Keinon Carter and his friend Antonio Brown had gone to the bathroom at Orlando’s LGBT Pulse nightclub when they first heard gunshots.
“I thought it was pretty much someone playing with firecrackers,” Carter recalled of the night of June 12, 2016, in a recent interview with the Daily Beast. “It was June, and July 4th was around the corner, when people let off fireworks. Then the residue smell of some kind of gunpowder came across my nose, and I wondered what it was. Then the gunshots rang out again, and we ran out of there. I can’t remember what happened. It happened so fast. I guess we ran out right into some trouble.”
Carter, 32, was shot twice by gunman Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people that night in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history; many were Latino, and more than a fifth of the victims were black, like Carter. He was one of 58 wounded, and was critically injured.
Mateen shot Carter in his left leg first; the second bullet went through his abdomen, small intestines and kidney, and broke his pelvis. Multiple surgeries at Orlando Regional Medical Center followed.
Carter almost died from his injuries, and lay unconscious in hospital for a month. When he woke he warmly remembers hearing people’s supportive chanting from outside the windows of his room. He finally left hospital on August 12, two months after being shot. The doctors, Carter told the Daily Beast, thought he was dead until his sister, Shawnna Benbow, sitting with her brother, saw his body move. Sadly, his friend Brown, a U.S. Army Reserve captain, died.
Today Carter uses a wheelchair, though doctors say he will regain full mobility. He is 6’4” and used to towering other people. In the chair, he is “just over three foot. I really don't like a lot of people standing over me, because I’m usually the tallest person in the club and at this time I have people towering over me, so it’s kind of crazy.” He is building muscle mass in his injured left leg.
Monday, on the first anniversary of the massacre, Carter is one of the key speakers at a Pulse Memorial Rally organized by the pressure group Gays Against Guns (GAG) in New York City at the Stonewall Inn from 7 to 9pm.
Attendees are being encouraged to wear black to mourn those who died a year ago—a year that has changed Carter’s life. The experience, he said, has given him a sense of purpose to become a voice for the LGBT community he hopes in Orlando itself, Florida, and the U.S. as a whole.
“I don't want to think small. I want to think big. If I’m going to rock my city, I’m going to rock my world.”
Carter was born and raised in Orlando. “I’m from here, this is home,” he said. His coming out, aged “around 14, 15, or 16 was kind of alright, smoother than I’ve seen with other people and their families. My family had gay friends when I was young, so it was easier for me to come out. I remember sitting down with my mom one day and pretty much told her. We've been OK with it ever since then.”
Carter would go to Pulse, one of a number of gay venues in Orlando. “It was satisfying for whoever wanted to go there,” Carter said, then added drily, “It was just a little eerie that night.”
Carter had been invited out by Brown. “We ended up at Pulse,” Carter recalled. “I go there every blue moon, but it was Latino night. I like that music. We were hanging out, having some drinks.”
When the men ran out of the bathroom, Carter said he didn't feel the first bullet enter his leg, but felt the after-pain. “I was knocked out. When I noticed it, when I came back to, I couldn't walk. It was painful, but I had to crawl to some kind of place in the bar where I felt safe.”
Carter crawled next to Brown, who was lying underneath the bar curled up. “I was trying to check on him. He was screaming, ‘Don't touch me,’ being in so much pain. I called the cops and notified them that there was a shooter in Pulse nightclub.
“I set the phone down to the side. I didn't want the shooter to see I was making a call in case he would shoot me again in any kind of way. I didn't see him, because he was on the other side of the bar or somewhere else in the club continuing to shoot people.
“By the time he came to me, I was already passing out and losing consciousness from losing blood in my leg. I don't know when he shot me again.
“I pretty much laid myself down, laying there, hearing this man going over bodies and reshooting them making sure they were dead—that was what he was doing. He came around a second time and shot me in my abdomen which shut out my small intestines, the bottom of my sacrum, my kidneys. It caused an infection in the back of my derrière.”
