The 9 heartbreaks of the Charleston shooting


There was a shooting in Charleston, SC last night.

A lone young white man walked into an AME church around 9 PM on Wednesday. Dylann Storm Roof sat for an hour while a group of parishioners had bible study. Then he shot them. One of the survivors related the shooter’s only words:  “You rape our women. You’re taking over the country. You have to go.”

Carnage completed, he got into his black sedan and drove away. He was apprehended this morning in Shelby, South Carolina. This morning is heavy with pain. There are no answers yet. Only heartbreak.

Heartbreak #1: The lives lost, for no reason at all. When I first saw the news break (on Twitter of course), it was almost inconceivable. Nine people died going to Wednesday night bible study. They started their day, wanted to end it with the word of God, and died because one man decided he had the right to kill people. He has been apprehended. Even while presumed armed and dangerous, he was brought in peacefully, something routinely denied to unarmed, non-violent African Americans.

Heartbreak #2:  The immediate assumptions that arose before any facts were even known. Why assume that the shooter was mentally ill? Why the rush to explain his behavior in that way?  Why immediately ask that calmer heads must prevail, even before all the names of the dead are made public? Community organizer Christopher Cason was quoted as saying :”I am very tired of people telling me that I don’t have the right to be angry […] I am very angry right now.” Grief comes in many forms, including anger.  And anger isn’t inherently destructive. I just don’t understand how black anger and pain is scarier than white violence.

Heartbreak #3: We are too afraid to talk about obvious racial motivations. Our team at Fusion identified the patches on Roof’s jacket. One was the flag of South Africa, under apartheid. The other is the flag of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. How did a young white man from South Carolina start walking around wearing 40 year old flags of former nations with racist regimes? White racial resentment. Racism. Belief in white supremacy. Call it what it is.

Heartbreak #4: When the (silence) of our friends is violence. Sometimes the most painful thing to do is to watch your social media feeds and notice what is important to some of your friends and what is important to others. I woke up this morning to a voicemail from a friend who was heartbroken that her (majority white) church group would openly and vocally pray for Christians being persecuted around the world, but somehow fell silent when African Americans are targeted. In discussing this, friends are divided.  Silence isn’t always affirmation or consent – but after last summer and as we enter this one, with so many black lives senselessly ended, the continued silence is colder than a curse.

Heartbreak #5: Coexistence simply isn’t enough. As much as is made about this being the most diverse generation on the forefront of a racially shifting America, the end result is that a twenty-one year old white man was under the impression he was a soldier on the front lines of a race war. Visitors to Dylann Roof’s Facebook page will note the prominence of black friends. But racism has consistently proven itself deeper than ties of friendship or romantic relationships. Anti-racism, and the ability to confront and counter these ideas before they take deep root in young people, has been pushed to the wayside in favor of uncritical celebrations of diversity. But the simple presence of diversity is not enough to change deeply ingrained attitudes.

Heartbreak #6:  This all feels so familiar. Violations of black sacred space are part and parcel with racist campaigns against blackness in America.  The breathless “attack on faith” coverage on Fox News is strangely ahistorical – churches were burned and firebombed as a matter of course because they were sites of black organizing and black sanctuary. This trend did not end during the civil rights era- in 1996, the Washington Post reported on a series of arson crimes targeting black churches in the South.  At the time, the reporter noted:

Little evidence has emerged to suggest a national or regional conspiracy, according to investigators. But they point to a climate of underlying racism that encourages the arsonists to strike at African American churches.

Noah Chandler at the Center for Democratic Renewal, a civil rights watchdog group in Atlanta, put it this way: “The conspiracy is racism itself.”

This very church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was already burned to the ground once, and disbanded once. According to their history page:

In 1822 the church was investigated for its involvement with a planned slave revolt. Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, organized a major slave uprising in Charleston. Vesey was raised in slavery in the Virgin Islands among newly imported Africans. He was the personal servant of slavetrader Captain Joseph Vesey, who settled in Charleston in 1783. Beginning in December 1821, Vesey began to organize a slave rebellion, but authorities were informed of the plot before it could take place. The plot created mass hysteria throughout the Carolinas and the South. [Then Reverend Morris] Brown, suspected but never convicted of knowledge of the plot, went north to Philadelphia where he eventually became the second bishop of the AME denomination.
During the Vesey controversy, the AME church was burned. Worship services continued after the church was rebuilt until 1834 when all black churches were outlawed. The congregation continued the tradition of the African church by worshipping underground until 1865 when it was formally reorganized, and the name Emanuel was adopted, meaning “God with us”.

Heartbreak #7: Our language is inadequate. I work in media.  Friends in my twitter and facebook feeds are asking why the media doesn’t label these kinds of acts what they are. This is terrorism against African Americans, they say. The media wants to be precise.  What is a terrorist? Who gets to be one? Does terror have to be organized? The AP Stylebook has no real answers, just best practices and advice that changes over time. Can the new face of terror ever be a community of lone wolves, all acting independently, toward one horrific end goal?

Heartbreak #8: In the face of this tragedy, collective pain also brings solidarity. The first person to bring this to my attention last night was my friend Wajahat Ali, a follower of Allah. The third article I read, and first opinion piece I read this morning, was from Khaled Bey, who wrote for Al Jazeera English an article entitled “Black Lives – and churches – matter.” I appreciate the solidarity. I wish we weren’t having this conversation. I’m sick of people dying for no reason.

Heartbreak #9: This doesn’t end, really. A white friend of mine commented on the more intimate conversation I’m having with friends on Facebook. She explained that she was too sad and processing, and she and her husband didn’t know what to say, or how to explain it to her daughter. I could understand – her daughter is a year older than my son. But at some point, my son is going to have to understand, and I will have to explain these things to him, again and again and again.  There’s a five year old, right now, who just had to play dead to survive on the instructions of her grandmother.  Who is explaining this to her? How is she going to make sense of this.

I woke up to a group tweet I was tagged in from my friend TJ, which simply read “I love you all. Stay black.”

All of us tagged responded with love. Because we needed to do so. How else do you respond to so much violence and hate?

Unfortunately, it’s just another tragic day in America, a day unlike any other, but so like so many other days we’ve lived through. If there isn’t anything to say, it’s because our words are weighed down in our throats, muted by a multi-generational grief that appears to know no end.

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