In Charleston, we were reminded that racist vigilante attacks against black people are a part of this country’s legacy. This a legacy built on violence through the subjugation and criminalization of black communities and terrorism to incite fear. Rather than addressing that legacy, the response to the Charleston massacre almost immediately focused on concern for stronger gun regulations. Instead of the identification of Dylann Roof as a racist with a white-supremacist ideology, we’ve heard remarks from even the president about the need for stronger gun regulations and mental-health care (as if racism were a mental illness). Less attention was paid to cracking down on white racist vigilantes and stemming the rise of right-wing racist hate groups.
What we know from history: Racist vigilantes don’t need guns to kill black people. Charleston is no different than the 1963 murder of four black schoolgirls in a Birmingham church, accomplished with 15 sticks of dynamite. Charleston is no different from the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till by two white men who beat and shot him in the head for supposedly flirting with a white cashier at a grocery store.
As we remember the lives of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor—it is wrong to compare Charleston to Sandy Hook, which was the act of a deranged man needing proper mental-health treatment. If we are to address gun violence, we must also understand that the Charleston 9, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, and many others like them are deeply embedded in institutional injustice and structural violence. We must attack the core inequalities in our society if we are to put an end to the senseless deaths and systemic violence inflicted on black communities. The question about race and guns can be simply drawn down to the rhetorical: “Who gets the right to feel safe in this country?” There has been a monopoly on who has the right to feel and be safe in this country—a monopoly that is often regulated and enforced by cops and corporations.
Talking heads like Chuck Todd have used Charleston as an opportunity to perpetuate a false image of black communities as riven by gun violence that must be controlled. When the country responds to the crisis of a mass shooting, largely perpetuated by young white men in this way, there are dire consequences for black people. Politicians and advocates seek to put more police in more places, including our schools, and implement discriminatory policing tactics like “broken windows.” Increased policing in black communities contributes to mass criminalization. In response to Charleston, NYPD patrols were set up across the city at black churches—contributing to a culture of fear and ongoing police practice of surveillance and the patrol of black communities. Is this what it means to be safe?
For communities like Charleston, this isn’t simply just a gun-violence issue. It intersects with the current movement against state violence and mass criminalization. We know that safety for black communities requires a move away from mass criminalization and a move towards fewer police. Safety will require community organizing and power building. Safety will require models of restorative justice and community-based solutions. Black communities have been victims of police and racist vigilante violence, economic deprivation, incarceration, and political isolation, and require a direct reinvestment and a social safety net in order to keep our communities safe. Black lives will matter when black communities can live without fear from both police and racist vigilantes.