June 29, 2006
A Brutal Awakening
It is a hot August day, a steamy morning among the tree-lined streets in Granada Hills. I could be looking at the trees or the friendly rows of houses, but all I see is the parents.
About 100 or so men and women are being held back by the police line that has been set up around the perimeter of the North Valley Jewish Community Center. They swirl around up and down the block, where their children, now safely relocated to the church next door, are being held in benign captivity.
The faces of the parents are drawn; worry fills their eyes, spilling out in tears, mostly of frustration. "Why can't we see them?" asks one mother, a shaking hand running through streaked blond hair. "Why can't we just take them home?"
But the line is held. There is a madman on the loose. It will be hours before the police have arrested Buford Furrow, a white supremacist from Oregon. At the end of the day, one innocent man will be dead and a half-dozen equally blameless victims, mostly children, will be dealing with injuries from gunshot wounds.
Standing there under the blazing sun, covering the events of Aug. 10, 1999, for The Jewish Journal, felt like a dream. I was five months pregnant at the time, and perhaps it was the pitiful state of my blue maternity dress or that I was representing The Journal, but people were willing to talk to me. Strangers let me in to their worry, their grief. The only thing they knew for sure was that their children were OK.
The parents whose children had been wounded had already been whisked away by authorities. But many knew well the parents whose children were not OK, and others were desperately aware the danger was not over -- the children could not be released until the suspect was caught or, at least, the area secured.
Ironically, I might have been one of the parents with whom I was commiserating. When news of the sniper broke, I was in The Journal's Koreatown offices at a staff meeting. My then-husband called the paper to alert me to what he had heard -- that a man had entered a Jewish community center and started shooting -- and we had a moment of panic, because our 3-year-old son, Benjamin, was at a JCC camp. It took only a few minutes to establish that the JCC under attack was not the one at which Ben was enrolled, but my heart was still beating double time as I drove to the Granada Hills site.
That palpable fear made me even more sympathetic to the plight of the parents and angry at the response of the news media. I had seen some of what the national press was capable of during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. (I still can't get over watching Wolf Blitzer and others with the White House press corps eating from an enormous table of catered food, while the local press, many of whom had lost their homes in the quake, were kept behind a rope only inches away.)
But the television reporters arguing with the police to allow them to interview the terrified parents on camera before Furrow was even caught made the day more difficult for the people who needed the most support.
Finally, Furrow was found and the parents reunited with their children. They would later praise the counselors who helped keep the campers calm through the hourslong ordeal. By noon on Thursday, the JCC staff had managed to clean up the front office where the gunman had attempted to further his murderous spree, leaving only tiny bits of broken glass and bullet holes in walls and cabinets as reminders of the two staff workers and three children who had been shot -- and a testimony to the miracle that postal worker Joseph Ileto was the only fatality.
Something shifted that day. Until then, it never occurred to most people in the Los Angeles Jewish community that we were not safe in our own backyards. Over the next 72 hours, I worked to uncover the details of what had led to this tragedy.
It was shocking to realize the degree of complacency that predated the shootings. There was no security at most JCCs and little at most synagogues. The only JCC in the Valley with any protection was the West Valley campus, and that was in place only because The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance had its offices there.
The message the situation sent was a cold one: The powers-that-be found it more important to protect themselves than our children and our seniors who were, as they always are, the most vulnerable of all.
As the only journalist allowed inside to witness the condition of the North Valley Jewish Community Center before it reopened, I was in a unique position. I felt torn between my desire to protect the community -- not to "air our dirty laundry" -- and the impulse to get out the news that this shocking event could happen again if we did not act swiftly. The latter won out -- no contest -- but it was a painful place to be.
What made it worthwhile -- what has made all my years of working at The Jewish Journal worthwhile -- was the response of the community. After the shooting, there were meetings and rallies where people stepped up and said, "Let me help." People who ran security companies offered their services for free.
Other community members held fundraisers to aid the families of the victims. Parents, angry that their children had been put at risk, pushed for and got better protection at the remaining community center sites. Congregations around the Southland woke up to their vulnerability; the participation of so many people resulted in a surge of new blood and new leadership at many synagogues.
In sum, the shooting changed our culture. We would never again feel as carefree as before the madman walked into the JCC and opened fire. In some ways, the events of Aug. 10, 1999, began our preparation for what was to come two years later -- when not just our community, but our country, experienced a shattering of innocence.
On that hot August day, we knew there was only one response to madness: To stand and to fight.