10 years later, Waco still trying to live down Davidian notoriety

Escaping the Stigma
Waco Tribune-Herald, Mar. 30, 2003
By MIKE COPELAND, Tribune-Herald staff writer
» Part 5 of a 9-part series. See FlashPoint in History: 10 years after Mount Carmel

Waco Mayor Linda Ethridge confronted the nation’s wildly mixed thinking regarding her city and the 1993 Branch Davidian siege during a visit to Philadelphia a few years ago.

She didn’t exactly welcome debate about federal agents’ bungled raid and 51-day standoff at nearby Mount Carmel, but she did stand up for her hometown. The setting was a luncheon hosted by the National League of Cities – normally an occasion stressing diplomacy, progressiveness and manners.

Except for one thing.

“One person there couldn’t quite get off the subject,” Ethridge recalls. “He saw the raid as something that we, the community, caused to happen. He was from Philadelphia, and I asked him if anything bad had ever happened in his city. He said he couldn’t think of anything.”

But Ethridge reminded him of an incident in 1985, when Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on a house occupied by an anti-government group called MOVE. The ensuing fire destroyed 61 houses and killed 11 people, including five children.

“Our city never bombed its own citizens,” Ethridge pointedly told her antagonist.

Whether local residents spend time traveling about Texas or the nation on business or routinely meet people venturing into Waco, such debates are not uncommon. Ten years after federal agents mounted a siege against the Branch Davidians at a place followers called Mount Carmel, people outside McLennan County still readily associate Waco with the combustible episode.

In the case of Mayor Ethridge during her visit to the City of Brotherly Love, the tables were easily turned. In fact, she recalls, when her critic was reminded of Philadelphia police’s decision to bomb an anti-governmental group, “he spent the rest of his lunch explaining his bad experience.

“He left lunch early, as I recall.”

Nonetheless, the 51-day Branch Davidian siege of 1993 – culminating in a fire in which 76 people died, 21 of them children – left the nation wondering about this place called Waco. Until then, its reputation was minor alongside Texas cities such as Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.

But during the long standoff between Branch Davidians and the FBI, Waco couldn’t hide from the spotlight. Federal agents conducting the siege held daily press conferences in the Waco Convention Center.

Self-styled Davidian prophet David Koresh, 33, and his Apocalypse-fixated followers did not reside in Waco. They lived in a communal arrangement near the small community of Elk, 10 miles east of the city.

Yet in the minds of people around the world, Waco was the tragedy’s epicenter, a situation aggravated by such books as Massacre at Waco, Texas , the latter published in 1993 and boasting a cover that teased: “He promised them heaven … instead, he took them to hell.” A hastily produced TV movie, In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco, only added to the situation.

“For a five-year period, anytime I talked with anyone who discovered I was from Waco, the connection was made,” says Curtis Cleveland, a Waco businessman who 10 years ago recruited industry for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.

Some say Waco suffered a stigma even greater than that of Oklahoma City, where 168 people died in an explosion that ripped apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995 – the second anniversary of the FBI-led assault at Mount Carmel. The bombing was seen by terrorist Timothy McVeigh as payback for the government’s actions against the Branch Davidians.

Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys has a theory on why Waco is seen differently from his city.

Convicted bomber McVeigh “didn’t live here, but the Davidians did live there,” Humphreys says. “The revulsion against what happened here in Oklahoma City focused on McVeigh, against radicals who would choose to make their political point by bombing innocent people. There was a feeling his action was retribution against the government for what happened in Waco.”

Every American felt he or she had been attacked when McVeigh’s bomb shook Oklahoma City, just as Americans did when the World Trade Center collapsed in 2001, Humphreys says.

However, he adds: “I’m not sure Americans knew how to respond emotionally to the Davidians.”

The point is one often raised. Even critics of law enforcement’s handling of the siege note Koresh was anything but an innocent victim. Much of what happened to the Davidians is rooted in Koresh’s obsession with weaponry, his sexual relations with underage girls and his earlier shootout with a rival prophet at Mount Carmel.

