Sunday, August 4, 2019

Ben Johansen: The Ribbon Maker

This post is about the shooting that took place at the Pulse Nightclub on June 12, 2016. It contains difficult content, so please do not read on if you feel you may be effected. 

This article and sketch have been posted with the express written permission of the interviewee. Analog Artist Digital World takes the privacy and wishes of individuals very seriously. 

Ben Johansen moved to Orlando in 2006. He was 34 years old. The city has grown a lot since then. There was a shop in town called Century Costumes. Ben had lost his long time job in an insurance company and he was a regular customer at Century. The business was up for sale. Ben got a call asking if her would buy the business. If he didn't buy it, then the shop would close down completely. He talked it over with his husband Tim Vargas and they ended up buying it. Embelish FX has been open for 5 years now and it has been steadily growing. Ben loves the place. No day is ever the same.

He and Tim went to Pulse on many occasions for events and fundraisers. They were very involved with Pulse since Tim was the president of the board of directors. Ben has known Barbara Poma the owner of Pulse for years. The day before the shooting he was at a Make Up Show at the Convention Center. Life was good.

Tim doesn't sleep very well. He is always awake at 4AM. On the early morning of June 12, 2016 Tim had turned on the TV in the living room. He went into the bedroom and turned it on there as well. He shook Ben and said, "You've got to get up." Ben isn't a morning person, he was very groggy getting up, the dog licked his face. Tim was very animated, he said, "Open your eyes and look at the TV." All that was visible was the red glow from the TV, and the breaking news banner at the bottom of the screen. In his fog, Ben asked "What is going on?" Tim responded, "There has been a really bad shooting." He started to cry. Ben got up and asked "What happened?" "There was a shooting at Pulse, there are many dead." Tim said. Thoughts flew to friends. Tim urged Ben, "Take a quick shower we have to get to The Center."

Tim drove. On the way to the Center it was still dark. Ben looked at his Facebook feed as he sat in the passenger seat. He was trying to figure out what happened. He couldn't read the small screen through his tears. At the Center they met Terry DeCarlo who was the executive director at the time. People came with crates and crates of water and food. Volunteers kept showing up. The Center became the drop off point. They sent water to Camping World Stadium and the long lines at blood banks so that people didn't dehydrate. That was the one thing about that week, it was so hot, like being on the surface of the sun. There was nothing anyone could do about it, but just keep on going. That week was a blur.

Ben explained, "The first day, I was lost. I didn't know what to do, but I needed to do something." He called his dad who was a police officer who loves everybody but doesn't like to show it. Ben called just to say he was alive, that he hadn't been in the club. That call is where the idea of the black swatch came from. As a child he remembered seeing his dad with a black swatch across his badge any time an officer passed. Ben called it the respect bar.

He found himself at Michael's craft store to clear his head and wandered towards in the ribbon section where thee were rolls of rainbow ribbon. He brought a rainbow ribbon roll, a black ribbon roll and a box of pins. He had about enough supplies for  30 ribbons. At the Center he set himself up a small station to work with a laptop computer so he could keep watching the news. There were so many people, and he just didn't want to get in the way. He started making ribbons. He pricked his fingers so many times that they were bleeding, but he didn't care. He would give one to each volunteer pinning it over their heart and giving them a hug. As people dropped things off at the Center they noticed the ribbons and started asking for them. Ben had a small stash. When friends came to visit and hug him he would give them one.

He realized he was going to run out so he headed back to Michael's. They only had two more rolls of rainbow ribbon left, so he had to put out an APB on social media. "Please bring rainbow ribbon." People showed up with bags and bags of rainbow ribbon rolls, black ribbon and pins. Volunteers kept offering to help but Ben wanted to do it alone, he needed to do something. It helped alleviate the sense of loss and uselessness. But so many people wanted ribbons that eventually he needed to let people help. Now everyone helps. They started with one ribbon and the other day they hit the 700,000 mark. Rainbow ribbons are bought in 100 yard rolls. That is how he can keep track of how many are made. Soon Ben hopes to have met the 1 million ribbon mark.

A friend helped Ben set up a website where ribbon orders could be placed. Orders started coming from all over the world. Ben had put $7000 of his own money into ribbon supplies. The supplies and postage were wiping him out. A Go Fund Me Page was started which raised about $15,000 which helped with supplies. Orders range from 1 ribbon to 8,000. Every order was fulfilled. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus, George Takai, Alan Cumming, and Hillary Clinton have worn the ribbons. He would still love to get one to Michelle Obama someday.

The rainbow ribbons have become a symbol around the world for love and hope. This small gesture wasn't intended to get so big but Ben is glad it did. Every ribbon is a conversation starter. If he is wearing one and is outside Florida someone will ask, "What is that for?" He tells them the story and gives them a ribbon. He has a rainbow ribbon tattooed on his arm. He can always see it and it brings life back into focus.

Ben knew 12 people who died at Pulse that night. You never expect this to happen in your own back yard. It was a wake up call to Orlando. At the big candlelight vigil at Lake Eola there were 50,000 people. Ben remembers where he was that night, how he held the candle and cried uncontrollably. At the one year remembrance he stood in the exact same spot with close friends and managed to smile.  Peg O'Keef was reading a monologue from O-Town: Voices from Orlando on the Disney Amphitheater stage and she mentioned the ribbon maker in the monologue. At that moment a rainbow appeared above Lake Eola. It was a moment of reflection and hope. Perhaps we are going to be OK.

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