Out in the World: SF vigil held for Oslo gay bar shooting; suspect refuses to talk

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday July 1, 2022
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Gay activist Michael Petrelis, left, Consul General of Norway to San Francisco Gry Rabe Henriksen, and Petrelis' partner Mike Merrigan stood at a small memorial in the Castro for the victims of the June 25 shooting outside a gay club in Oslo. Photo: Oda Sanaker, consul general's office
Gay activist Michael Petrelis, left, Consul General of Norway to San Francisco Gry Rabe Henriksen, and Petrelis' partner Mike Merrigan stood at a small memorial in the Castro for the victims of the June 25 shooting outside a gay club in Oslo. Photo: Oda Sanaker, consul general's office

San Francisco LGBTQ activists and the Norwegian consul general to the city this week held a small vigil for the victims of the recent shooting outside a gay club in Oslo.

In the early morning hours of June 25, a gunman opened fire outside London Club, a popular gay nightclub in Oslo. Two men in their 50s and 60s were killed and more than 20 people were injured in the incident.

The police did not release the names of the two men who were killed.

It was the final day of Oslo Pride. Organizers canceled the parade and celebration.

In San Francisco, a small group of about 14 people gathered June 28 at the corner of 18th and Castro streets in front of a "Ban Guns, Not Gays" sign on the side of the Bank of America building.

Gay activists Michael Petrelis, 63, and his longtime partner, Mike Merrigan, 71, had put the banner up June 22. They did not know that a few days later during Pride weekend a deadly shooting would take place in Oslo outside of the gay nightclub, another club, and a diner.

Petrelis told the Bay Area Reporter the nightclub shooting in Oslo saddened him.

"I was depressed when I saw the news from Oslo," Petrelis said. "It's a tragedy."

The couple felt it was important for LGBTQ San Franciscans to "express solidarity with the gays and everyone in Norway," he said about coordinating the vigil with Consul General of Norway to San Francisco Gry Rabe Henriksen.

"We feel your pain from gun violence," he said.

Henriksen, who brought flowers to the vigil, was grateful the activists reached out to her, she told the B.A.R.

"It is a great shock in Norway," she said.

"Some of my friends who are in that community in Oslo and around the world ... feel scared and frightened by this incident," she continued. "Whatever the reason behind [the attack], it's definitely something that spreads fear, especially in the LGBT community, because whether it was a planned attack in that place, on that day or not, it certainly feels like they are being targeted."

Petrelis agreed, stating, "We have to remain vigilant," talking about the Oslo shooting and ongoing violence against LGBTQ communities globally.

Norwegian authorities have not determined a motive for the shooting. The suspect, Zaniar Matapour, 42, a Norwegian national of Iranian origin, refused to be interrogated by authorities. The Guardian reported that he refused to have an interview recorded because he thought authorities would manipulate it.

Matapour was charged with murder, attempted murder, and terrorism, officials said. According to authorities, police knew Matapour; he has a minor criminal record and a reported history of mental health issues. In the past, Norway's Police Security Service, or PST, characterized attacks by suspects with known mental health problems as "acts of terror," reported the Guardian.

The newspaper cited another publication, Verdens Gang, reporting the suspect was previously convicted of aggravated assault, illegal possession of weapons, and drug offenses. He was also investigated for attempted murder. That case was dropped.

The shooting

Around 1:14 a.m., a gunman suspected to be Matapour pulled a gun from a bag outside the crowded London Pub and started shooting. Two men were killed and more than 20 people were injured in the incident, three of whom were seriously hurt, reported the New York Times.

Outside the London Pub, Norway's largest gay destination nightclub, people ran for safety. Inside the club, people hid and called their loved ones.

An estimated 40 people witnessed the shooting, including two journalists.

Sigurd Storm, who witnessed the shooting, told the Times there was a line to get into the club, but it dissipated once the shooting started. The nightclub closes at 3:30 a.m.

"The line dissolved in seconds," said Storm, an interior designer and blogger who had just left the club when the assault began. "I ran. I saw, to my side, a man falling."

Olav Rønneberg, a crime reporter for Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, happened to be in the area when the violence began.

"I saw a man arrive at the scene with a bag, he took up a gun and started shooting," Rønneberg said. "First I thought it was an air gun. Then the glass of the bar next door was shattered and I understood I had to run for cover."

Some people chased and apprehended the suspect. Police arrested Matapour five minutes after the shooting. Police are investigating the shooting as a terrorist attack due to the number of deaths and injuries and multiple crime scenes.