CBS anchor Dan Rather, a native Texan, is among those who has openly sympathized with Waco, considering the beating it took from the world’s news media. He even defended the city’s honor during a speech at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce banquet on June 3, 1993.

A crowd of 1,400 heard Rather describe his “genuine pride” in being made an honorary citizen of Waco. He also said Waco “got a bad rap” from the national media, which tried to exploit every unusual happening in the city’s history and portray its residents as “Bible-thumping, gun-toting hicks.”

Yet questions continue to dog city leaders. Could Waco have done more to counteract the daily barrage of negativity – a barrage that eventually took its toll?

“A community group met for a period of time, and a public relations consultant came down for a day and visited about it,” recalls Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce president Jack Stewart. “But a decision was made not to launch a campaign. We decided simply to conduct ourselves positively instead of trying to refute arguments.

“What would a publicity campaign say? ‘We’re really not bad like that?'”

Ethridge suggests the shiner Waco got out of the siege would have taken a hefty investment to reverse.

“If you were going to publicize a city and wanted to buy press coverage,” she says, “you’re talking about an expenditure of probably billions of dollars to offset what was said about Waco.”

Waco probably handled the Davidian situation as well as it could, says Baylor University sociologist Larry Lyon, who was involved in early discussions regarding the stigma that attached itself to the city. The passage of time may help address it, too, he says.

“There are limits to how much local folks can handle extra-local opinion,” Lyon concedes. “The media will come in and take pictures of what they choose. We tried hard to limit misconceptions and were not successful. There is a cultural side to economic development, which is what a city is known for. I think this was a black mark on Waco.

“Ten years later, I still hear remarks during my travels, but only a third to a quarter of the time are they expressed in a way that makes me defensive,” he says. “Most people are simply inquisitive. ‘What’s out there now?’ It’s an ice-breaker.”

Following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Dallas “was tarred with that broad brush,” Lyon says. However, city officials there have dealt with the tragedy, in part, by opening a museum in the old school-book depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired the deadly shots.

That sort of aggressive approach in dealing with what evolved into a national, still controversial tragedy has failed to take hold in Waco.

“We didn’t proactively deal with (the Davidian situation), and I don’t know that we could have,” admits community leader Bill Nesbitt, chairman of Central National Bank. “Maybe we were just stuck with it. We didn’t have ceremonies or events to take charge of it. It took charge of us.”

Bob Sheehy, who was serving as Waco’s mayor during the Branch Davidian siege, recalls that the tragedy made semi-celebrities of people from Waco, himself included.

“I had meetings in Washington scheduled long before the standoff, and everybody wanted to know the straight scoop,” he remembers. “Some had that couldn’t-something-else-have-been-done attitude, but most were just curious. By far the great majority of them were sympathetic to Waco and what we went through with coverage from the media.”

Sheehy says he became aggravated with the national media the day the compound was destroyed by fire: April 19, 1993.

“There was a very solemn press conference in our convention center about 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” he says. “It was not for the city of Waco but for the government people who had participated. (Former city manager) Jim Holgersson and I stopped by, and 15 or 20 members of the press started questioning us. ‘Couldn’t we have done something else?’ ‘Couldn’t we have sent our fire trucks faster?'”

But the questions involved answers that were too complex to be simply put – and, in any case, many of the answers 10 years later have yet to be accepted as definitive.

“They were second-guessing everything,” the former mayor remembers of that late-afternoon press conference. “Jim and I just flat walked off. I didn’t trust myself. Here we had had the death of quite a few people – at that time the numbers were unknown, just a tragic event – and all they were trying to do was make something spectacular out of it.”

Bill Buford, a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent wounded during the Feb. 28 raid at Mount Carmel, today sees Waco as a city unwittingly caught in the crossfire and suffering because of it.

