GARLAND, Texas — Breitbart Texas had three reporters on scene at the Curtis Culwell Center for the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest and, at the time of the shooting, was interviewing Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.
Prior to the shooting outside the facility, there was no reason to fear that anything bad was going to happen. No protestors. Yet, Garland Police Public Information Officer Joe Harn told Breitbart Texas that law enforcement was monitoring social media. They were prepared. Did not say how. Just, in case.
Breitbart Texas reporters were in the event banquet room. Bob Price had just started filming an interview with Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer when Geller’s security detail brusquely stopped the interview. A police officer said, “We’ve got to go.” They meant now. Within moments, SWAT team and Garland police announced the facility was on lockdown. Everyone would be moved to a more secure location shortly.
Immediately, the chatter began. German News Outlet, Ruptly, came to cover Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who had left after he spoke. Ruptly’s cameraman played their raw footage of SWAT sending them back into the building at the time of the incident. A little freaky to see all those SWAT team guys in action.
One attendee, John Roby drove in from Oklahoma City with his wife for the event. He told Breitbart Texas he was an ear witness. They left just before 7 pm, even though the event, which started late, was not over. He said he heard shots fired as they exited the Culwell Center towards the parking lot. He described it as a “semi-automatic weapon firing off around 20 rounds followed by pistol shots.” He thought the pistols might be police. He said he heard officers say twice, “We got the car.”
Roby believed that the gunmen shot towards the main entrance of Culwell Center on Naaman Forest Boulevard. He recounted that he and his wife were told to get down and get back inside the Culwell Center.
Sometime after 7pm
Media and attendees were shuffled off by SWAT escort to the center’s auditorium, a “hardened shelter,” as it was referred to by SWAT officers, where they said people would remain inside until the threat was neutralized. That is where Garland Independent School District (ISD) holds its annual high school graduations. Some preliminary decorations for the class of 2015 already adorned a stage. People who paid $250 for VIP tickets held their event posters and goodie bags as they entered.
Maybe six SWAT officers stood in the hallway between the open entryway to the auditorium. Armed. Officers insisted that people sit down and stay in the auditorium. Everyone’s safety was their top priority. There was plenty of bleacher seating and officers asked that everyone sit down. Once inside, law enforcement advised that two suspects were down. From this moment on, it became an evening of uncertainty.
Breitbart Texas was only one of several news outlets in the auditorium with a lot of dead cell phone batteries. No chargers. One of the Breitbart Texas reporters had one. We juiced up to 27 percent. Then, we shared.
Katrina Pierson, co-founder of the Garland Tea Party, and Ken Emanuelson, affiliated with the Dallas Liberty Center, were also in the auditorium. Pierson told Breitbart Texas, “I am proud of our officers and how they are handing this.” They acted swiftly.
All was calm. Most people were still in good spirits. Some. A few were cranky. A woman suddenly stood up in her seat and held up a full sized American flag. People burst out into singing God Bless America followed by the Star Spangled Banner, chants of USA-USA and loud applause, which Breitbart Texas reported.
Then, came a moment of prayer as the news reached everyone in the auditorium that an officer was down during the during the incident but the extent of his injuries was unknown. More chatter. Concern from people about free speech. More hurry up and wait. The frustration of the situation was slowly felt.
A Garland police officer came in and asked those who heard or saw anything to come over and speak with him. About a dozen people’s hands went up and they went to speak with him. One was Roby, who spoke to Breitbart Texas.
8pm and after, approximately
Officers entered the auditorium and announced a change of plans. Buses were coming to move everyone off site, for safety’s sake. The destination was a nearby high school. Shortly before dusk, everyone was loaded up onto several yellow school buses. The ride seemed long for a nearby campus. The SWAT officer on the bus that spoke to people twice about not disclosing over social media that they were on a bus. This was all about safety. Several buses were on the move from the Culwell Center however, they did not go to the high school. They went to the Garland Fire Administration Building on State Highway 66.
Now, it was dark. An officer came in and asked if anyone was on medication, if anyone was experiencing anxiety or if anyone was having difficulty breathing. No one stepped forward, although the officer offered up a few deep breathing relaxation techniques, in case.
Another officer came in and firmly admonished people – “No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram.” He was clear. “Our job is to protect you guys.” He was adamant that they could not keep the venue secure if people were blasting their whereabouts online. On the otherhand, officers encouraged people to call family and loved ones so they did not worry. They just asked that the information did not make its way onto social media – for safety’s sake.
