Opinion: For Garcia, a missed opportunity to comfort his city

The end of October going into November was a dark and devastating time for the city of Long Beach. The news of death hung as palpable as the ash from wildfires in the autumn air, starting with the mass shooting in Rose Park that killed three men and wounded nine, and before shocked residents could catch a breath, a suspected drunk driver in Los Cerritos is accused of smashing his car into a family that was taking their 3-year-old son on his first trick-or-treating expedition and killed father Joseph Awaida. The son, Omar, and mother Raihan Dakhil died in the following days.

Six dead, nine wounded in a three-day span. It was one of the most tragic stretches in the history of the city, and it had a profound effect on almost everyone’s life, with sadness and anger dominating conversations throughout the town, all centered on the insane horror of the events of the week. In times like these we take solace in neighbors and friends, not in the way of trying to wring some sense out of senselessness, but just to comfort one another.

A strong leader can go a long way in channeling that sadness and fear into something close to hope and courage. In the hours and days following the 9/11 attack, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani earned, however fleetingly, the title of America’s Mayor for his calm and clear compassion and resolve. Similarly, President George W. Bush did a commendable job of leading the nation through its fear and sorrow.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, President Barack Obama shared the nation’s grief by shedding tears, and he raised the same nation in his singing of “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney after his assassination in South Carolina. In all cases leadership was present and projected to the nation, and that presence acted as direct comfort in a time when comfort was difficult to find.

That’s what leadership does, and it’s what we expect leaders to do.

But in the aftermath of this terrible week in Long Beach, residents only had each other, because the city’s leader, Mayor Robert Garcia, was noticeably absent in providing the sort of support we look for in difficult times, not just during groundbreakings and cheerleading about the city’s accomplishments. Instead, we got perfunctory, cookie-cutter snippets of greeting-card sympathy including the long-devalued “thoughts and prayers” that too often are voiced in sorrowful time.

We got updates about Garcia’s avid enthusiasm with Sen. Kamala Harris, with his posting of video of her marching confidently to a podium and Garcia writing that that’s how he felt walking into his coffee shop an hour early after the end of Daylight Saving Time or walking into an 8 a.m. meeting the next day after being out at Sunday Brunch.

And we learned through someone else’s social media that Garcia had an enjoyable time Friday night at Musical Theater West’s production of “Something Rotten.”

We’re not asking the mayor to stop having a good time in his life; we’re just saying there’s a time to at least keep things under his social media hat. There is, as Ecclesiastes has reminded us, a time to mourn and a time to dance.

Garcia’s absence at the vigil for the Rose Park victims on Oct. 30, a cathartic evening put together, admirably, by Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce, hasn’t gone unnoticed among members of the grieving community. And, again, your mayor was not among those in attendance at Sunday’s March for Peace, organized by community members following the shootings.

The Kamala/brunch postings were on Garcia’s personal social media accounts, rather than on his official mayor’s account (where sympathy was also scarce), but that’s immaterial. He is, both personally and professionally, the leader of the city. He is the one person who should be shouldering much of the sorrow that his city’s residents have been suffering through. It was his opportunity to lead us all in grappling with our grief; to tell us to stay strong; to stand up and do what we can to make the city safer as well as more compassionate. And it was more than an opportunity, it was his duty to speak for the sorrow of the city.

It’s asking a lot of a man to accomplish what we’re asking. It takes a lot of courage, a strong oratory skill, a tremendous amount of empathy and most importantly the ability to convey and share that empathy in order to calm and reassure a fretting constituency. But that’s what we’ve needed this past week from our mayor. We gave him that responsibility, that opportunity, and either way, responsibility or opportunity, Garcia has failed us.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.