By: Claire Salinas
It has happened again—this time close to home. In Lafayette, the heart of Cajun country and hospitality, John Russell Houser, 59, opened fire on a movie theater auditorium, killing two and injuring nine before taking his own life when face with local police.
Though mass shootings have become a part of the American norm—the attack in Lafayette was the 206th of the 207 mass shootings in the U.S. so far in 2015—many mourners in Lafayette said they thought things like this happen only in bigger, more dangerous cities. But the shock was not enough to keep them from rallying together, both within their community and across city lines to Baton Rouge.
The Response in BR
For many, one of the most disturbing details to emerge from the case has been shooter John Russell Houser’s background. A drifter from Alabama, Houser left no hints as to why he chose Lafayette for his killing spree. A chill seemed to sweep through the capital city at the discovery—it could have been us just as easily as our neighbors an hour down the road.
The concerns, and fears of copycat shooters, were met with increased police patrols at malls, theaters, and other crowded places over the weekend. On Friday, Police Chief Carl Dabadie said the increased patrols would be at “all locations where large crowds gather.”
According to Baton Rouge police spokesman Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, the increased patrols will be temporary, and after Tuesday they will be reassessed to decide whether there is still a need for them.
But is Baton Rouge equipped to handle a situation like that if it arises? Or to prevent it before it happens? Baton Rouge Constable Reginald Brown, Sr. told WBRZ he hopes this tragedy will increase awareness in the city.
“I’m just not going to let someone stop me from going to the movies or going to the shopping center. It’s unnecessary for me to stop, but it is necessary for me to become more cautious and careful,” Brown said in an interview with WBRZ.
In the midst of panic and uncertainly, many turned to Baton Rouge—the home of lawmakers and leaders and the state’s central hub—for comfort and hope. Congressmen like Sen. Bill Cassidy were quick to issue statements offering support.
“Lafayette is a close community. I cannot describe the sadness Laura and I feel today for the victims, their families and the entire community,” Cassidy said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with them. In a moment of fear and tragedy, Louisianans put their own safety at risk to help their fellow citizens. First responders acted quickly and bravely and saved lives. The heroism in Lafayette will always be remembered.”
After visiting several victims at Lafayette General Medical Center, Gov. Bobby Jindal told the story of two teachers who showed great bravery during the shooting. One of them, Ali Martin, was shot in the leg but was mindful enough to pull the fire alarm in the theater to alert everyone to the emergency. Martin is an English teacher at Jeanerette Senior High School and previously taught at Catholic High in New Iberia.
Several of her former students were shocked to hear the news of the shooting.
Sara Gibson, 23, of New Iberia, works as a teaching assistant in psychology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and is a former student of Martin’s.
“I was shocked to hear Ms. [Martin] was hurt,” said Gibson. “My friend from school called and told me. I was very upset to hear about the shooting.”
Gibson is not surprised Martin remained calm during the attack, or that she attempted to impede the shooter.
“I think Ms. [Martin] was prepared to deal with that kind of terrible situation because of the awful school shootings we have had in recent years. Teaching is hard enough, but she went the extra mile with her teaching, so it’s no surprise she was prepared for what happened.”
The two victims killed on site were Mayci Breaux, 21, and Jillian Johnson, 33. Johnson was an involved community member and influential artist whose death was met with shock and sadness by her friends.
Megan Arceneaux, owner of Hub City Cycles in Lafayette and one of Johnson’s neighbors, responded to her grief by organizing a vigil on Saturday night at Parc San Souci in Johnson’s honor.
“It started off with a phone call after we found out Jillian had passed, and we were just like, ‘We need to get the community together,’” Arceneaux said. “Then we got the idea about the prayer flags. Jillian had the Louisiana and Acadian prayer flags, so it seemed like a really cool idea to memorialize her through a flag.”
The community responded with donations of fabric and sewing machines to the Acadiana Center for the Arts, where several people stayed up all night making the flags.
The vigil was informal, loving, and personal, and members of the community mourning both Johnson and Breaux were invited to pay tribute.
“It was really heart warming,” said Arceneaux. “It was a really organic process, and that’s what Jillian would’ve wanted; she was such a grassroots organizer. She was a creative person, it just kind of flowed out of her, so for us to get together and do this, it was continuing something she started.”
A heartbroken community picks up the pieces
A vigil and prayer service for both victims was held at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday at St. John the Evangelist church in Lafayette. Candles were lit both before and after service in memory of the victims, passages of scripture were read, prayers said and words of admonition were spoken to the community by the various priests to keep fear from overcoming the community.
Tiffany Capps, parishioner of St. John the Evangelist, resident of Lafayette and Licensed Professional Counselor also took the stage to offer her advice to the community.
“If we live in fear darkness wins,” she said. “We can overcome fear with faith and family. We cannot ignore what happened though so I encourage families to have a plan for tragedies. I don’t think we should close ourselves up and stay home now, I think that’s what these people want us to do.”
Capps believes part of the solution is tied up in doing a better job of promoting mental health.
“We have to promote mental health in this area,” said Capps. “We need better mental health programs in schools and more prevention while children are young o get the healing we need, so they don’t grow up and do things like this. The biggest takeaway though, is we can prevent these kinds of things from happening by being the face of Christ to others. By reaching out to those who are broken and showing them they’re not alone.”
Since the tragedy, there have been numerous signs of support, form vigils, to free hugs at the local farmers market to plans for the victims’ funerals. The city of Lafayette is uniting in the wake of an event that has the potential to create much division. Gibson believes the response of the community is reflective of how Lafayette will recover.
“I have attended UL for over five years and I’ve lived in the Lafayette area my whole life. I was horrified when I heard the news. I had just went see a movie at 3:15 the same day. If my plans had changed a little, I may have been there when it happened. I think that is what most of our community is feeling right now, the awful thought of, ‘It could have been me.’ It wasn’t us though. Unfortunately, it was two beautiful women and other innocent people from our area. We are such a proud and happy community, so this hit everyone very hard, but we will bounce back. We are strong. We always have been and always will be.”