Last week’s calculated and hateful terrorist attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, in which nine innocent men and women were gunned down by a white supremacist, is a step beyond the kind of tragedy we are becoming ‘used to’ in the news cycle. Mass shootings are all too common in this country. Violence against the black body is all too common, as we’ve seen repeatedly demonstrated with case after case of unwarranted police brutality against black men. The Charleston shooting was an act of racism and terror and it brings to light our need for legitimate change. In this week’s Urchins Take Sides, Margaret, Sarah, and Geo weigh in on the multifaceted layers of this tragedy.
Last Friday FBI director James Comey declared that last week’s mass shooting of nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina was a hate crime but not an act of terrorism.
Many writers and journalists have already commented on this, using Comey’s own definition of terrorism to prove him wrong. In Comey’s words, ‘Terrorism is act of violence done or threatened to in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry, so it’s more of a political act.’ Despite the fact that Comey’s statement appeared one day before a racist manifesto, purportedly written by the alleged shooter Dylann Roof, surfaced on the internet, one thing we all knew were the shooter’s racist motivations, which were conveyed in ongoing coverage throughout the end of last week. The fact that the FBI has decided to separate hate and terror in this regard, which we will discuss further below, unsurprisingly pales in comparison to coverage from Fox & Friends on Fox News Channel, which argued that the shooting was an attack on Christianity, not an attack on black people.
While that claim is unequivocally harebrained (even Roof would argue against it) as well as downright racist, the FBI’s decision is more subtle, and as a result, possibly more dangerous. By removing the politics behind Roof’s desire to start a race war, the FBI is effectively rendering the tragedy as an incident, and perhaps nothing more than that, despite the fact that the past year and a half alone has been filled with similar so-called incidents.
Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an article for The Washington Post, whose headline asks her central question: ‘Shooters of color are called ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?’
Butler writes: ‘I hope journalists will ask questions that get to the root of racially motivated violence in America. Where did this man learn to hate black people so much? […] Was he influenced by the right-wing media’s endless portrayals of black Americans as lazy and violent?’
It is more than interesting to read that, according to the manifesto that Roof purportedly authored, ‘the event that truly awakened [him] was the Trayvon Martin case.’ The author expressed his anger at what he referred to as ‘black on White crime,’ and how he felt ‘it was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right.’ In addition to the author’s admission that part of his initial research on the case consisted of ‘read[ing] the Wikipedia article,’ we can safely assume what kind of commentary he had been digesting to form and shape his growing radicalism and racial hatred.
But Roof isn’t the only one exposed to journalism that contains dangerously irresponsible coverage and rhetoric. Butler writes that ‘in public discussions, black children often morph into potentially menacing adults after they’ve been victimized, while white mass shooters are portrayed as children, even if they’re well into their 20s.’ She also writes:
U.S media outlets practice a different policy when covering crimes involving African Americans or Muslims. As suspects, they are quickly characterized as terrorists and thugs (if not always explicitly using the terms), motivated purely by evil intent instead of external injustices. While white suspects are lone wolves – Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley has emphasized that this shooting was an act of just “one hateful person” – violence by black and Muslim people is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion.
The recently surfaced manifesto, which seems to contain more than enough political rhetoric to qualify the shooting as an act of terror, states: ‘Even today, blacks are subconsciously viewed by White people are [sic] lower beings. They are held to a lower standard in general.’ Sadly, the inability – nay, the refusal – to see this tragedy as an act of domestic terrorism, is doing more to prove that hateful statement than anything else.
When unarmed black man Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri nearly a year ago, satirical publication The Onion ran a headline that read, ‘Sometimes Unfortunate Things Happen In The Heat Of A 400-Year-Old Legacy Of Racism.’ In the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and far too many others in the past year, and Treyvon Martin and countless other black men before them, many arguments were made denying race as a factor in their deaths. When Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black churchgoers in South Carolina last week, and was discovered to have white supremacist motives, the context of the crime could finally no longer be questioned. But it doesn’t take the shooter of a black man having a hoard of photographs with the confederate flag to prove that our nation’s history of racial prejudice, oppression, and violence played a part in them pulling the trigger.
With an elected black president and terms like ‘post-racial’ being used to describe a current generation, it often feels like America is supposed to forget that 50 short years ago black people in our country weren’t allowed to use the same restrooms or attend the same schools as white people. That in the 100 years before that, 3,446 black people in our country were lynched. That for over a hundred years before that black people in our country were bought, sold, and owned like property.
That legacy of racism provides an inescapable context for life in our country. To say that race hasn’t played a factor in any of the publicised events of the past year, or any of the innumerable unpublicised ones both now and before that, is the most dangerous kind of ignorance.
It is the same ignorance that points to our black president as a bellwether of racial equality in our country. Instead, Barack Obama’s presidency has in many ways reopened the door to acceptable racism, allowing for the convenient blurring of racial slurs and political commentary. People can spew the most vitriolic attacks and claim them to be merely against Obama’s politics while using the racist language and rhetoric of centuries of discrimination.
