Personal Essay: Charleston shooting tragedy

I took this picture on Friday when I passed by.

This morning, the church at the center of the Charleston, SC shootings held its first service since the tragedy that took place inside its walls on Wednesday.

On June 17, white terrorist Dylann Roof gunned down 9 members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church: the Rev. Sharonda Coleman- Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. Daniel Simmons  and Myra Thompson.

Buzzfeed News released comprehensive portraits of the lives lost in the shooting and The Post and Courier released an informative and respectful report of the tragedy that struck that night.

Without the taking the focus off of the victims, the public must acknowledge that this was an act of domestic terrorism, a result of the fact that racism is alive and well in America.While Roof does not fit the xenophobic, islamophobic, Western stereotype of a terrorist, Roof’s murders fit the FBI definition of domestic terrorism. Roof’s murders involved acts dangerous to human life that violate federal and state law. As confirmed by Roof’s racist manifesto and photos of him posing with guns and confederate flags, Roof’s murders were intended to intimidate a civilian population, which was in this case the black population. Therefore, clearly, Dylann Roof is a terrorist and deserves treatment as such.

Any media outlet that does not call Roof a terrorist, that opts for the title “gunman,” that tries to justify his hate crime with his supposedly shy and soft-spoken personality or history of mental illness, that tries to excuse his white supremacist attitude as merely the way of the South, that says that the public should not have an open dialogue on race relations, is biased at the deficit of its audience and is not doing its job.

As highlighted in The Huffington Post’s interview with sociologist Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, the Charleston church tragedy parallels the racially-motivated Birmingham, AL church bombing in 1963. In an era of heightened police brutality such as now, in 2015, Roof’s actions mark an almost backwards shift when it comes to violence against the black community. Senseless, racially-motivated violence has not decreased or faded into the background. Regardless of what statistics might say about crime in certain communities or the number of arrests made per year per county, all you need to do is turn on the television to see that violence against blacks today mimics the violence of the 1960s and 1970s.

AME churches did not even get a chance to grieve their members who had passed before bomb threats were called in the next day to the churches planning vigils for the victims. Not two streets over from Emanuel AME Church, Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church’s vigil was met with a bomb threat.

Despite this, as it has for centuries, the AME church stands tall: steadfast, resilient, forgiving but unyielding, saddened and yet still strong.

Personally, my heart bleeds for the victims of the Charleston shooting as well as for their families, their churches and the black community of Charleston. My pain is sharp as I have lived as black woman in Charleston for four years.

Having lived there, my family and I have witnessed and experienced the state’s normalized brand of casually celebrated racism.

For starters, my father, a black man and a South Carolina native, has been pulled over numerous times by police. The causes for being pulled over were minor, and yet my dad was subject to racist remarks, harassment and degradation. When the news broke of the police shooting death of Walter Scott, I couldn’t help but think that my dad’s name could have been a hashtag and yet another to tack on to the litany of black men who have died at the hands of white police.

My mom and my brother have been subject to textbook racism, such as discrimination at school and in the workplace, and jokes based on harmful stereotypes left over from the colonial period.

I have been subject to the same, but that which sticks out in my mind are the confederate flags that pervade predominantly white spaces in South Carolina. The confederate flag flies on government grounds in the state’s capitol, but it’s not uncommon to see it elsewhere. In high school, I saw a male student integrate a confederate belt buckle into his school uniform. Confederate stickers nested on binders, in lockers, on windows and bumpers. I doubt much has changed in the twelve months that I have been away at college, but perhaps this sort of symbolism will go out of style as kids start to self-examine or have the decency to keep their white supremacist ideas to their selves.

I would entertain the idea of confederate flags as culturally significant because that is not a completely crazy idea. After all, what better way to celebrate your culture, your nationality, your ethnicity or your family than with a crest, a logo or standardized colors? However, I have to challenge the people who tout the confederate flag as a means of holding on to history. A history of what? Slavery? You guys know that the confederate side was the one with the slaves, right? After that, I have challenge the people who scream that it’s a means of advocating states rights. What state right sparked enough dissent to secede from the Union? It wasn’t about guns, so that argument is irrelevant. It was about the right to own slaves. Truly, as a black woman who is the descendant of slaves, the urge to cling to the confederate flag mystifies me.

I have friends and family in the AME tradition. Further, I have friends and family in the AME churches in the Charleston area. Closer, one of my cousins lost someone in the shooting. With an event such as this one that hits so close to home, I feel that sinking feeling that many black people feel at some point. It’s a feeling of being dragged down with despair at the way your people have been, are and will continue to be treated based on their culture and the pigment of their skin. However, instead of internalizing deeper the effects of discrimination and oppression, when overcome with this feeling, the best thing that I can do is to work against the forces that strive to keep my people down.

The only good thing that has come out of this massacre is intellectual light. I have give or take 450 Facebook friends from Charleston and I have been delighted to see the outpouring of love, support and sadness for the victims of the Charleston shooting. It’s refreshing to see the kids that sided with police in instances of police brutality  concede for once, indisputably, irrefutably, that the victims of the Charleston shooting did not deserve to die.

While some of the sorrow may come from a purely spiritual place in their hearts, I hope that more people will start to understand how harmful racism is.

As Roof said himself in his manifesto, none of his racist friends had gone through with killing the people they despised. This is a confirmation of an obvious phenomenon:  there are other racists out there, acting violently without necessarily shedding blood.

The other racists have found less bloody but equally damaging methods of destruction when it comes to the black community: racial profiling, gentrification, unfair treatment, cultural appropriation, negative stereotyping, closed doors, microaggressions, poor representation in the media, sabotage, undue punishments for minor infractions, intimidation tactics and the list goes on. How many other non-black people are just a cut beneath Roof in their acts of violence against the black community? You don’t need to take a black life to damage the black community. Racist thoughts, attitudes and behavior breed a violence of their own.

I hope that people will start to understand the rationale behind saying “Black Lives Matter” instead of “All Lives Matter” – because all lives do matter, but lives of black people are not valued like everyone else’s lives, so they are taken from us all the more viciously and needlessly.


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