Published in the January/February/March 2019 edition of Southern California Life Magazine. Three ways to read this article: (1) Download PDF Borderline PDF Reduced (2) Read online at CloudUp or (3) read the text-only version below (recommended). NOTE: The published version has a revised first paragraph (for layout readability) that’s not quite as impactful, IMO. Therefore, I recommend reading the text-only version below for content, and view the published version for visual purposes.
Breaking Good: An Idyllic Southern California Community Rallies in Response to a Tragedy that Leaves 12 of Its Citizens—Most of Them College-Aged—Gone Too Soon.
On November 8, 2018, just after midnight, Thousand Oaks resident Rob McCoy awoke to the news of a shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill—an event that would soon be named the worst mass shooting in Ventura County’s history. On the same day, a massive wildfire broke out … forcing tens of thousands, including McCoy and his family, to evacuate their home.
For years, the city of Thousand Oaks has consistently remained one of the “top five safest cities in America”—prompting both retired FBI agent Steve Moore and Chief of Police Tim Hegel to remark, “If you’re not safe here, you’re not safe anywhere.” Ironically, Moore, a regular CNN contributor, is considered to be an expert on mass shootings. At the time of the Borderline shooting, he was less than a mile away.
This is life as our country has come to know it … where madmen unleash their rage on the innocent and Mother Nature exacts her indiscriminate and sizable force on a a massive scale. Statistics show that the Golden State has experienced its lion’s share of tragedy.
McCoy—now the mayor of Thousand Oaks—can offer no platitudes or easy answers to the grieving families of the Borderline shooting victims—two of whom were members of his 450-member church. He can only do what he’s done most of his adult life: help pick up the pieces of shattered lives after a devastating loss.
By all accounts, this iconic country western club is a different breed than most clubs. As Tim Hegel describes it, “The Borderline is not a bar. It’s not a restaurant. It’s not a pub. It’s not a dance hall. It’s not a meeting place. It’s literally a culture. It’s a micro-community that has been a part of many peoples’ lives—including the lives of many of these kids’ parents and their parents before them.” Historically, the club has also been—according to 26-year-old Thousand Oaks resident Brad Wisler, a close friend of one of the victims—“a safe place.” “It’s a place where parents might prefer you don’t go, but they’re glad you weren’t someplace else,” explains Wisler.
Your Presence is Required
In the early aftermath of the shooting, families gathered together at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, away from the media spotlight, for a single purpose: to wait the interminable wait that only a parent who has lost a child can understand. For up to eight long hours, parents sat frozen in time—navigating that surreal world of not knowing whether their child was a survivor … or a casualty.
As McCoy, who spent most of the day with six of the families, would later describe it: “They were hoping for the best but preparing for the worst; but really, how do you prepare for something like that?” On that fateful day and in the weeks that followed, McCoy was no longer a pastor or a politician, but simply a fellow human being—a parent whose only job, as he saw it, was just to be there … to offer hugs, tears and a comforting presence.
Outside the Fold
That’s what tragedy does: it brings people together—no matter their differences. Some of those people are far away, like the carpenter in Chicago who drove over 2,000 miles to deliver memorial crosses for each of the 12 victims.
There was no 13th cross. That would have been for the shooter—some might call him the “Judas” of the community—who, like his victims, had grown up in the area and even attended school in this close-knit, family-friendly city where people rarely lock their doors and believe the best of everyone. Until the evening of November 7, they had no reason to believe otherwise.
Hegel used a proverb to define the shooter’s mentality—a mindset he says is common to most mass shooters in America: “He who sets himself apart rages against all wise judgment.” This “set apart” mentality is in stark contrast to the strong community spirit of Thousand Oaks—a city that has rallied in a thousand different ways to support the victims’ families, while also reaching out to those impacted by the devastating Woolsey Fire.
It’s catastrophes like these—one following another—that define a community, testing its mettle and resolve. In the days and weeks that followed, the citizens of Thousand Oaks would show just how strong were they were as their seeming shroud of safety was torn apart.
“There’s a saying that ‘Outside threat equals group cohesiveness,’” says Steve Moore. “When you get into a situation where you have to depend on each other, you’re absolutely community.”
After the 12 memorial crosses were erected near the Borderline Club, mounds of flowers and other tributes began to appear. The items ranged from cowboy boots to teddy bears to handmade stars inscribed by schoolchildren from San Bernardino. To protect the memorial from the elements, volunteers erected a tent. Gifts and money for the victims’ family members poured in, including funds to pay for all of the memorial services and even free legal services. Mental health and grief counselors also donated their time. Then there was the endless parade of food, including free meals offered by local restaurants. As of this writing, the flow of gifts and help remains unabated.
The term “breaking bad,” besides being the name of a neo-western crime drama, is a Southern colloquialism meaning to “raise hell” or to lead a life of crime. That was the tragic choice made by the lone gunman who, unlike the stereotypical gunman in the Old West, didn’t ride into town hell-bent on killing strangers. He lived in the community. He was one of their own.
But what the shooter could not have imagined was the indomitable “breaking good” spirit of this small Southern California city that proved, even in the midst of unfathomable evil, that love really does win the day.
It’s the kind of love shown by freshly grieving parents who, upon learning that their child has been named as a victim, reach out to envelop other parents’ children in their arms. It’s also the kind of love shown by 21-year-old Noel Sparks, one of the victims, who was known by her peers for consistently reaching out to those on the fringes of society … the ignored, the disenfranchised and the hurting.
For her family and friends, the legacy of this young woman’s life will not only be forged into their hearts, but also help them build upon what this tragedy has already taught them—about the power of faith, community and simple kindness. No matter where we call home, this is the resolution we must all make: to not run and hide in the nooks and crannies of complacency, but rather to widen our nets of compassion, to be strong in faith and fearless in love … living our lives in such a way that far outshines “the evil that men do.” That is #ThousandOaksStrong.
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