Dallas Strength: A Newcomer Finds Community Amidst Crisis

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on July 12
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53rd Floor
Bank of America Plaza
Thursday July 7, 2016 
6:00 pm

Dallas, Texas

Our workday began winding down according to the usual routine. Each of us tends to make a personalized effort to tell one another to have a good night, often accompanied by a smile, and a congratulatory “good work today.” We are a team, and our daily parting has become a kind of unofficial ritual expression of our mutual support, appreciation, and collegiality. I work with good people. 

Dallas.jpg

8:30 pm

Depending on our work, we tend to trickle out of the office at varying times. I happened to be the last one to leave that evening. I closed the door of our office on the 53rd floor of the Bank of America building in downtown Dallas. I took the elevator down to the empty lobby, then went on through the long underground hallway to the parking garage where I caught another elevator back up to my car on the 7th floor. At this hour, the garage was almost empty. Or so it seemed. Everything about the process was routine—except for the fact that on this night I found my car right away, avoiding my usual absent-minded hide and seek. As usual, I pulled out of the garage and made my way out on Austin Street towards Main Street. 

8:40 pm

In Dallas, the daylight extends long into the evening. At the intersection of Austin and Main, near the entrance to El Centro College, I waited at the stoplight as a large crowd of pedestrians crossed the street with an energetic sense of purpose that I would later learn was a protest. I happened to make eye contact with a few of the passersby, and we exchanged polite smiles—the kind that you exchange when you when you happen to meet eyes with strangers, as if in mutual recognition of some universal sense of common etiquette grounded in the mere fact of your mutual humanity. In retrospect I can sense the significance of that moment yet nothing at the time foretold what would happen in the hour to follow.  

8:45 pm

I then made my way down Main St.—as usual—passing by the infamous Schoolbook Depository Building at Dealey Plaza, before turning onto Interstate 35 North. I am still new to Dallas, having just moved here from Los Angeles, and the site of the Book Depository still carries the slightly surreal aura of the monumental.

9:05 pm

Now on DNT—Dallas North Tollway—traffic suddenly and unexpectedly comes to a stop as emergency vehicles rush by. While traffic is not uncommon at any hour, it seemed unusual after 9:00. It was not after I got home that I realized that the serene end-of-day setting I left behind, a peaceful yet passionate protest had been brutally ambushed.

9:25 pm

Arriving home, the iconic green neon lights of the Bank of America Plaza—our office building—illuminates the backdrop of every frame of the newscast. The magnitude of the situation slowly draws into focus—like waking up in an unfamiliar place and having to piece together where you are. My colleagues, knowing I worked late, are calling me. I quickly realize that the parking garage I had just left is now central to the horror, with countless news images of police surrounding the structure.

12:15 AM
Turning off the television with the yet-uncaptured killer still at large, I prayed for the safety of those still in harm's way, and reflected on the sadness of the lives lost. I was thankful for having my family with me. I felt lucky amidst the sadness for our city and our city’s best.

FRIDAY, JULY 8TH

The next morning, The Bank of America Plaza and surrounding area would be restricted by authorities. Police reported receiving credible bomb threats. Early in the morning we decided work would go on and in the pursuit of normalcy the surrounding city’s outreach was overwhelming. Not far from downtown Dallas is the Hilton Anatole, a sprawling facility. With no place to collaborate yet much to do, our team descended on the lobby, hoping for some mercy. Willing to pay for adequate conference space, we didn’t expect the generosity we found in Hilton’s willingness to pitch-in with a conference room beyond our expectations. Doing their part to contribute, the Anatole’s benevolence meant so much. Opening their doors, Hilton provided us an opportunity to meet with our colleagues and maintain a critically important sense of normalcy—and, more importantly, a sense of community, a reassuring sense of the goodness that brings people together in troubling times.  

As we worked that morning, we shared stories. A colleague who lives downtown told us he had walked to our office building earlier that morning, in hopes he could retrieve some belongings from upstairs. As he approached the doors to the main entrance, he was met by a police officer who was offering free McDonald’s breakfast to fellow officers; yet he extended the offer to my colleague, a stranger and civilian simply walking by. “The officer was a big guy,” Michael said, “and there he was offering free breakfast, with tears in his eyes.” Michael’s description hit me hard: The image of a big, tough police officer, teary-eyed, holding a tray at the scene of a brutal tragedy, offering the gift of breakfast to strangers. I started holding back tears of my own. He had lost 5 of his colleagues. I was lucky to be meeting with mine.

My thoughts roamed in these newly grateful directions.

Everything seemed suddenly more significant. Even casual comments and gestures had new meaning. In moments of tragedy, we experience a new sense of relation to others—a broader sense of family.

