On an early winter evening, more than 300 people gathered Saturday night at the Arizona Capitol to grieve for those killed and to pray for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others wounded when a gunman opened fire on an event the congresswoman held hours earlier in Tucson.
Former U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell, who served in Congress with Giffords for four years, began the vigil with a quote from legendary Congressman Mo Udall, saying those who are elected to positions of leadership have a moral obligation to exercise that leadership.
That, he said, was what Giffords was doing when a gunman opened fire during a meet-and-greet with constituents in front of a Tucson grocery store.
“What I would like you to do now, as we close this, is talk about Gabby and the people that were with her – all of those innocent victims, a 9-year-old girl coming to see a congressman. What a great part of democracy,” Mitchell said. “Talk to each other, talk about Gabby, and talk about those people who were there doing their jobs as a citizen of this community.”
Some who attended the vigil were elected officials from both sides of the aisle and others who work in the political sphere. Others, however, were simply people who came to the Capitol to express their grief and support for those killed and wounded.
Some wept quietly as rabbis, ministers and pastors recited prayers for the dead and the injured. Others sat stone-faced with their candles as the evening gave way to night.
Mourners set a small memorial with candles surrounding a photograph of U.S. District Judge John Roll, who was killed in the attack. A group of people stood wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with one word: love. Supporters banged drums, and a bagpiper led a procession of people to a small stage at the start of the vigil.
“We ask the God who blessed our ancestors, who blessed all those who came before us, to bless anyone who is ill – in this case, Congresswoman Giffords, all those who were injured,” said Rabbi Mari Chernow, of Temple Chai in Phoenix. “We pray that we are all able to get past this very difficult day and rise to better times.”
Phoenix resident Erin Trujillo said she wanted to put some “collective energy” into supporting Giffords and the others who were attacked.
“A lot of people are in their homes, looking at it and reading it and processing it, and I just wanted to put some of my own energy into that, as opposed to being in my house,” Trujillo said. “Regardless of who it was that this would’ve happened to, I think it’s something that’s unspeakable and not acceptable. So I wanted to put some energy behind this not being okay.”
Beth Phile, a Phoenix social worker, said she was angry at the “senseless violence at someone who was doing her job and doing it well.”
“I was horrified, absolutely horrified,” Phile said. “And angry, I guess.”
Some at the vigil were angry and blamed what they called the hate speech of the right for the attack, though the alleged gunman had no apparent ties to conservative politics and his political beliefs appeared to be far outside the political mainstream.
“He probably listened to Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh-types,” said Jeff Wright, 50, a Phoenix resident. “Apparently he bought into that.”
Others, however, focused on prayers for Giffords and the others wounded or killed in the attack. A protester stood behind the crowd with a sign reading, “I stand with all immigrants,” yelling about “the hate of the right wing,” during the vigil, though most of those in attendance paid little attention to him.
Trujillo, however, said the vigil wasn’t about anger.
“My reaction is a desire to rise above all that and just call for a higher plane, a higher plane of thinking, a higher plane of reacting,” she said. “This is not a time of division or casting blame for the tragedy. We gather tonight in the name of unity and civility.”