Carter said he was worried about everybody: himself, Brown, “what was going on. I felt bad because I couldn't place my eye on this guy. I felt like the situation could have turned out differently, being my friend was a military guy and he could probably have got some plan in his head where he could have taken the guy down. I’m from the ‘hood, so I’m not a stranger to hearing gunshots. We probably could have done more, but a lot of stuff happened so fast there was no kind of way to do anything.”
Carter was not aware of many other people in the club. When he and Brown arrived the section of the club by the go-go room seemed pretty empty. As he lay on the floor, shot, “I was just focused on trying to see where the shooter was, and it happened so fast I couldn't place my eyes on him.”
I asked Carter what was going through his mind. “I just knew I was going to die, I just knew I was going to die. I don't know, I just knew I was going to die. I knew it was my time. I repented. I pretty much laid there, laying there on the ground, thinking [of Mateen], ‘I hope he looks over me,’ and I pretended like I was dead type-of-situation.”
Carter was also thinking about his partner Aaron Torres, who had been at Pulse the night before, and could have been there that night too but was out with friends elsewhere.
The next thing he remembers is coming to. “I had cops in my face asking me if I could walk, and I said no because I had been shot in the leg.” Then Carter blacked out and came to again when a cop laid him on the kerb-side. He recalls another officer screaming out: “Is there anyone who needs to go to the hospital?” to which another officer beside Carter said: “Maybe this young man over here.”
From that point on, Carter doesn't remember anything until waking up in the hospital. “I was pretty much pronounced dead twice,” he said softly.
The doctors had encouraged his sister “to say her goodbyes, to speak to me one last time. But I wasn't dead. She saw my body move, and they re-entered the room and told her this was a dead body’s twitch. But they asked me a couple of questions and I guess I responded to them and they took me off the table and continued doing surgery on me.”
Carter described what it was like emerging from unconsciousness.
“It was crazy waking up with tubes all down my nose and mouth, colostomy bags on the side. Not being able to stand and walk. It’s a lot. My first thought was, ‘Thank God I’m here.’ My thought after that was: ‘Was Antonio OK?’ We had been in the same spot. I was trying to figure out what had happened to him.”
So he wouldn’t be traumatized, Carter’s family kept “the media and everything away from me, they didn't allow me to watch the news.” Finally, on his own, he turned on the television himself and heard everything.
What does Carter think of Mateen and what he did?
“Ludicrous. I still want to know what was going through his head, why did he do what he did? There are different stories. You'll never know. The only person who can really tell us is the man that shot us and he's laying in the ground now.
“He possibly got caught in the wrong situation, and something happened to him and he felt the need to take it beyond himself and hurt innocent people. But it was too much. If someone hurts you, I would understand you trying to get even, and trying to work out why they hurt you. But taking the innocent lives of countless people: it didn't make any sense.”
For Carter there remains “a lot of hidden agendas” about the massacre. He feels “there had to have been more than one shooter. I feel like there’s no way one person could do all that with no one running at him, knocking him off guard. I understand the gun was powerful, but there’s still something fishy about the situation.”
Even though some politicians and commentators had problems vocalizing it at the time, causing a great deal of upset to the LGBT community, Carter is sure Mateen targeted Pulse because it was an LGBT club. “I mean, completely. It’s a gay club. What else is there to say?”
Carter is thankful for all the support he has received, particularly from figures like club promoter and community organizer Charlotte Davis and Pastor Brei Taylor of Orlando OASIS Community Outreach.
With his recovery advancing, Carter is looking for financial support to build an LGBT center. It would house HIV testing, a forum for advocacy, homeless shelter, services for those who have been victims of violence and theft, a place for LGBT youth to receive guidance, and also “a little church on the side where we can have our own words and get in touch with God in our own way.”
In one article, it said that this center would be for black LGBT people but Carter said, “It's for everyone. All lives matter.”
