‘We don’t live in a safe world’: Boulder in shock and disbelief over shooting

The Colorado city is considered by many to be a safe oasis – but some residents say there’s a darker side that often isn’t spoken of

Following the shooting in a Boulder, Colorado, grocery store on Monday, leaving 10 dead including a police officer, the community of this liberal mountain town are in a state of shock and disbelief, experiencing the all-too-common identity crisis experienced by so many American cities in the wake of a mass shooting.

“I’ve called this community home for most of my life, and I’ve shopped at that King Soopers many times,” Colorado’s governor, Jared Polis, said on Tuesday morning during a press conference.

“Boulder is a small community, and we’re all looking at the list wondering if we know people. These were folks who started their day with a morning paper, cup of coffee, perhaps getting their kids ready, maybe making last-minute spring break plans, none of them expected that this would be their last day here, on the planet. A simple run for milk and eggs led to a complete tragedy.”

Both nationally and in Colorado, Boulder has a reputation for being a progressive utopia, characterized by hippie communes of the 1970s and 80s, the Allen Ginsberg-founded Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and ground zero for the ultramarathon running world. Those who live there often speak of the “Boulder bubble”, as though it’s a world free of the social ailments that plague the rest of the nation.

“Many of the shootings across the country have been in places people would like to think are safe, but when these tragedies hit close to home it threatens your feeling of safety,” said Jamie Beachy, directory of the Center for Contemplative Chaplaincy at Naropa University, in Boulder. “For some people, this will be very destabilizing for some time to come. We don’t live in a safe world when it comes to gun violence, and Boulder is not set apart from that.”

Beachy’s younger sister is a survivor of the Columbine school shootings in 1999, which took the life of 12 students and one teacher in Littleton, Colorado, only 37 miles from Boulder. Also a short distance away was the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, taking 12 lives and injuring 70. Following that, a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs was the victim of a rightwing militant who killed two employees and a police officer in 2015.

A 2019 analysis by the Denver Post found that, per capita, Colorado has more mass shootings than all but four states. But despite a recent anti-mask riot by college students, Boulder was considered by many as a safe oasis for middle- and upper-class liberals.

But Boulder resident Sammie Leon Lawrence IV, who was inside the King Soopers during when the shooting began, said that there was a sinister underbelly of Boulder that often isn’t spoken of.

“I’ve been called a [N-word] here,” Lawrence, who is Black, Native American and Caucasian, recalled. “I’ve seen protests where people were carrying AR-15s, and if I acted in the same way I would’ve been shot. Before this I’d been trying to convince myself that Boulder is a safe place for me, but now I teeter-totter back and forth on that.”

Lawrence had just returned home to Boulder after a visit to Sacramento, when he decided to pop into King Soopers for a quick lunch to take to work. Everything changed when “I heard a sound like someone was banging something. I didn’t understand it was gunshots until I saw people running.”

Lawrence helped an elderly man in a walker, along with several other older people, escape to the loading dock of the store, where they hid behind some trailer trucks as the gunshots continued. Lawrence chokes up when remembering the call he made to his mother in that moment.

“I feel like I understand what people at Columbine and Aurora went through – but I wish I didn’t,” he said. “It changes people. It makes you agitated, anxious, loud noises affect you. Hearing the names [of the dead] announced today, I remember hearing other people shout those names when they were killed.”

Maris Herold, Boulder’s police chief, was also personally shaken by the killings, saying in the Tuesday morning press conference that “I live three blocks up the street from that store. It’s heartbreaking.

“Officer Eric Talley had seven children, ages five to 18,” she continued, speaking of the police officer who was the first to run into the King Soopers and was subsequently killed. “His family is heartbroken. I just had that officer’s whole family in my office two weeks ago to present an award to his son. Eric Talley taught CPR, and when one of his son’s swallowed a quarter, his other son was able to save his life by performing CPR. He was a very kind man. He was willing to die to protect others.”

Lawrence said that this tragedy – along with the scores of other mass shootings in the US lately – should be a wake-up call about the “new normal” he said we are all living in.

“In Boulder we keep everything looking pretty, we avoid dealing with the dirty shit that gets swept under the rug. Once you crack the Boulder open, you see that it’s not a geode inside. It’s just dust.”

A mourner visits the King Sooper’s grocery store where a deadly shooting occurred in Boulder, Colorado, on 23 March