Everyone knows what happened at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston on the evening of June 17, 2015 – during an evening prayer service, nine people were shot dead by a young white supremacist from North Carolina, Dylann Roof. One of the dead was the senior pastor, state senator Clementa Pinckney. The next morning the police arrested Roof – he wasn’t hard to find. He confessed immediately. He had wanted to start a race war. He was unapologetic about that. He had posted a manifesto on the web, with pictures of him and his array of Confederate flags. That was who he was, and he did this. There was no point in denying it, so he didn’t. It seemed as if he simply shrugged. He was a very young good ol’ boy. The right folks would understand.
That didn’t work out. The Department of Justice eventually indicted Roof on thirty-three federal hate crime charges. He was charged with nine counts of murder by the State of South Carolina. And then the unthinkable happened – Confederate flags came down all across the South. They’d no longer fly at their State Houses – all the years of disputes about that simply ended. The Civil War was finally over. Roof wanted to start a race war. It looked like he ended one. Oops.
He didn’t of course – President Trump’s new attorney general will be Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, a man who despised the Voting Right Act of 1965 and was once denied a federal judgeship because of all the flat-out racist things he had said over all the years. Sessions’ justice department is unlikely to file federal hate crime charges ever again. Sessions is a good ol’ boy too – but for a brief shining moment things were looking up. Maybe we could all get along, one way or another, respecting each other just a bit. Dylann Roof did that.
Then, on June 26, 2015, President Obama stunned everyone. At the end of his eulogy for Pinckney at the service for all nine of the dead he paused and then began to sing Amazing Grace – everyone rose, everyone joined in, and he brought down the house. It seemed as if the forces of good had won. No one mocked him on Fox News. They knew, and he said this about Roof:
He didn’t know he was being used by God. Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group – the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court – in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.
The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley – how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond – not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.
Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood – the power of God’s grace. This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace.
Don’t even try to imagine Donald Trump saying such things. No matter how much the evangelical crowd loves him, that’s not Trump, nor is this:
As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other – but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.
Then he paused. Then he sang. Donald Trump doesn’t sing. He tweets. One heals, the other wounds. America is about to change again.
Perhaps it never changed in the first place, because Dylann Roof must die:
Dylann Storm Roof, a ninth-grade dropout who learned to hate black people on the Internet, was convicted Thursday of 33 counts of federal hate crimes for slaughtering nine black parishioners at a church Bible study meeting here last year.
A federal jury took less than two hours to reach its decision, following a seven-day trial in which Roof, 22, a self-described white supremacist, chose to remain silent and motionless amid a barrage of testimony and evidence so thorough and devastating that his mother, watching from the third row, suffered a heart attack on the first day.
Of course she did:
“He executed them because he believes they are nothing but animals,” prosecutor Nathan Williams said in his closing argument, addressing a somber jury that had seen crime-scene photos of all the dead, including Susie Jackson, 87, the oldest victim, into whom Roof had emptied an entire 11-round magazine from his Glock .45-caliber pistol.
As Williams spoke, a photograph of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was shown on the screen. The pastor, who had offered Roof a seat next to him at Bible study, was wearing a crisp white shirt and new suit now stained by blood from the five bullet wounds in his neck, back and arm. Roof’s grandmother, sitting in the courtroom while the image was displayed, wiped a tear from her eye.
And he will die for that, one way or another:
Judge Richard M. Gergel dismissed the jury for the holidays and told them to return on Jan. 3, when they will hear prosecution and defense arguments about whether Roof should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole. Roof also faces a separate state murder trial in January, which also carries a potential death penalty.
Fine, that’s justice, or it isn’t:
Many friends and relatives of the dead attended the trial, in the historic heart of the city where the Civil War began, and many sat with their eyes closed tight as they listened to the verdict.
“There’s no win in this. We still have grieving families, a grieving community. There’s some closure, but there’s no win in this thing,” said Kevin Singleton, 43, whose mother, Myra Thompson, was killed. “We just want to move forward and put this behind us and try to get on with our lives. Nothing good came out of any of this.”
They don’t want him dead too? They just want to move on? That’s odd, but Goldie Taylor explains that it’s not that odd:
Ethel Lance was among those he killed. But her daughter, Sharon Risher – who also lost two cousins in the carnage – does not believe Roof should die. Risher is a chaplain. However, she has not forgiven the then-21-year-old white supremacist who slaughtered members of her family. Even so, Risher, who in the year since her mother’s murder has become an anti-gun activist, does not support capital punishment – not for Roof, not for anyone.
