I took an active-shooter class on a Saturday, and eight hours later, a gunman shot 20 people in Southern California, killing 11 of them. Barely 36 hours after that, another gunman shot eight people, killing seven, in Half Moon Bay.
The two-hour training was held at the Eagle Tavern, more or less the spiritual seat of Western SoMa’s Leather and LGBTQ+ Cultural District. The bar’s outdoor patio was open for business, with clusters of people enjoying an afternoon beer, while inside a few dozen of us were focused on how to keep one another alive in the event that an irate homophobe suddenly walked in and shot the place up.
Like most people, this is something I try never to think about when I’m hanging with my friends, because once the idea grabs hold of you it doesn’t let go.
That was, more or less, the point. In light of last fall’s shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs—and, before that, the Pulse massacre in Orlando in 2016—the Bay Area’s LGBTQ+ community has been discussing its collective safety amid a growing sense that it’s just a matter of time before something terrible happens here.
There’s big Weimar energy in America right now, with queer and trans bodies among the primary targets. If you’ve seen Cabaret or heard of Florida, you know that the freewheeling hedonism of LGBTQ+ spaces sets Nazis and white supremacists off like almost nothing else can.
A grim sense that, sooner or later, San Francisco will experience a horrific mass-casualty event is why most people took the class. Taught by Ken Craig and Greg Carey of Castro Community on Patrol, an LGBTQ-oriented nonprofit that has partnered with the San Francisco Police Department to maintain public safety for more than a decade, it was very much nightlife-oriented. A number of attendees were bartenders and bouncers.
Much of the class centered on practical advice, punctuated by the dispelling of myths.
“Active shooters aren’t always the events you see in the news, which concentrates on events that are spectacular, with AR-15 weapons,” said Craig, a trained martial artist and graduate of the FBI Citizens Academy. “That’s the tip of the iceberg. People with a handgun or even a knife can do a lot of damage, even if it’s not a mass-casualty event.”
In other words, the class was basically a version of “How to keep a drunk patron from stabbing someone who danced with their significant other at 1:50 a.m., and how to avoid a civil liability lawsuit afterward,” modified to encompass the more contemporary danger of a militant incel who thinks all LGBTQ+ are Satan-worshiping pedophiles.
We watched a short film, with a much higher production value than any cautionary videos you saw in driver’s ed, that depicts staff at a bar responding to an active shooter. Something about it felt lighty infantilizing, while underscoring the grave responsibility that bars and clubs have to protect human life.
“In the U.S., grade-school kids know what to do in an active-shooter situation,” Craig said. “Most adults do not.”
We learned a number of useful things. Active shooters act alone and rely on shock to succeed, while terrorists tend to work methodically and in groups. It’s rare for employees to suddenly snap; usually, the pressure builds and builds, and warning signs pile up.
Incidents typically last two to five minutes. It’s best to run. If you hide, barricade doors with heavy furniture, because most ammo can penetrate drywall. If someone manages to disarm the shooter—who will almost always be male—they should never pick up the weapon, or the cops will assume they’re the assailant. Also the muzzle will be white-hot. And if you find yourself fighting for your life, don’t fight fair.
The psychological toll of all this is especially hard on people in the nightlife industry, who face the possibility of workplace shootings and nightlife terror all at once. Such a state of constant dread, we were told, is undesirable.
“Don’t get paranoid,” Craig said. “Get trained.”
San Francisco has seen a mass shooting in its recent history. It’s not especially present in our collective consciousness, but on June 14, 2017, Jimmy Lam shot and killed three coworkers with a semi-automatic weapon at the UPS facility on San Bruno Avenue in Potrero Hill before turning the gun on himself.
Although the body count—one fatality—was lower, the more pertinent case would be a 2006 episode at 1015 Folsom, a SoMa club with a mixed crowd. That venue, Craig and Carey agreed, has done an admirable job with security ever since, screening for contraband at a separate checkpoint from where staff checks ID.
Part of our normalization to these events is to normalize preparedness, in the form of low-grade paranoia. Whenever you enter a space, particularly a crowded indoor space with black-painted walls and club lighting, make a note of the exits. Go to the shooting range in Alameda and learn to distinguish gunshots from fireworks and other explosive noises. If you manage a bar, call the Department of Homeland Security to perform a free safety assessment. If you’re hosting a drag event at a public library, give the police a heads up.
Staff should have first-aid training and develop instincts for observing crowds without stereotyping or profiling individual patrons. How to do this the right way was never explained, and neither the film nor the two white male presenters paid much heed to racial disparities. After seeing what happened to Oscar Grant, Alejandro Nieto, Tyre Nichols and many others, it’s difficult for many Americans, straight or queer, to trust law enforcement. Throw in the LGBTQ+ community’s long and violent history of police brutality and raids, and a potentially violent situation is primed to be even more chaotic.
That kind of uncertainty is the seed of preparedness, but it can also balloon to existential proportions and lead to fatalism—or, worse, mindless security theater, like removing your shoes at the airport. Is the famously LGBTQ-friendly Bay Area, like the faults it sits atop, overdue for a deadly attack? I spoke with a few nightlife professionals on background who confirmed my sense of edginess. Their concern for the safety of the community was matched only by their desire to stay off the record.
Haters are proliferating on Twitter. Metal detectors at San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ clubs have grown more common since Club Q. The late-night mugging and severe beating of a gay man in SoMa last weekend could have been random, or it could have been a hate crime. Anxiety makes it harder to discern which dots to connect.
Perhaps more ominously, the seminar mentioned a holiday drag event held outdoors in the Castro in December that attracted the notice of a group of self-described Christian protesters. They menaced its perimeter and yelled through a megaphone but otherwise left the crowd unharmed, although the discipline they showed struck both Carey and Craig as unnervingly tight.
We know that San Francisco is a juicy target for members of some far-right groups looking to make a stand. But instead of a queer-friendly panopticon, perhaps the best-case scenario lies in people acquiring the skills to help one another in a crisis. We can see this already with the availability of Narcan. If people with hate in their hearts choose to enter spaces that are filled with joy—whether to inflict injury and death, sow panic or merely own the libs—then a communitarian response could be just the latest chapter in a decadeslong fight for liberation.
Astrid Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org