An automatic rifle and a pistol were found at the crime scene and were seized by police, senior police lawyer, Christian Hatlo, said at a news conference on June 25, reported the Guardian.

One of Matapour's lawyers, John Christian Elden, told the Washington Post that his client "hasn't denied" carrying out the attack. However, he told the Times that it was "too early to conclude whether the actions have anything to do with Pride, a hate crime, or terrorism."

On June 27, Oslo's district court ruled that Matapour could be detained for four weeks, reported Reuters. Matapour's detainment could be extended during the shooting's investigation. He will undergo a psychiatric evaluation as a part of the investigation, officials said.

A motive has not been determined. Matapour refuses to be interrogated or recorded by authorities. He is "skeptical" about "how the police will present a possible explanation" for his alleged acts," one of the suspect's lawyers, Bernt Heiberg, told the Associated Press.

Pride canceled

Oslo Pride organizers immediately canceled the festivities planned for June 25. Two days later, Norwegian authorities postponed Pride celebrations throughout the country until further notice.

The Pride parade and festivities were to have capped the 10-day celebration that started June 18.

"We are sending warm thoughts and love to next of kin, those who were wounded, and others affected," Inger Kristin Haugsevje, leader of Oslo Pride, said in a statement.

The Nordic country's terror threat level was raised from moderate to its highest level immediately after the incident. Authorities lowered the threat level to its second-highest tier on June 29.

Roger Berg, the acting PST chief, called the attacks "an extreme Islamist terror act" stating that there was "an unresolved terrorist situation," reported The Guardian.

As a precaution, Norwegian police, who normally are not armed, will carry guns until further notice, said Norway's national chief Benedicte Bjoernland, as reported by ABC News Australia.

Mourning and solidarity

The Pride cancellation did not stop several thousand people from walking the parade route June 25 in solidarity and placing flowers at a growing memorial outside the police line near the London Pub.

The incident happened only a few blocks away from Norway's parliament. Norway's Crown Prince Haakon, his wife Crown Princess Mette-Marit and their youngest child, 16-year-old Prince Sverre Magnus, joined Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and other government officials in placing flowers at the memorial site last Saturday.

"When the perpetrator started shooting, the world changed from happiness, laughter and love, to hatred, bullets, and murder," Støre said in a statement responding to the tragedy, reported the Guardian.

Speaking at a special service held at Oslo's cathedral, Støre said Pride might have been canceled but it did not stop the fight "against discrimination, prejudices, and hate," reported Reuters.

At the San Francisco vigil, Henriksen said the country stands with the LGBTQ community.

"Norway stands with those who want to make sure that everyone is free to be who they are and to love who they love," she said.

Norway is one of the most progressive countries when it comes to LGBTQ rights. It was one of the first countries in the world to decriminalize homosexuality 50 years ago in 1972; this year the Norwegian government apologized to the LGBTQ community for an old law that criminalized gay sex. Anti-discrimination laws followed in 1981. It became the second country in the world to legalize same-sex civil unions in 1993, four years after Denmark did so in 1989. Norway legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.

Norway, a nation of 5.4 million, has lower crime rates than many Western countries and it has strict gun laws. But there have been violent incidents. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a fertilizer bomb in downtown Oslo, killing eight people before killing another 69 people, mostly teenagers, in a shooting rampage at a Workers Youth League summer camp. Breivik is serving a 21-year sentence and was denied parole earlier this year.

International support

Aboard Air Force One en route to the recent G7 Summit in Europe, President Joe Biden's administration responded to the gay bar shooting in Oslo with condolences. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on the plane, "We're all horrified by the mass shooting in Oslo today targeting the LGBTQI+ community," reported Reuters.

"Our hearts obviously go out to all the families of the victims, the people of Norway, which is a tremendous ally, and of course the LGBTQI+ community there and around the world," he said.

The White House also released a statement from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan June 25 in which it said the Biden administration had reached out to the Norwegian government and offered to provide it with any assistance it needed.

"The horrific shooting in Norway this morning has been felt around the world. The United States strongly condemns this act of terror," stated Sullivan. "We stand in solidarity with the families of the victims, the diverse and strong LGBTQI+ community of Oslo, our close NATO ally Norway, and all who have been devastated by this senseless act."

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted, "I am shocked by the heinous attack on innocent people in Oslo. No one should have to fear for their life or well-being simply for who they are."

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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