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Sunday, May 16, 2021

‘This is America’: rebuilding community after tragedy

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Several vigils took place throughout Indianapolis over the weekend to honor the eight people killed in the FedEx mass shooting April 15. From Monument Circle to Beech Grove, prayers rang out — in both English and Punjabi — to offer peace to the families and friends of the victims, who ranged in age from 19 to 74.

It was the third mass shooting in Indianapolis since January.

At Beech Grove City Hall on April 18, a member of the Sikh community, who did not want to be named, asked the predominately white crowd to reach out to members of the Sikh community, to offer love despite language or cultural barriers.

“This is America,” he said after getting a laugh from the crowd describing his Catholic education in India. “We’re hurting right now, but we’ll come back stronger than ever. But please remember when you go home tonight, pray and hold your families tight. There are families now who can’t do that anymore.”

As the crowd stood in the cold rain, family friends of Samaria Blackwell, including Beech Grove Mayor Dennis Buckley, spoke. Blackwell, 19, was homeschooled in her hometown of Beech Grove and wanted to be a police officer. She had worked for FedEx for two months before her death.

“She was a kid who loved everybody,” Buckley said. “She was one of our bright young citizens who has been called home, and I’m never going to question why.”

In addition to the eight victims, participants also offered thoughts for the shooter, Brandon Hole, and his family. Hole, 19, legally purchased the weapons he used in the massacre despite previously being investigated by police.

At a vigil on Monument Circle earlier that day, a friend of victim Karli Smith, 19, expressed similar concern for Hole’s family.

“I’m usually pretty angry,” the young man told the crowd. “And I’m angry now, but my mom made me stop and think about how [Hole’s] mom must be feeling. She tried to get help for him. The system f—ing failed her, and now we’re all here grieving.”

Following the shooting, Hole’s house on the city’s east side had a “no trespassing” sign on the door, and no family members were available for comment.

An 82-year-old neighbor who lived in the area for over 40 years said he feels for Hole’s mother, but they kept to themselves. He said he received no warning that Hole was interviewed by the FBI last year.

“Maybe we’re not as nosey as we should be,” he said. “But these things happen, and you move on. My heart just goes out to the families of the victims and to [Hole’s] mom. A lot of people are hurting.”

While Hole’s family has declined interviews, they released a statement April 17.

“We are devastated at the loss of life caused as a result of Brandon’s actions; through the love of his family, we tried to get him the help he needed,” the statement read.

“Our sincerest and most heartfelt apologies go out to the victims of this senseless tragedy. We are so sorry for the pain and hurt being felt by their families and the entire Indianapolis community.”

Despite messages of hope shared throughout the multiple vigils, the pain was palpable.

The vigil at Monument Circle was organized by Taylor Hall, 20, and Tyshara Loynes, 21.

“We were planning to come out here to protest the death of Daunte Wright (who was killed by police in Minnesota on April 11),” Loynes said. “And then this happened, and we sort of switched gears.”

Hall knew Karli Smith. Smith was the basketball manager for Crispus Attucks High School, where they both attended.

“It’s one thing to watch mass shootings on the news,” Hall said. “But to see it happen to people you know, it’s real. It’s so hard when it’s someone you knew so vividly.”

Hall described Smith as being kind and “a part of our family” on the basketball team. Indianapolis Public Schools released a statement remembering Smith, who graduated last year.

“Indianapolis Public Schools is devastated to learn about the loss of Karli Smith by this latest round of gun violence. Karli was a longtime IPS student and graduate. … She graduated from George Washington, where she was known as a hardworking and dedicated student. While at Crispus Attucks, she played on the softball team and was loved by her teammates and coaches. … Administrators, teachers and classmates remember Karli for her sense of humor that often generated smiles and laughter. Karli was a bright light wherever she went. She will be dearly missed by all throughout IPS who knew and loved her.”

While no motive has been released, some in the community believe Sikhs were targeted. Four of the eight victims were Sikh.

“Black and brown communities have the same struggles,” Loynes said of the need for solidarity between communities of color. “We can’t stray away from that. We are all still killed for the color of our skin, for our religion, for our language. It’s crucial that we stand together.”

While remembering the eight Hoosiers lost was top of mind for everyone in attendance, it was difficult to ignore the calls for change regarding gun laws.

Speaking on the Circle, Rep. Andre Carson called for tighter gun control legislation, including closing loopholes that allow people to buy guns from private sellers without a federal background check.

Cathy Weinmann of gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action said thoughts and prayers are no longer working.

“We’re sending a letter to Gov. [Eric] Holcomb demanding that he take action,” Weinmann said at a prayer vigil April 17. “We also want our two senators [Sens. Mike Braun and Todd Young] to take a stand and fight back against the [National Rifle Association] NRA.”

Combined, the two senators have taken a total of $4,147,549 from the gun rights lobbying group, which advocates against tighter gun laws.

Maninder Singh Walia, a board member of the Sikh Association, said our leaders can no longer wait to take action on gun violence.

“Enough is enough,” Walia said at Monument Circle. “We’re sick and tired of coming together to mourn loss of life. If not now, when? Who else has to lose a grandmother, a sister, a family member?”

Walia wasn’t related to any of the victims, but said “we are all family,” and that’s why he’s fighting to prevent the next mass shooting. “We must come together with love and unity to prevent these things from impacting another community.”

In the three hours between the vigils at Monument Circle and Beech Grove, six more people — three in Texas and three in Minnesota — were killed in shootings.

As the Sikh speaker in Beech Grove finished his comments, he pleaded with the crowd to take action, quoting President Abraham Lincoln:

“If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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