On Friday, we took our lunch break at the Hilton, seating ourselves amidst an improvised assemblage of small tables and chairs. We returned to our discussions of the night before. A waiter joined our group, seamlessly entering our conversation with a kind of presumed familiarity that seemed oddly natural to the moment. There was a new sense of the common, the shared experience that precluded the need for introductions. When you share tragedy, strangers become familiar. The waiter began sharing the story of his father, a police officer who was present at the shootings. The young man spoke of his father’s survival with relief and pride. And pride in our Police has been a constant here in Dallas throughout the aftermath.

Stories took on that familial quality—accounts of unknown others felt like updates on old acquaintances. Another office-mate began speaking of a friend whose cousin was one of the five officers killed in the shootings: “Her cousin had been shot in the back, close to his chest… so his bulletproof vest did not work at all. He was sent to the hospital… however, he died before the ambulance arrived.” As a newcomer to Dallas I had almost thought I was shielded from such degrees of separation. I hadn’t been so insulated in the past.

In Los Angeles in 1992, during the uprisings in the wake of the Rodney King beating verdicts, I was a senior in high school. I remember, earlier that day, a fight breaking out at school—some adolescent scuffle completely unrelated and ignorant to the events about to emerge beyond the gates of our suburban campus. When I came home, as the news flashed images of the violence spreading across the city, I was surprised to find that the conflicts of the schoolyard no longer meant anything. Even my own routine resentments had evaporated along with everything else abstract and remote, and I was thrown into an intensely absorbing present. At that time, I recall an uncanny sense of immersion in the moment, coupled with an unusual sense of solidarity with others—all caused by the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive. We don’t even have language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological. 

In times of tragic cruelty, it’s tempting to see the world in the most pessimistic terms. The panic of disorder provides a shocking impression that the structure of our world rests on nothing more than the thinnest veneer of civility, and that, beneath it all, we are collectively comprised of isolated, selfish, even cruel individuals who must be governed through authoritarianism and fear. 

Yet tragedy also discloses another reality, confirmed by the people at the Hilton Anatole, the people at Regus office space in Preston Center who were equally generous to our company on Monday and by that officer offering free breakfast to strangers: We can actually matter to one another. We can actually work together with strangers of different backgrounds and races. We can actually play heroic roles and improvise effective solutions. We can actually experience membership in a beloved community. Tragedy can inspire revolutions in our sense of ourselves: In moments of powerlessness, we can also begin to experience our collective power.

Disasters are, most basically, terrible, tragic, grievous, and no matter what positive side effects and possibilities they produce, they are not to be desired. But by the same measure, those side-effects should not be ignored because they arise amid devastation. The desires and possibilities awakened are so powerful they shine even from wreckage.

What happened in Dallas is relevant elsewhere. And the point is not to welcome tragedy. It does not create these gifts. But it is nevertheless one avenue through which such gifts arrive. And as avenues to our greater selves, times like these are indeed opportunities. Disasters provide an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility, and what manifests there matters elsewhere, in ordinary times and in other extraordinary times.

We tend to think of cities in opposition to the concept of community. Most traditional communities have deeply entrenched commitments and connections between individuals, families, and groups. The very concept of community rests on the idea of networks of affinity and affection. Mobile and individualistic, city-life is, on the other hand, seen to break these old ties, only to vacillate about taking on others, especially those expressed through economic arrangements—including provisions for the aged and vulnerable, the mitigation of poverty and desperation—the keeping of one’s brothers and sisters.

The argument against such keeping is often framed as an argument about human nature: We are essentially selfish, and because you will not care for me, I cannot care for you. I will not feed you because I must hoard against starvation, since I too cannot count on others. Better yet, I will take your wealth and add it to mine—if I believe that my wellbeing is independent of yours or pitted against yours—and justify my conduct as nothing more than the natural order of things.

And yet this past week, I saw a city recuperate and extend ties of community in new ways. As I said, I am new to Dallas. Amidst terrifying uncertainty, Dallas did not withdraw into itself; rather, it seemed to spread itself outward, in conversations and smiles between strangers. Dallas offered a new view into another world for our other selves. When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness can bring new hope and joy even, amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss. Sometimes a city does this: It offers sense of new possibility, a new and unexpected sense of how we might be better.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

We are back in the office today, excited to get back to work. From here we can see across downtown, uptown, north of Plano and back into the wide Texas horizon. Just blocks away, we can see building, where President Obama and former-President George W. Bush are speaking at an interfaith memorial. "In this audience I see what's possible," Obama said. "I see what's possible when we recognize that we are one American family. All deserving of equal treatment. All deserving equal respect. All children of God. That's the America I know."

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