Such hatred stems from fear, and America has become a nation that runs on a perpetual cycle of fear and apathy. After September 11, we were afraid. Then war was waged, and we were indignant. But it continued, unjustly and in our name, and we grew apathetic. It was far away and our words carried no weight. We grew heavy with the burden and stopped trying.
When 12 people were killed and 58 injured at a movie theatre shooting in Colorado we were scared. When six people were killed and three injured at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, we were heartbroken. When 27 people were killed and one injured at an elementary school in Connecticut, we were outraged. We said something had to change. We said surely this, if anything, would be a breaking point and a catalyst, finally, for change. But then it happened again. And again. In Washington, D.C., in Texas, twice in California. And we grew weary. Our impassioned voices grew quieter. What could we do?
In the past year, there have been five incidences of unarmed black men being killed by police officers that made the national news. Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, North Charleston, Cleveland. And the nation’s cycle from fear to apathy played out just like before. We were horrified, and then we succumbed. The problem is too systemic, too change to difficult. What can be done?
But apathy will not make this go away. Ignorance will not make this better. It will fester and spread until we don’t even recognise ourselves anymore, and even the collective lies we’ve told ourselves as a society won’t be enough to hide our ugliness.
In his comments on the Charleston shooting, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart was uncharacteristically defeatist, saying ‘We have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend doesn’t exist. I’m confident though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that, and seeing it for what it is—we still won’t do jackshit. Yeah, that’s us.’
But the death of Trayvon Martin three years ago started the conversation. Last year the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson brought it to a boiling point. The death of Eric Garner substantiated the argument of racism’s role. Charleston could be the coup de grace, the thing that finally ends the debates and forces our country to face itself in the mirror. There can be no debate about Dylann Roof’s intentions. We can’t ignore the fact that his racism was born from our society.
Writing for The New Yorker, David Remnick commented that ’It is an enduring mystery of life how the moral range of humanity can stretch from a twisted young racist such as Dylann Roof, who faces charges of slaughtering six women and three men during a Bible-study class, to a woman such as Nadine Collier, who is the daughter of one of the victims, Ethel Lance, and who was able to find it in her heart to turn to Roof at his bond hearing and say, ‘I forgive you.”
The Charleston victims’ families’ call for forgiveness is the ultimate sign of strength. To some, that strength, like that of Barack Obama overcoming the myriad barriers faced by black men in our country to be elected president, will feel threatening. To others, it could be the example we’ve all been waiting for. With Ferguson and the outrage it spurred, people could purport to be afraid of what they claimed to be black peoples’ inherent propensity for violence or crime, ignoring the historic and socioeconomic factors that created the perfect storm that is the life of a black person in America today. If people are afraid now, after the tragedy in Charleston, it is of their resilience, their strength, the strength of a community that could only be forged by surviving the atrocities and struggles they have faced.
If hate begets hate, then maybe the compassion of the families of those who were killed in Charleston will beget compassion. It is our only way forward.
Aurora. Sandy Hook. Charleston. With each tragedy that could have been prevented (or at least decreased the likelihood of) by a legitimate gun control policy, we are persistently let down by politicians afraid of standing up to the N.R.A. Real change always seems within our grasp, but when it comes down to it, they throw us a bone or perhaps just a bit of gristle. In Colorado, after the 2012 Aurora shooting, significant gun legislation was passed. Shortly after, however, two Democratic members of the Colorado Senate, who voted in favour of gun control, were recalled after a special election in 2013.
After the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, President Obama said:
“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times. We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that once again innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun… At some point, we as a country, will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”
Last week’s shooting also further demonstrates that America is far from overcoming its history of racism. Like the recent showcasing of police violence toward black men, Charleston shows us we need to change. Black Lives do Matter. I, for one, was shocked to learn that the Confederate flag is bolted into place above the South Carolina state house. I’m sure I’m not the only one surprised. Like many white liberals, I grew up under the false premise that we lived in an advanced, color-blind society. The Black Lives Matter movement should serve as an awakening to us all.
But the question is not only will it, but will we change now that we’re awake?
The Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein asserts that progressive movements like Black Lives Matter (as well as climate justice and the Occupy movement) are stronger than ever, but are merely holding the line. The problem is that we’re fragmented. Our battles are not separate. They are one in the same.
At a recent speech in Santa Fe, NM, Klein said:
“I’ve been trying to explore and draw connections between how our movements are connected—for dignified work, for well-paid work, for less corporate power, for the redress and repair of centuries-old racial inequalities, for a more meaningful democracy, and the pressing need to get our economy off of fossil fuels and lower our emissions.”
Klein believes the single unifying factor is climate justice. That I should be discussing climate change in relation to this tragedy (so shortly after it, in fact) might seem callous and insensitive, but this is the moment. The shooting in Charleston will and should be a catalyst for change. We need it badly and we need it now. But, as demonstrated by previous tragedies such as this, substantial change rarely comes. But, as Klein says, we can’t do it alone. We need one, unified movement for change, not ten.
In the past, the Urchins have commented on American apathy. And while that is true, we are also fiercely patriotic. And what could be more patriotic than doing the right thing even though it’s hard?