The Forgotten School Gun Massacre in Stockton, CABreaking News
tags: guns, racism, school shootings, Gun Violence
For the students of Cleveland Elementary School, January 17, 1989, started out like any other Tuesday. Then, around lunchtime, the children flocked outside for recess. Sinath “Mike” Vann, who was in second grade at the time, remembers being on the playground when he heard the gunshots. “I was confused because I didn’t know what was happening, but I remember also being excited,” the Stockton, California native told Teen Vogue. “I thought the gunshots were fireworks.”
As kids played, 24-year-old Patrick Purdy parked his car behind the school, approached the playground, and spent the next several minutes firing 105 shots into the crowd of children with a semiautomatic assault rifle, killing five and injuring 30 others, including a teacher, before killing himself.
All of the victims — Sokhim An (six), Ram Chun (eight), Oeun Lim (eight), Rathanar Or (nine), and Thuy Tran (six) — were Southeast Asian: four Cambodian, one Vietnamese, and all children of refugees who had escaped violence in their homelands only to experience unthinkable tragedy in the United States. The last words Purdy reportedly uttered were exchanged with another guest at the motel he was staying in, just an hour before the shooting: “The damn Hindus and boat people own everything.”
The Stockton schoolyard shooting, as it’s often referred to, was considered one of the nation’s worst school shootings at the time. While it initially drew national attention, inspiring TIME’s “Armed America” cover story and a school visit from Michael Jackson, as well as helping to pave the way for the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, not many Americans outside of Stockton are familiar with the shooting today. Even fewer know the shooting was a racially motivated attack against Asians.
Patrick Blanchfield, an academic and journalist whose forthcoming book Gunpower: The Structure of American Violence covers the Stockton shooting in its first chapter, remarked on how relevant the shooting feels today: “I think what makes reading about the shooting so strange is its uncanny familiarity,” Blanchfield told Teen Vogue. “It happened in ‘89, but it could be something that happened yesterday. You’ve heard this story before.”
Teen Vogue’s interview with Blanchfield took place just weeks before the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 children and two adults were killed.
In 1989, Stockton had one of the largest populations of Southeast Asians of any California city; about 1 in 6 current residents was born in Southeast Asia, according to the report. The communities consisted mainly of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who had fled the violence of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
“I wasn’t born in the United States, but the strange thing is that I only remember Stockton,” said Vann, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand before immigrating with his family. “We grew up in a rough area, low-income, with the majority of the neighborhood being Asian people just like us coming from similar backgrounds, all refugees from war-torn countries.”
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