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'You Can't Stop Hope With A Bullet': Tucson's Future

Five-year-old Rachel Crabb (center) holds hands with  teachers, parents and other students during a moment of silence for her slain  schoolmate, Christina Green, at Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., earlier this week.
John Moore
Getty Images
Five-year-old Rachel Crabb (center) holds hands with teachers, parents and other students during a moment of silence for her slain schoolmate, Christina Green, at Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., earlier this week.

Gloria Mendoza's emotions are raw and close to the surface. She doesn't know any of the victims of Saturday's "senseless" shootings personally, but as a lifelong Tucson resident, she feels a greater sense of loss than she has following tragedies that have occurred in other places.

"That's what hits home, that it could have been any of us who live here, who work here, who shop for groceries here," she says. "Outside a Safeway -- what could be more innocent than that?"

As national attention starts inevitably to shift away from the killings, the people of Tucson will be left to cope with the aftermath. They have taken this tragedy personally, both because of the randomness of deaths that could have happened to anyone -- despite the fact that police say the shooter apparently targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for assassination -- and because of the nature of the city itself.

Tucson feels more settled than most college towns. In recent days, it has been almost like a Facebook page come to life, with everyone seeming to know someone who knows one of the victims.

"This is a close-knit community, and I think everyone has either direct contact or one or two degrees of separation from the people who were shot," says Neal Cash, president of Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, which is providing free mental health services to Tucson residents.

Cash's own daughter has worked as a congressional intern for Giffords. "People will struggle with how you put this in context," he says. "This is not something you get over in a short amount of time."

It Gets Harder As You Go

Cash warns that people may find it more difficult to cope in days to come. After the outpouring of public emotion -- after the candlelight vigils and the memorial Wednesday that drew President Obama and other federal officials to Tucson -- people may come to feel more isolated with their safety concerns and sorrow.

There has been unity in the grieving process so far, but people are going to need more individual help, through churches and schools and mental health services.

"Once all the funerals have passed over the next few days, there's not going to be as much common support," says Suzanne Rabideau, the CEO of Crisis Response Network, which has set up a hotline for people to call, either to be reassured over the phone that their worries are normal, or to be referred for treatment if their problems are more serious.

"We're going to need, as a community, to provide support that people don't realize that they're going to need three weeks from now, or two months from now," Rabideau says.

Empathizing With Loss

Pedestrians were held at the corner of 6th and Campbell on Wednesday, waiting for Obama's motorcade to pass as the president made his way to visit Giffords and other victims at the University Medical Center.

Watching his 2-year-old son take delight in the parade of police motorcycles and the helicopter circling nearby, Matt Williams said he was struck by the death of Christina Green, the 9-year-old girl who was slain. "I could certainly picture myself -- I could feel that hit in my soul for those parents," he said.

Many people in Tucson seem to have a connection, if only secondhand, with those killed or wounded: a father who knew John Roll, the slain federal judge, from practicing law as a public defender; a friend who is the godmother to Giffords' nephew.

Williams, a craftsman who builds "eco-friendly furniture," is active in neighborhood politics and said he has had dealings with Gabe Zimmerman, the Giffords aide who was killed Saturday.

"I have a friend who was at a dinner party a few weeks ago," he said. "Gabe was there, talking about how he planned to marry his girlfriend."

Tucson 's Separate Worlds

Some residents say the constant invocations about how a vast city of more than 1 million people can have a small-town atmosphere mask Tucson's deeper divisions -- that the city feels like a small town because it's a series of small towns due to racial segregation.

The gated communities in the mountains and the barrios in the city's south side are worlds apart. Many Anglos and Latinos alike express relief that the shooter did not have a Hispanic last name. That would have been the spark setting off racial tensions that have dogged the city, they say.

"There's been a lot of strife here about the politics of immigration," says Ron Horn, who retired to Tucson from Seattle eight years ago.

But Horn, among many others, expresses hope that the "awesome response" to the shootings will bring Tucson together and help members of its various communities set aside their differences.

"When a member of your family gets attacked, you respond," says Steve Farley, a longtime friend of Giffords. "We didn't respond by wanting to attack back.

"You can't stop hope with a bullet," he says.

A Long But Promising Recovery

The fact that Giffords' recovery will be slow may actually help Tucson to hold onto its current shared feelings of goodwill and desire for mutual support, suggests Eunice Brooks, a retired teacher who attended Wednesday's memorial event.

The crowds there of more than 26,000 people, an amalgam of races and age groups and social strata, applauded with great joy when Obama announced that Giffords had just opened both of her eyes for the first time.

People in Tucson will want to cheer her every step of the way, even as they are continually reminded of the trauma that has struck their city. "Gabby's recovery, and the community's recovery, is going to go on for a long time," says Farley, who serves in the Arizona House.

Brooks says that at times in the recent past, she has despaired of Arizona's racial politics. Now, she says she believes the changed tone has a chance to endure. "Know that we'll be all right," she says. "Gabby will be good, too."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.