As he rebuilds the muscle mass in his left leg, the doctors say his movement will return to near-normal. “I’ve always had respect for people in wheelchairs, but now I have a new-found respect for them. People being handicapped: it’s hard.”
The last year for him and Torres has been OK, he said. “It’s been a little rocky too. My partner has been a big help, but I’m kind of hard-headed. I’ve always been independent. We just had a little clash. He said I was trying to do too much for myself, but other than that we're perfect.”
As for missing Brown, his close friend, “of course I am grieving,” Carter said. “I am hurt. I’m mad at the same time about losing my friend. I don't know how to feel. I haven't grieved the right way yet. I don't know how to. I don't know how to feel when I drive past the Pulse nightclub.” He sighed. “I don’t know. I miss him dearly. If I could have him back, that would be, like,” he paused and added softly, “What’s up.’”
Until now, Carter hasn’t taken on a public role, but has come forward to speak to the media because he feels it has been ignoring his and other stories.
“I just want to be able to represent for the ones who can’t speak any more like Antonio Brown and other victims. If I survived and God has me here, he has me here for a reason so why not do what I need to do? It’s as simple as that.”
On this first anniversary, “I want people to remember, and I want them to think clearly,” Carter said. “Everyone needs to understand that we are all first one human species, one human race. Just because we have a different color of skin that doesn’t make us any different. For my LGBTQ community, I need everyone to stop playing victim around who they are and what sexuality they are.
“I’m a victim by default because I was shot. I don't hold it up to my head, because I want to be a survivor. I don't want to play a victim. That’s what I encourage everyone else to do, on top of putting down guns. Military weapons should be with military people. People sworn to serve and protect us should have these weapons. I shouldn’t be able to walk into a regular gun store and see the weapon I was just shot with priced at $700. I would really like it if the government does their job and takes off the streets what is not supposed to be on the streets.”
How does Carter feel now towards Mateen?
“I don’t have any feelings for him. If I could have put my hands around his neck, I would have wrung his life out of him. It is what it is, a life for a life, and he killed 49 people, so that’s how many times he should be killed over and over again.”
On how his life has changed in the wake of what happened, Carter said that while he has always approached life very seriously, “this has actually put a stamp on everything. When I was young I never thought about what my parents were doing, like life insurance. People need to know to get those things for yourself and family members. At some point you're going to have to bury that person, and it could be someone else’s antics that causes it.
“I’m on a mission to be able to make sure my situation is taken care of, so if anything happens to me I’ll have made sure to leave something for my little sister and little brother and future family members coming up behind me.”
The massacre has naturally left psychological scars, although Carter is “trying not to live on fear.” He is cautious about situations where he puts himself. He makes sure there are enough accessible security exits.
“I’m not doing any kind of mental counseling because I feel like I’m strong. Everyone gets depressed. I get depressed. I have my moments, but I have a support team and feel like I am OK.”
He would like to return to Pulse, “to go back inside to deal with some issues for myself. That’s going to be a little process.” He said he has noticed that the media has favored a certain group of survivors. He noted also that he had not been invited to a particular commemorative event. “I don't feel united with what is going on pretty much, and I shouldn’t have to feel like anything because I’m already part of it. Carry my hand like you carry the rest of the crowd.”
I asked Carter what his message will be to everyone gathering at the Stonewall Inn tonight for the memorial rally, organized by GAG.
“Just thank you,” Carter said softly. “I would like to thank everyone who supported us in New York City, and everywhere else. The love has extended far beyond Orlando and Florida. From myself, and possibly other survivors and victims’ parents and family members, just thank you.”
Carter’s best friends from New York supported him through his recovery, and last month it was his and Torres’ second anniversary. And so, Carter says laughing gently, as well as addressing the memorial event tonight, he and Torres are hoping also to have a good time in the city. NYC will surely toast them mightily.