Shortly after, a Garland City fireman added some levity to the evening. “We weren’t ready to have 150 people show up. This hit all of you as it did us,” he commented lightly and asked if people were thirsty and hungry or they needed to use the restroom. He mentioned they were working on getting water brought in.
A police officer from nearby City of Irving spoke to the crowd, advising that they were working in tandem with Garland PD. The FBI and ATF was also involved, they divulged. It was becoming a really long night.
Another Garland PD officer officer joined him and said a second conference style room just like the one held the others who were removed from the Culwell Center.
Breitbart Texas spoke to some of the people in the waiting with us to get a feel of how they were holding up. Many mulled around and chatted to pass the time.
Jan Gentry of Dallas, who came to support free speech at the Geller event, said, “I am grateful for all these police.” She was also perturbed by the disconcerting reality of the evening. She asked, “What is Islam so afraid of? We shouldn’t have to go through this in America.”
It was leaking out that local news media was spinning it as an “anti-Islamic” event, which became the topic of chatter. Then, a gentleman announced that CNN reported this as a “free speech” event. Many were delightfully surprised to learn this. Most came to support the First Amendment, others because they were fans of Geller or Wilders.
Closer to 10 pm, officers shared that there was a possible IED involved in the situation and the reason everyone was brought to the Fire Department admin building was because the high school was part of the “active crime scene.” They had no idea when it would be considered safe for everyone to go back to the Culwell Center to retrieve their vehicles, which would have to be checked out for any possible planted explosive devices.
Another officer sternly cautioned again about tweeting, expressing that they cannot “control tweets” and if people “start tweeting out to North America” they cannot keep people safe.
Somewhere 10 pm and after
Officers brought in waters; then, other beverages. There was talk of bringing in food. It might be an even longer night now that FBI was involved in clearing everyone out of the building. Exit interviews. Affidavits.
Breitbart Texas spoke to Dorrie O’Brien, who assisted Geller in the event logistics. She was determined to remain upbeat and was glad that officers and security took into account that something like this could happen.
Dallas realtor Diane Benjamin told Breitbart Texas that she came to the event and rescheduled showing showing a home to clients so she could attend. Those clients were French Jews. She underscored the dire situation of how Jews are fleeing France because of concerns over Islamic extremism. Benjamin was silenced by the profound irony of similar happening in neighboring Garland.
Most people kept their cool and were appreciative of law enforcement efforts. One school teacher was antsy about getting home and to work on Monday. Officers were patient, reinforcing that everyone’s safety was paramount.
Around this time, other beverages and soft drinks were brought in. Serious talk from Garland PD officials kicked up about being released from the Fire Department admin building. Get out your driver’s license. Fill out the affidavit. Explain if you saw or heard anything. Or not.
No one knew how long a night it would become and now more voiced concerns about having to work in the morning or not being able to get to their cars. Officers still could not say for sure that folks could get to their cars tonight. They offered up assistance in helping people book hotel rooms for the night. Many became more aggravated that at a free speech event, they had to even stop to fear for our lives. If for only a moment.
11pm and on
A lot of stop and start but finally Breitbart Texas reporters were released after giving verbal statements and filling out those affidavits. We had transportation to head back to the Culwell Center to get our reporters to their vehicle.
Not so fast. News cameras lined Naaman Forest Blvd. leading up an impenetrable police blockade of vehicles. A dark haired woman in a white sedan drove down an intersecting side street as Breitbart Texas awaited clearance from officers. Perhaps, she was unaware of what had happened at the Curtis Culwell Center. She began to argue with officers who made it quite clear she was turning around. It took a few stern shouts from the policemen but she made a U-turn and drove away.
Breitbart Texas arrived in time for Harns’ late night press conference. Finally, the clearance came. It, too, was considered part of the “blast zone” and reporters were walked to vehicles by Garland PD.
In driving from the area, it became apparent how large a perimeter had been sealed off. Main roads like Naaman Forest and Garland boulevards but also several exits before and after the President George Bush Tollway (PGBT). Anyone who was not already in, was not getting in. All well manned by law enforcement. All clearly pre-planned, in case.
When all was said and done, the ordeal brought to mind something Geert Wilders said onstage at the event – the West had something Radical Islam did not — humor. There was nothing funny about what happened in Garland on Sunday night. However, cartoons are supposed to be funny and they are often great ice breakers to chuckle about societal ills and other taboo or controversial issues. The shooting in Garland clearly felt to many like an attack on the First Amendment. Humor and social commentary fall under that category.
Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.