On June 17th, a white man named Dylann Roof murdered nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (EAME). I mention race because it was not a coincidence – this was an act of terrorism in the service of white supremacy.
Understandably, people are scrambling for an easy solution, and most proposals involve some show of state force. Unfortunately, the reality is that there are no easy solutions, and most suggestions would only make things worse.
For example, many have used the shooting to push for stronger gun control measures. This is a non-starter.
Roof’s bloodbath was less than ten miles away from where white police officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott, a black man who was running away. Slager’s case is unique in that we actually know about it, and that he was actually charged. Police kill countless Americans every year, and blacks are most likely to be their victims.
Black people — not just in Charleston, but throughout the United States — experience the police as occupiers, not protectors. Centralizing firearm ownership in the hands of the police will not protect people of color, because the police are the exact group most likely to terrorize people of color.
Furthermore, the actual effect of gun control laws has been to incarcerate black Americans at a rate more disproportionate than any other federal statute, including drug-related offenses. It is not just that gun control leaves disadvantaged communities dependent upon those most likely to terrorize them. Gun control itself is often the pretext of that terrorism.
Many who resist calls for gun control instead point to “doing something” about mental illness. This convenient narrative forgets that people deemed mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence, not perpetrators.
It also forgets that Roof’s problems were ideological, not psychological. Instead of just shrugging and saying “you can’t fix crazy,” we should confront Roof’s actual motive, white supremacy.
Finally, there is one almost universally endorsed response to Roof’s crime: his punishment. Some have also urged South Carolina to enact hate crime legislation, so that future Dylann Roofs can be punished even more harshly.
This, too, will only make things worse. No one will be made better off by Roof’s punishment, and the punitive focus of our legal system will rob survivors and victims’ loved ones of what restitution and restoration could have been made instead.
In Roof’s case, survivors and victims’ loved ones have publicly forgiven him, pleading that he repent. That is their desire. Our legal system’s desire, by contrast, is the satisfaction of public bloodlust.
If we are truly interested in fighting racism and violence against marginalized populations, punishment — and its expansion through hate crime legislation — is extremely counterproductive. The same groups “protected” by these statutes are the ones most likely to be harmed.
This is why the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (which specializes in protecting transgender and gender non-conforming people) staunchly opposes hate crime laws. As their powerful statement explains:
[H]ate crime laws … expand and increase the power of the … criminal punishment system. Evidence demonstrates that hate crime legislation, like other criminal punishment legislation, is used unequally and improperly against communities that are already marginalized in our society. These laws increase the already staggering incarceration rates of people of color, poor people, queer people and transgender people based on a system that is inherently and deeply corrupt.
By saying that there are no easy solutions, I am not saying that there are no solutions. The point isn’t “do nothing,” and it isn’t “wait around until we have a justice system based on restitution and restoration.”
What we should do instead is develop solutions from below, and step out of the way so those solutions can take effect. EAME, and other black churches like it, have historically been one such solution. They facilitated black self-empowerment, and in 1822, EAME’s founder even plotted a slave revolt.
The response of the white community was to burn down EAME. EAME’s response was to rebuild.
Now, the black community must rebuild again. White Americans must now work to ensure they don’t burn down those rebuilding efforts.
Many black Americans, such as the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, have begun to arm themselves for protection. When our white-dominated government seeks to burn that down by disarming them, it must be stopped.
Beyond just getting out of the way, white Americans must also work to question their own racism and the racism of their white peers.
None of these solutions are quick, and none of them are easy. But they are also the ones that will actually work.
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