“God is the only being who decides our fate,” she wrote in an opinion column for Vox.com.
She is not alone. And, the difference is spelled out in black and white. A recent poll found that 65 percent of African Americans in South Carolina want Roof’s life to be spared. By comparison, nearly the same number of white people in the state believes that he should be executed for his crimes. Support for capital punishment – among black people, writ large – has fallen through the years.
Whether because of our own distrust for a government that disproportionately imprisons African Americans – who currently represent more than half of those who await execution – or because of religious traditions, as a people we have turned away from an “eye for an eye.”
Retribution, many will tell you, is not justice.
Something is going on here:
Broadly, 6 in 10 Americans support capital punishment for the most heinous crimes – up nearly 20 percentage points since the 1960s. Black people, according to Gallup, are the least likely to condemn a convicted murderer to death.
Government “can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill,” wrote Sister Helen Prejean, one of the foremost anti-death penalty activists, in her book Dead Man Walking.
That may be the real issue here. Our government executes African-Americans at a far higher rate than whites. Some of them turn out to be innocent. Some should have been retried in a fair way, where evidence isn’t withheld and witnesses that mysterious cannot be found are found. The law is a blunt instrument. It might be best not to use it to kill anyone, even Dylann Rood:
Roof conducted a frontal assault on humanity. Targeting a race of people, cowardly entering a church where he knew no one would be armed and able to defend themselves, Roof attempted to sound a clarion call that he hoped others might hear and heed. If there is a standard at all for the state putting someone to death, Roof met and exceeded it.
But Risher, Prejean, and others who want to see capital punishment abolished are challenging us to rethink that standard. Together, they are challenging us to do a hard thing in the midst of the most impossible circumstances. When our hearts are broken, our faith in humanity shaken, they are asking us to look upon the malevolent and spare its heartbeat.
Taylor is asking us to be better than we seem to be. Amazing grace may save a wretch like Dylann Roof, one day, but that’s God’s business. We’ll kill him. We know better, and things won’t get better. Obama won’t sing Amazing Grace to the nation ever again. Perhaps those Confederate flags will go up all across the South again. Obama will be gone in a few more weeks and it’ll be Trump, who sings a different tune.
Jamelle Bouie puts that this way:
On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump took the stage at his eponymous tower in New York City and announced his bid for the White House. His message was clear. “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems,” Trump said.
A day later, in South Carolina, 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where members were holding Bible study. Using a .45-caliber Glock handgun and eight magazines of ammunition, Roof shot and killed nine people, including the pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator. Before he arrived at the church, Roof posted a manifesto on his website, a racist tirade that expressed his motives. His message was also clear. “Integration has done nothing but bring Whites down to level of brute animals,” wrote Roof.
Indeed, when read together, Trump’s announcement and Roof’s manifesto offer a duet in racial grievance.
It may seem unfair to connect those two dots, but it can be done:
“When Mexico sends its people,” Trump said, “they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
“Hispanics are obviously a huge problem for Americans,” Roof wrote. “But there are good Hispanics and bad Hispanics.”
“It’s coming from more than Mexico,” Trump said. “It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably – probably – from the Middle East. But we don’t know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don’t know what’s happening. And it’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast.”
“The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens,” Roof wrote. “There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. … From this point I researched deeper and found out what was happening in Europe. I saw that the same things were happening in England and France, and in all the other Western European countries. Again I found myself in disbelief.”
It seems that Trump is Roof:
Trump wanted to “make America great again,” where “America” was a metonym for a traditional, industrial, and white America, set against a rising tide of racial threats, from Hispanic immigrants and black protesters, to Muslim refugees and the specter of “radical Islamic terrorism.” With this promise to restore the moral, cultural, and political dominance of that white America, Trump grabbed the reins of the Republican Party and never let go. Roof, in his own telling, wanted to awaken white America to the alleged threat of blacks and other nonwhites. “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet,” he wrote. “Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.” I alone can fix it.
Thursday, Roof was found guilty of hate crimes and other charges by a federal jury, and Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States.
