Facts Only: What We Really Know About Charleston, Dylann Roof & The 9 Lives Lost
Almost a week on, the hateful, deadly terrorism which took place in Charleston, South Carolina last Wednesday--when a gunman opened fire in the city's Emanuel AME Church, killing nine and leaving the nation stunned--is still difficult to write about. Those killings are all the more heart-rending on account of their motivation: racism. It is tempting to fall back on the conventional journalistic phrase and say that racial terror visited Charleston last week--but the truth is race-based terrorism was not a visitor to South Carolina, but a local. The gunman, Dylann Roof, 21, of South Carolina, was a fanatical believer in white pride and Confederate ideology. Each of his victims Wednesday night were black and members of Emanuel -- one of Charleston's most historic black churches. As Roof opened fire in the middle of a Bible study at Emanuel, he has been reported as declaring: "You rape our women and you’re taking over our country," as he himself murdered innocents.
Since Wednesday night, Roof has been apprehended by police, charged with nine counts of murder and has confessed. The case, as heartbreaking as it is, appears to be a simple one: Roof was a bitter racist who hated blacks and chose to act on that hatred; he acquired a gun through a loophole in South Carolina's background check law, and used it to manifest his bigotry in an unspeakable manner, taking the lives of nine people in a space that, of all spaces, is intended to be one of peaceful refuge. However, the American media cannot abide simplicity--it searches for nuance, rationalization, controversy and political angles. Everyone has a "take," a supposedly inspired and unique conceptualization of terror, what causes it and what horrible effects it has wrought.
Asking ourselves as individuals and as a society: What does it all mean? is a totally appropriate, maybe even existentially necessary, exercise. Facts, however, can be quickly lost amidst the narrative tug of war that began immediately over the nature, motives and meaning of this monstrous act. Many of us have not yet had time or peace of mind to sit down, dig through the takes, and find out for ourselves what really did happen the night of June 17th, 2015 and especially when so many of us digest news in the form of tweets, sound bites and alerts, it seemed out of place to add yet another "hot take" without putting the facts in one place. And so, in language as dispassionate as we can muster, below you can read the who, what, where, when, how and why revolving around the Charleston shooting.
Who: Those lost to us include:
- Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, a South Carolina state senator, community activist, father of two and active leader at Emanuel church.
- Cynthia Hurd, 54, an employee of the Charleston Public Library.
- Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a mother of three and local high school sports coach.
- Tywanza Sanders, 26, a driven scholar who had just received his college degree in business from Allen University in Columbia, S.C.
- Myra Thompson, 59, leader of the Emanuel church's property committee.
- Ethel Lee Lance, 70, grandmother and member at Emanuel for three decades.
- Susie Jackson, 87, grandmother, sister and longtime member of Emanuel.
- Daniel L. Simmons, 74, a retired pastor and the only victim to pass away at a hospital after being rushed from the church.
- Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49, a masters degree graduate of Wesleyan University and former employee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
At the center of course, was Dylann Roof, an unemployed 21-year-old man with numerous connections to racist, white supremacist ideas and movements. A website allegedly belonging to Roof was uncovered Saturday, upon which numerous photos of Roof posing with Confederate army flags were found, as well as the following message, apparently describing his rationale for this attack:
I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.
Where: The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina.
When: Roof entered the Emanuel church at approximately 8 p.m. Wednesday night, armed with a .45 caliber pistol that his parents had given him only in the past week. Roof sat with a Bible study group at the church, reportedly directly next to Reverend Clementa Pickney, before standing up and opening fire just before 9 p.m. He fled the scene and was captured roughly 14 hours later, across state lines in North Carolina during a traffic stop approximately 250 miles from the scene of his horrendous crime.
How: Roof used a .45 caliber handgun that, according to reports, was given to him by his parents. Roof, it should be noted, would not have been able to purchase a gun through a dealer because of an outstanding felony charge on his record (the 21-year-old was charged with felony possession of the prescription narcotic Suboxone in February). However, as the Washington Post reports, a loophole in South Carolina law permits family members to give guns to each other without a background check. "It’s illegal to give guns to felons or people with felony indictments — but that’s only if you know about their criminal records," the Post writes. "In South Carolina, you don’t have to ask, so private citizens can more or less freely exchange guns." Witnesses attest that Roof reloaded as many as five times during the course of his shooting spree.
Why: This, of course, is the hard one. The most difficult--and important--question to answer amongst all of the horror, bloodshed, hatred and distress. But then, none of the other questions -- the who, what, where, and when -- are in truth simple. In a very real sense, Roof didn't truly act alone--in weighing the hatred and sense of violent entitlement that made a murderer out of him, we must consider a national legacy of bigotry and disregard for the value of non-white lives. This crime took place in Charleston, a haven of Old-South spirit as symbolized by the Confederate flag which still--for the moment--waves over the state capitol. But it would be self-deceptive to think that any other corner of the country can look down on South Carolina from a place of moral purity--as if there was some precinct of the United States that was not implicated in the profits and ideology of the Atlantic slave trade (to our neighbors here in NYC, it is important to note that those corporations which profited directly from slavery--including New York Life and JP Morgan Chase, which under previous names accepted enslaved human beings as collateral on loans--are still open for business). In the category of facts, however, it's worth recording that Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen and SC Governor Nikki R. Haley have openly labeled Roof's act a hate crime. It's also important to note that they have no standing to prosecute it as such, a determination which must be made at the federal level. According to the NY Times: "Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said the Justice Department was investigating that possibility."
So while we return to the debate over Why? and What now? as others are just beginning to "investigate the possibility" of racial hatred existing in a society that in so many ways was founded on it, we will at least do so with facts in hand. We urge you to do the same, even as we collectively keep up the pressure for positive change. There are those who will go to any length to avoid uncomfortable truths but the facts will always make meaning harder to twist to your own purposes, good or ill.