gay bars are more than just licensed establishments where homosexuals pay to drink. Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression. They take sound and fabric and flesh from the ordinary world, and under cover of darkness and the influence of alcohol or drugs, transform it all into something that scrapes up against utopia.”
DANIEL LEON-DAVIS: Right. Like, it’s just something different, right? And what’s crazy to me is that it took something like this to happen for me to process that. As I was writing the piece yesterday, I just kept thinking, “Wow, this isn’t just a club. This isn’t just a club. This is literally people’s safe haven.”
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion and also talk about the role of weapons in the attack that took place. We don’t know everything that happened. We don’t know about this timeframe of three hours before the police moved in or who ultimately died by what bullets. This is all going to be unveiled, I assume, in the next few days. But what we do know is that at this point 50 people are dead, mainly young, overwhelmingly Latino, celebrating Latin night at the Pulse in Orlando, Florida. We want to thank Hannah Willard, who will stay with us, and Daniel Leon-Davis. We’ll also be joined by a state senator, and we’re going to be looking at what happened in another horrific massacre, this one in the gun-loving nation in Australia. It was several decades ago, but after this happened, almost overnight, it passed some of the most restrictive gun legislation in the world. Stay with us.