Comment: The messages held in shooting-site memorials

In Colorado Springs, the rainbow flags are an exuberant rebuke and a reminder of stubborn optimism.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

In the midst of all the sadness and anger following the mass shooting in Colorado Springs, one of the most striking aspects of the makeshift memorials and the quickly organized vigils is the kaleidoscope of color.

The five deaths inside Club Q, a magnet for the local LGBTQ community, have been marked with pride flags, transgender flags, pansexual ones, the progressive pride flag, multicolored hearts, clusters of bright balloons and mourners whose very hair, clothing, makeup and shoes are an urgent rush of color. Despite all the pain and the tears, there are rainbows.

In this country where citizens confront massive outbursts of gun violence with horrifying regularity, these public memorials have become all too familiar exercises in catharsis. They might be reflexive responses, but they remain deeply moving spectacles. People pile bouquets of flowers high near the site of the crime. They leave handwritten notes of condolence for victims most of them have never met, in which they nonetheless vow not to forget the lives lost and command the deceased to rest in peace and in power.

Each tragedy brings its own particularly searing visual heartbreak. The younger the victims, the more likely there are to be mementos of childhoods cut short: toys, stuffed animals, gaptoothed school portraits. After the killing at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017, the victims were honored with crosses. After the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg in 2018, the dead were counted with stars of David. And earlier this month, at the University of Virginia, because the three students killed also played football, memorials were personalized with game helmets, footballs and references to their jersey numbers.

In Colorado Springs, color is a potent symbol. It stands in for gender, sexuality, identity, expression. It’s a way of clarifying our understanding of who has been lost, not individually but collectively. It tells us which segment of our human community has been desecrated. It doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, but it’s something. The transgender flag, with its stripes of baby blue, pale pink and white, serves as a point of correction in how gender has been defined, understood and stereotyped. The addition of black and brown stripes to the familiar rainbow flag is a confession of a long-standing omission of people of color from the central conversation; it acknowledges diversity within the LGBTQ tribe.

The flags are tools of education for the uninitiated; they’re cudgels for progress and change; they’re signposts of welcome and reassurance. The panoply of color enlivens mass culture; it’s a pronouncement of political solidarity and political might. It’s a commentary on the complexity and nuance inherent in every individual. The flags are statements about who exists in this world and their right to do so loudly and vividly. The colors call out to marginalized people letting them know that just because they’re in the minority or live in the shadows, that doesn’t mean they’re alone.

Looking at the images of people hugging and crying and standing in the cold air at the site of so much trauma, it’s akin to standing alongside a river of emotion as it overflows its banks. Individuals show up as a statement of solidarity. Each time someone arrives, they add another layer of color, another detail to the mosaic. It’s a way of sharing the pain and the horror, as well as committing to stand supportively along the path toward healing.

In Colorado Springs, people have planted colorful hearts in the ground that declare, “Hate has no home here.” And that’s a wonderful sentiment, a candy-coated notion. But the truth is that hate has been planted in all corners of the country; elementary schools, big-box stores, movie theaters, houses of worship. The work is in dislodging the roots.

People raise flags and they turn themselves into walking rainbow flags with multihued dresses and bandannas and jackets as a way of claiming ownership over a place. Club Q was a place of familiarity and joy for many of those who count themselves part of the LGBTQ community. But those proud colors are also a declaration of ownership that extends beyond a nightclub in the American West. They reach beyond the state, beyond the country. These colors don’t run. They didn’t before the shooting and won’t after it.

Despite the palpable pain, it’s hard to look at those bright shades of red, yellow and purple and not see some semblance of hope, a bit of rueful optimism. The colorful flags on display aren’t markers of battlefield wounds. They aren’t unabashedly grim even though they stand for a community that has had to fend off fears, lies and demagoguery aimed at preventing them from living full lives. The flags are an exuberant rebuke. A reminder that this community has fought back for generations with political will, economic might and stubborn optimism. There will be joy. There will be.

All those combinations of colors signify different segments of the LGBTQ community. They sort people under different banners, put them under various headings. That’s not such a terrible thing. Everyone needs to be seen, to be connected. Everyone wants to find their kin.

But the beauty of all those colors is that they can be combined in countless ways to tell a small piece of everyone’s story. In the aftermath of this tragedy, that’s the glimmer of hope amid the mounds of wilting flowers and melting candles and wrung out emotions. The whole of the human community is represented in those rainbows. They arch toward solidarity. But only if one looks closely.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press. Follow her on Twitter @RobinGivhan.

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