Hundreds of LGBT Atlantans commemorated the victims of the gay nightclub massacre in Orlando on Sunday with two vigils in Midtown, including one so large that it prompted the closure of a portion of 10th Street.
The emotional moments in Atlanta took place as vigils were held across the country on Sunday evening to memorialize the 50 people killed and 53 injured when a heavily-armed Omar Saddiqui Mateen, 29, stormed Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando and opened fired in a crowd of about 300 people.
"It's more than a nightclub, it's a place of solidarity, of empowerment," Matt Garrett, an Atlanta activist who also serves on HRC's board of governors, told the crowd of hundreds filling the parking lot of Ten at the intersection of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue.
"This morning reminds us that we still have many, many miles to travel. It is in these moments together that we stand in solidarity to remember those who were taken from us, to celebrate the joy that they brought to our lives, our friends and our community," Garrett added.
The Atlanta Sisters and a few dozen people gathered outside Burkhart's about 7 p.m. to grab candles, share hugs and then walk along Piedmont to the larger vigil that started about two hours later at Ten. The second event was organized by Ben Nicoara with help from HRC Atlanta organizers, who provided candles and equality stickers.
"This is a time when our community is usually coming together to celebrate," said Ames Simmons, an Atlanta activist and transgender member of HRC's board of directors. "June is usually a time when we celebrate the LGBTQ community and instead we're grieving the deadliest mass shooting in history."
Both events came with a visible presence from the Atlanta Police Department, which pledged in a statement earlier on Sunday to increase patrols around LGBT gathering spots in the wake of the Orlando shootings. The agency's two LGBT liaisons were on hand, along with tactical officers and scores of patrol officers. Police closed 10th Street from Piedmont to Juniper Street when the crowd for the second vigil filled Ten's parking lot and spilled into the intersection that has hosted scores of LGBT events, from the annual Atlanta Pride parade to a celebration in June 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.
The event at Ten opened with the large crowd singing "The Star Spangled Banner" (watch above) and included a moment of silence and performance from the Atlanta Freedom Bands.
'I just came to hug on people'
Mayor Kasim Reed – who earlier on Sunday denounced the massacre as "unspeakable acts of violence and terrorism" – also took part, arriving to stand with the city's LGBT community and show that they have the freedom to live openly, "without stigma," and speak out at events like the vigil, he said.
"It's about the freedom to have the ceiling removed from your life and be able to be who you are without being blown up or shot or killed for it, to be able to walk the streets in the neighborhood without being attacked by people who hate you for absolutely no reason," Reed said.
Reed also mingled with the crowd, took photos with attendees and shared a moment of reflection at the impromptu vigil of candles, flags and posters created in the parking lot.
"Sometimes when you hurt, you just need somebody to sit with you. There's nothing that I can say that can change the horrible tragedy about what happened today, but I know people are hurting and I know that one of the things that we can do to make everybody here safer is to remove the stigma off of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning people."
"I just came to hug on people," Reed added.
The crowd also included gay City Council members Alex Wan, who earlier called the attack "horrific," and Mary Norwood, along with state Sen. Vincent Fort. Several city officials were also present, including Fire Chief Joel Baker and Reese McCranie, the gay communications director for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
A third event – We Are Orlando: Vigil and Community Gathering – is scheduled for Tuesday at the Center for Civil & Human Rights.