“I think it is so unfortunate that the people of Waco have had to live with this,” he says. “I wish this tragedy did not attach itself to the wonderful people of that city. I get a little teared up when I think about it. The hospital staff, the police, the children, the ordinary citizens – you know, the next morning people stood in long lines to donate blood. I just can’t say enough about the truly kind people I met.

“They should not have to be stuck with this stigma.”

Not everyone is convinced the shadows of Mount Carmel have kept Waco from moving ahead in the realm of economic development. Bland Cromwell, an industrial sales specialist at Coldwell Banker Jim Stewart Realtors, says he heard all the jokes and questions about Waco as he traveled to meet clients after the Branch Davidian siege.

“But I don’t think it cost us an ounce of business, and I don’t think it gave us a black eye,” he says. “You may interview some who say it hurt us, that it slowed things down. I don’t see that.”

When people talk about Waco, Cromwell says, “they are talking about whether government agents acted properly and all that. They are not talking about our city limits. These people could have been camped outside Austin or Houston; they just happened to camp outside our city.”

Cleveland says he’s not sure whether Waco suffered economically.

“I guess we’ll never know if there were (development) projects that took Waco off their lists because they didn’t want to be associated with us,” he says. “I never had a company tell me their decision would be impacted by the siege. But somewhere during the filtering process they could have made that known to a consulting firm or utility company.”

To businessman Roane Lacy Jr.’s way of thinking, the Branch Davidian tragedy gave Waco “brand identity, which keeps us on the radar screen.

“At that point in time, I was traveling a lot, in and out of airports,” Lacy says. “I noticed immediately the raised eyebrows when people would find out I was from Waco. After 10 years of that, when I’m asked what part of the country I’m from, I say Waco, Texas. I never just say Texas. I don’t have a problem with it. I’m kind of proud of it.”

The tornado that killed 114 people in downtown Waco 50 years ago left a scar on the town’s famed Dr Pepper bottling plant – a swath of different-colored brick that those who restored the structure and converted it into a museum chose to leave.

“That scar is a part of our history, just as the Davidian event is part of our history,” says Wilton Lanning, owner of Padgitt’s, a Waco business that has evolved from selling saddles to offering high-definition TV sets and sound systems.

The only difference is that the scar left behind by the Branch Davidian siege festers deep below Waco’s surface – unless one drives east of town out into the Central Texas countryside. There, one can stroll the windswept site of the long-gone compound and fully ponder stone sentinels acknowledging losses among both Davidians and federal law enforcement.

While Waco this spring is commemorating the tornado that struck the town a half-century ago, it still has no significant stone memorials acknowledging the Mount Carmel tragedy, despite the fact more people know Waco for the Branch Davidian siege than any burst of bad weather. Instead, Waco’s city leaders have kept Mount Carmel at arm’s length and out of sight.

“The site of it was outside Waco,” Sheehy explains. “It wasn’t our deal, and we stayed with that basic philosophy all the way through. To this day, the only thing I think anyone’s done about it is put up a (display) of it at the Taylor Museum (of Waco History).”

And the museum – complete with a scaled-down replica of the Branch Davidian compound and a comment book brimming with inflammatory comments from visitors reflecting on the controversial siege – is currently closed.

Sheehy says local officials for a time did issue a brochure on the Branch Davidian crisis, available for tourists and other city visitors: “We figured it would take longer for someone to actually stand there and try explaining the whole thing.”

Many city leaders continue to say Waco’s identification with the Branch Davidian siege is best remedied by accentuating Waco’s positives.

“If you lived in Pakistan or South Africa, you couldn’t escape it,” Lanning says of fallout from the 1993 siege. “The question changed from, ‘Where is Waco?’ to, ‘What in the world is going on there?’ And I think Waco has responded to this question very well. I think local officials handled things in a very positive and careful manner. I can’t think of anything that was a miscue or mess-up or anything like that.

“I don’t claim to know everyone in Waco, but I know many,” he adds. “The general consensus was to go forward with our heads held high, to tend to business, educate our kids, protect our families. Do the best we can.

“It’s healthy to look at history,” he says, “but not to let it consume you.”

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