World News A mass shooting couldn’t happen in Virginia Beach … until it did

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Twelve stars and stripes flags were planted on the grass verge, one for each of the lives cut short. Floral tributes accumulated in their midst with the prosaic details of price tags: $6.99 for one bunch, $4.87 for another. Police officers and TV crews went about their work, the latter shaded by white canopies. In a nearby carpark, mourners joined hands as a pastor offered a prayer and a woman strummed a guitar.

This was Virginia Beach, a day after 12 people died when a man entered a city municipal building and started shooting. Police say 40-year-old DeWayne Craddock, who worked for the city as an engineer, was confronted by officers and killed. Eleven of the victims were city employees. The other was a contractor.

So Virginia Beach would be etched into a collective conscience that also bears names such as Virginia Tech, Newtown, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Parkland and Pittsburgh. A common narrative thread runs though them – a mass shooting was unthinkable here – but each has a distinct story and grieves in its own way.

Virginia Beach, the state’s biggest city with around 450,000 people, has the surface charm of the American dream. Residents praise its schools; tourists flock to its beaches; there is a strong military presence. The municipal centre where the attack happened is a collection of neat local government buildings in a bland but pretty setting of trimmed lawns, flower beds, trees and a gazebo. But it is also home to a Confederate statue that troubles some African American citizens.

On Saturday afternoon, Pastor Chris Mitchell of the Gateway City Church led a group in prayer, then broke down in tears as he said “the Lord is good” and embraced colleagues.

“This was impromptu,” explained the 38-year-old, wearing a grey T-shirt. “Last night we went to bed at one, woke up at four and just wept, asking God, what can we do? Just organically we felt we needed to be here. We were compelled.

“We said prayers for the families. I can’t imagine what they’re going through. A mother described it as the same sort of feeling she had on September 11 2001. That might sound like overkill to some but for us, it is that weighty.”

Chris Mitchell.

Pastor Chris Mitchell: ‘Last night we went to bed at one, woke up at four and just wept, asking God, what can we do? ‘ Photograph: David Smith

Mitchell was born in Ohio but has lived in Virginia Beach for 27 years. “I don’t think any person ever thinks it’s going to take place in their backyard, the place they think of as home. A friend of mine called and said this is unprecedented. There has never been anything remotely like this in any way. We are in equal parts shocked and devastated.”

Yet the city will recover, he insisted. “It’s a transient community because of the military presence but it’s a strong community. People are known for their hospitality and their warmth.”

The municipal centre sits adjacent to an upmarket shopping strip: Princess Anne Center for Dental Arts, Online Formals Dress Boutique, Acupuncture, Courthouse Veterninary Clinic, Salon Mosaic. And there is Gun Shop, where a handwritten note in the window read: “apologise for any inconvenience, we are closed until Tuesday.” Its phone went to voicemail. A message went unreturned.

Nearby, a gift shop called A Pen Lovers Paradise was open for business. Its owner, Pamela Huynh, recalled Friday’s events: “I was at my front door and saw people on my front lawn. I said, ‘Do you know what’s going on?’ A woman said, ‘There’s an active shooter in our building’ and pointed across the street. I came in, locked up and went home. I was scared to death. I didn’t know where he was. I thought, I’m not going to stay here by myself. I was terrified.”

A mass shooting was as unimaginable here as anywhere. Huynh, 58, said: “It’s normally quiet here. This is like the quietest part of Virginia Beach; on a Saturday there would be no cars in the parking lot. Virginia Beach is a fun-loving place and family oriented. It’s a place you come to get away from it all, enjoy yourself, relax and feel safe – normally. I think it will heal, but it will take some time.”

‘A combative environment’

The municipal centre contains something else: a statue of a soldier, erected in 1905. The plinth states, “Princess Anne County Confederate Heroes” – a tribute to the southern troops who fought to preserve slavery during the American civil war. It is a reminder of the state’s chequered history. In 2017, attempts to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee in Charlottesville triggered deadly in neo-Nazi violence. Virginia governor Ralph Northam, who has visited people injured in the shooting, defied calls to resign earlier this year after a photo of someone wearing blackface resurfaced from his page in a medical school yearbook from 1984.

A confederate statue near Municipal Building Two.

A confederate statue near Municipal Building Two. Photograph: David Smith

Jared Grooms, who is African American, lives two minutes from the municipal centre. While he does not allege that the gunman had a racial motivation, he believes the statue is telling.

“The Confederate influence and the lack of diversity are relevant,” he said. “It seems some equivalent to the culture of a combative environment.”

The city has backed Republicans for president for the past half-century. Grooms, a 22-year-old biology graduate, added: “Virginia Beach is racially segregated: there are two definitely ‘white’ schools and the remainder are known as the ‘diverse’ schools. We expect mass shootings in America, but I’m not surprised it happened in Virginia Beach.”

Earlier on Saturday, Pauline Jennett, an educator from Boston who is African American, was hauling her luggage after a long train and bus ride. She reflected: “Virginia Beach is idyllic and people are super-friendly; it’s touristy but not over the top touristy. But as an African American who’s been coming here for decades, it is the south. You will see Confederate flags being sold along with souvenirs. But on a day to day level nobody bothers you.”

Jennett had considered cancelling her annual trip here when she heard about the shooting. “It was quite startling,” she said. “I felt fear and anger. I called the hotel yesterday and said, ‘Should I still come?’ They said it’s fine. I never heard of anything like that in Virginia Beach. It felt a little piece of the world that wasn’t going to be touched by violence like that.”

‘Virginia Beach strong’

Hours after the carnage, Bobby Dyer, the mayor of the city, told the world: “This is the most devastating day in the history of Virginia Beach.” That was plain to see amid the solemn flags, flowers and police tape at the municipal centre. But less than 10 miles away on the coast, life carried on as if nothing had happened in a city where tourism is a $2.45bn industry, bringing more than 10 million overnight visitors a year.

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Shoppers idled in beachwear stores or ate pizza or ice cream on Atlantic Avenue. A ferris wheel turned in a fairground. Music blasted from loudspeakers. A “military village” was set up on the beach, including a naval hovercraft, as part of a “patriotic festival”. Men on motorbikes, engines rasping, performed flips and other stunts on the sand. Motorboats sped by in the water, planes trailing advertisements flew above. People strolled the boardwalk, sunbathed or splashed in the Atlantic ocean, as blissfully unaware of danger as in a Hollywood movie.


Council member Sabrina Wooten holds her hand out as she sings during a vigil.

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Council member Sabrina Wooten holds her hand out as she sings during a vigil. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

Among those on the pier were Robin Michals and her husband Marc, whose friend survived the massacre, telling them he had been within three feet of the gunman and later stepped over a dead body as police led him out. Marc, 55, who owns a marketing company, put the city seal with a black ribbon on his Facebook page. Robin, 52, said: “‘Virginia Beach strong’ is what everyone is saying.”

The couple moved here in 1990 and have no regrets. Robin said: “It’s a great place to live. The school system is phenomenal.”

Marc added: “It’s clean and well kept and safe. It’s hard to say that after yesterday.”

Indeed, for Robin the mass shooting was a brutal reminder that in America in 2019, the unimaginable can happen anywhere. A pre-school teacher, she said: “We have children aged two to six and, along with fire drills, have to do internal lockdowns and external lockdowns.

“It’s difficult for young children to comprehend. They get scared. We are a small school and I’m the one in charge of locking the door. It’s always there.”



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