Hell, it could have been the other way around:
Look at what radicalized Roof, at least in his own telling. Propaganda from white supremacist groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens; forums for white nationalists and anti-Semites; a narrative that told him he was oppressed, a “victim” of diversity in a nation overrun by “black crime.” At the church, say survivors, Roof exploded in grievance. “Y’all are raping our white women,” he reportedly said. “Y’all are taking over the world.”
There’s been a lot of that going around:
These ideas were once marginal. But in the past year, they’ve been pulled into the mainstream by Trump and his presidential campaign. Trump has broadcast racial propaganda and anti-Semitic messages; his children have shared racist memes and reached out to white supremacist personalities. His campaign chairman Stephen Bannon, now chief strategist to Trump, pushed these narratives as CEO of Breitbart, a website where “black crime” gets a vertical and whose most famous writers lead online mobs of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. In the world of Bannon and Breitbart, white America is under siege by dark-skinned people and their white liberal enablers. Likewise, Roof’s manifesto reveals a belief system in which white America needs defenders from black criminals and other racialized threats. By his own account, Roof was radicalized by the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman. He believed Martin attacked Zimmerman in an instance of “black-on-white crime.” Here’s what Breitbart published on Martin’s death and the trial: a “breaking news” story claiming Martin had drugs “in his system,” a witness account claiming that Martin had attacked Zimmerman “MMA-style,” and an op-ed denouncing President Obama as a “race-baiter” for sympathizing with Martin. In the past year, the website has alleged that outlets such as YouTube censor videos of “black-on-white” crime.
MMA is mixed martial arts – everything is allowed – but now everything really is allowed:
Roof’s worldview also fits comfortably with Breitbart-inflected rhetoric that represents “global special interests” as Jewish financial elites and treats all immigration as a dangerous imposition on the country. “She wants virtually unlimited immigration and refugee admissions, from the most dangerous regions of the world, to come into our country and to come into Minnesota, and you know it better than anybody,” Trump said, referring to Clinton in the final days of the campaign. “Her plan will import generations of terrorism, extremism, and radicalism into your schools and throughout your community. You already have it.”
Roof’s depiction of black Americans as violent and dangerous is just a few steps away from Trump’s depiction of black communities as violent and dangerous hellscapes that threaten the safety of the entire nation. “Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing. No homes. No ownership. Crime at levels nobody has seen,” said Trump, painting a dystopian picture of black life for a nearly all-white crowd of rally-goers in Ohio. “You can go to war zones in countries that we’re fighting and it’s safer than living in some of our inner cities.”
The rest is obvious:
Trump did not cause Roof. But their temporal proximity reveals thematic connections between the two. Trump, the self-proclaimed billionaire, who blames immigrants and Muslims for America’s problems. Roof, the struggling young man, who blames black Americans (and others) for his stagnation. And if Trump embodies a white reaction to perceived decline in a changing world, then Roof represents that backlash in its most extreme and virulent form. Both Roof’s violence and Trump’s demagoguery flow from a shared swamp of resentment. The same white nationalists who led Roof down a path of hate and evil now gather in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the election of Trump as a triumph for their movement.
Roof’s crime is so monstrous that it may rankle to put him on the same continuum as Trump. But to see both with clear eyes is to see the link between demonization and aggression, between Trump’s rhetoric, simmering with menace, and the wave of harassment, intimidation, and outright violence that followed his victory. It’s to see both Donald Trump and Dylann Roof as heralds of the darkest forces in American life, to see their common heritage in a rising tide of white identity and white nationalism.
Obama sang Amazing Grace in that one brief shining moment of common decency, but that was only a single moment:
We honored the sacrifice of the dead, we asked God for guidance, and we took the Confederate flag down from its perch on South Carolina’s capitol, an expression – in Obama’s words – “of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union.”
Then, just 16 months and a few days later, we gave Donald Trump the White House. We didn’t avoid the mistakes of the past; we swerved in their path. We didn’t break the cycle; we strengthened it… Seduced by demagoguery and the promise of new benefits and restored status, millions of Americans rejected the racial egalitarianism of Obama’s “more perfect union” in favor of a renewed color caste.
The painful truth is that Obama’s optimism was misplaced.
Perhaps it was, but there was that one brief shining moment of common decency, of amazing grace. The memory of that will have to do. Maybe it didn’t even happen. The president sang Amazing Grace to the nation? It must have been a dream. All we’ll get are tweets now.