Friday, June 19, 2015

Racism, American Culture and the Massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston

No sanctuary in this society, it seems, none. Not in our homes, not in the streets, not behind the wheel, not in a store, not in public swimming pools, not even in our churches. Nowhere in this country, it seems, can black people not live and breathe and simply be without fear of being hunted down, beaten, brutalized, killed.

Emanuel A.M.E. Church
On Wednesday the nation and world witnessed another example of this fact when a 21-year-old white terrorist massacred nine black people in the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, a South Carolina state senator, who had welcomed the murderer into the church to participate in a Bible study session, was among the slain, as were Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a mother of three and a high school track coach; Cynthia Hurd, 54, a librarian at St. Andrews Regional Library of the Charleston County Public Library; Tywanza Sanders, 26, a recent graduate of Allen University and barber, who had attempted to shield his 87-year old aunt, Susie Jackson; Myra Thompson, 59, the wife of the vicar of the Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church; Ethel Lee Lance, 70, a cousin of Susie Jackson and a longtime member of the church; Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, 74, a ministerial staff member at the church; and Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49, a minister, member of the church choir, and mother of four. Tywanza Sanders' mother and a 5-year-old child played dead to survive

The terrorist, Dylann Storm Roof, of Columbia, South Carolina, fled the scene and was on the loose before being taken into custody in Shelby, North Carolina, after a florist spotted his car and called authorities.

While it is unknown why Roof chose the Emanuel AME Church, the oldest AME congregation in the South, founded in 1816, the church does have a long and visible civil rights history dating back to the 19th century, and Roof specifically asked for Rev. Pinckney and sat next to him. Among its early members, who included enslaved and free blacks, was Denmark Vesey, who attempted a slave revolt in 1822 before being betrayed, after which the church was burnt to the ground, its rites thereafter being conducted in secret until after the US Civil War. Over the years the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had visited the church, which played an important role in civil rights organizing the city and state, to champion black South Carolinians' right to vote, and his widow, Coretta Scott King, addressed and then led participants in a march for hospital workers' rights. Its leader, Rev. Pinckney, had pushed for body cameras for police officers in the wake of the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston earlier this year. Before the shooting, Rev. Pinckney and the other Bible study participates openly welcomed Roof into their session, where he allegedly sat for an hour, disagreeing with the readings of Scripture, before opening fire and killing nearly everyone there in cold blood. According to a survivor, he also reportedly told those he massacred that, "I have to do it. You're raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go." Once apprehended, he confessed to the murders
Historical marker
(National Park Service)
After his arrest, journalists and online commentators pieced together clues showing the terrorist clearly had expressed anti-black racist, white supremacist sympathies and behavior. Roof's Facebook profile, which suggests he had a number of black "friends," shows him in one photo wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, both of which are considered racist symbols, while in another he perches over an ornamental license plate featuring the Confederate flag. Friends of Roof, including former classmates, a childhood friend, and his roommate, have since told authorities that he was known to make racist comments in high school, was ranting about Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray, believed black people "were taking over the world" and sought racial segregation, was involved with "racist groups," wanted to launch a "race war," and yelled a racial epithet at and threatened to kill a black woman on the street. Despite all of this, no one felt the need to alert authorities. His friend Joseph Meek Jr. even removed Roof's gun, but returned it at his girlfriend's suggestion because he, Meek, was on probation.

Most appallingly from the standpoint of lack of prevention, Roof's white roommate Dalton Tyler said that Roof had been planning a slaughter for "six months," and Christon Scriven, who is black and the resident of a trailer park that Roof regularly visited, said that Roof outlined his murderous plot last week. "He flat out told us he was going to do this stuff...he was looking to kill a bunch of people." Scriven thought Roof was just being "weird" and joking, a miscalculation with mortal consequences. Roof apparently had never finished high school and was unemployed. Reports also say that his parents gave him the money for a gun as a birthday gift, and he has said that he bought it. His prior run-ins with the law include an arrest at a Columbia mall for possession of an unprescribed controlled substance, the drug pain drug Suboxone, and a month later for trespassing at that same mall. According to several news articles, he had been partially raised and recently living with his sister in Lexington, South Carolina.

As church members and people across the country were mourning the slain churchgoers, leading Republicans, including South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, unsurprisingly sought to deflect the discussion away from the obvious causes of the slaughter, as did some conservative news sites, making a mockery of the horror, the facts, and of Christianity itself. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who had just come from Charleston on a fundraising trip, stated that the country needed to face "hard truths about race, violence, guns, and division," though the issue in this case, as with the relentless state violence against black and brown Americans, the expanding carceral state, government-enabled inequality, US imperial action against nonwhite people all over the globe, and so much more, has been the system and structures of racism and white supremacy that pervade every aspect of American life

It is not "race" or "racial issues," but RACISM, particularly anti-black racism, black disposability, and white supremacy, that are the problem. It is exhausting to have to keep experiencing and witnessing the effects of racism much as it is to have to keep pointing this out, but it seems that far too many people would rather not deal with this reality and connect the dots, since doing so may implicate them and expose their own  privilege. President Barack Obama was, for his part, somewhat better, calling out American gun culture and our distinctive contemporary problem with mass murders, and historicizing attacks on black churches and people, though he also danced around invoking outright the beast of racism and racial domination, whose visible symbol, the Confederate flag, is still flying at full staff at the state capitol while the US and South Carolina flags were lowered in tribute to the dead. (And its continued presence at the capitol is, I should note, the result of a compromise with its promoters.) 

Rev. Sen. Clemente Carlos Pinckney
(1973-2015, Emanuel
A.M.E. Church)
Yet it is not just the South's blood-drenched standard, but the silences that stand in for the act of naming, decrying and dismantling this poison that has continued to course through the nation's veins since before the country's founding, and which renders the statements with which I started this blog post, of no sanctuary, anywhere, reality for millions. The Justice Department, under Attorney General Loretta Lynch, has announced a hate crime investigation into the attack. Yet the reality of living under the regime of racism and white supremacy in this country will not change, no matter how many federal hate crime investigations occur, unless we make a conscious effort to change things. Nor will we reduce the plague of gun-related murder, including mass murders, until we reform our gun laws and make it harder to get our hands on guns than than to acquire tickets to the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. We have an immense standing military, funded to the tune of billions of dollars; we no longer need a "well regulated Militia" to maintain "the security of a free State." We must change this society for the better. We must. 

Despite their devastation and in the depths of their grief, many of the family members of the slain churchgoers have already expressed love and forgiveness. One tangible way you show your sympathies is to sign ColorofChange's sympathy card. You also can help out Emanuel AME Church is by going to its website and offering a donation here.

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