Monday, September 7, 2015

What is to be done: Reflections on the Mother Emanuel shooting

At left: the victims of white supremacist Dylann Roof, all members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (known as "Mother Emanuel") in Charleston, South Carolina.

Left to right, from top: Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Ethel Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Myra Thompson.

When the shooting in Charleston happened (June 17), I nearly had a nervous breakdown.

All the work we have done towards racial reconciliation here in the South, all the dialogue, all the reaching-out, making alliances, supporting one another and going the final yard... POOF--I felt it all go right up in smoke, the smoke of gunpowder, the permanence of death. Holy God... REVEREND PINCKNEY???? I thought I would faint right there on the spot. No, I thought, panicked, please, NO, not Reverend Pinckney. I had to go on the radio and report this horror, and what possible words could there be? On the air, my voice quavered, and I said as simply as I could, this was exactly like a hard, sharp blow. On the head.

My co-hosts, looking stricken, just nodded silently along with me, encouraging me to go on. I was speaking for them too.

And I asked, how can white activists talk about this and not make it "about us"? Because its not about us.

One of my co-hosts, the amazing Double-A, disagreed. Of course this is about us. A self-identified white supremacist shot these people and we are white. We must always make it clear that this person does not speak for us, that this person is a dangerous renegade. He is the proverbial LONE GUNMAN.

Yes, okay. That is true... but of course, we do not want to claim him as one of us. And we don't have to, that is one of the main privileges of whiteness, isn't it? White sociopaths are... sociopaths first. Black sociopaths are... black first. Black criminals represent their race, while white criminals are just anomalies, outliers, sicko-crackpots safely apart from the rest of us... surely they do not represent the entire white race.

Do they?

Some black children will be afraid of us now. They are already afraid; they do not stop to ask, are all whites dangerous? They already know the answer to that by what they have seen. They act accordingly. They will avoid us, cross to the other side of the street when a group of us approach. They are looking at the record, they see what is right in front of them.

I wept passing the local historic black church close to my home, Reedy River Baptist, when I saw the marquee out front advertising Wednesday night Bible Study. YOU HAVE RUINED THIS FOR US, YOU MISERABLE FUCK DYLANN ROOF... At this point, I would no sooner walk in there for Bible study than I would go to Mars. A white person was welcomed for Bible study, and he drew his gun. On the air, I recalled the warmth and kindness of folks when I first moved South over 28 years ago, didn't know the neighborhoods and ended up at an all-black AA meeting. I was welcomed as one of their own, although they did wryly ask where I was from. Their kindness hit me hard, because I knew in the reverse situation, the black person in an all-white AA meeting would not be welcomed warmly, but probably just ignored or possibly chatted with on a superficial level (and *I* would be the one to do that). I was ashamed of what I knew then, and now.

The next time one of us strays in, or deliberately goes in, what will be the response? If it is suspicious and/or hostile, can we blame them? Maybe the response SHOULD be suspicious and/or hostile.

Even as I wept after the news of the shootings, the arraignment of Dylann Roof nearly drove me under. All that incredible, unbounded forgiveness reminded me of why I flunked out of Christianity so spectacularly. I have a hard time with forgiveness. (Irish Alzheimer's: you forget everything but the grudges.) Their incredible examples of humanity and decency made me sob with recognition, this is what we were taught: SHOW MERCY. I would have had none, and that made me cry even harder. Perhaps my own privilege is the reason I am unable to show mercy? My white arrogance somehow tells me the wrongs committed against me are of paramount importance... I can't let them go.

I decided the next time I needed to forgive, I would remember the words of these family members, forgiving Dylann Roof. I will remember and I will take them as my model, the spiritual heights that mere humans are capable of reaching when they dedicate themselves to the very highest principles, these truths we hold to be self-evident.

They felt sorry for him. He wasn't right, he was tormented and lonely... and they saw this. So did I, but... no sympathy.

I decided I wanted to be like them.

And so, the event changed me. This is why it has been so difficult to write about. As a white resident and political activist of South Carolina, the actions of Dylann Roof pierced my soul, and the forgiveness of the people he wronged set that same soul on fire. DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU MUST DO?--my inner self asked me, the voice I have always attributed to the Blessed Mother, whom I love. DO YOU SEE NOW?



How to write about these things and be respectful? Specifically: How not to excoriate the opportunistic Southern politicians who suddenly came out of the woodwork to claim... I dunno, something. They came fast and furious, babbling and talking about prayer. Finally, Governor Haley decides the confederate flag must be taken down from the South Carolina State House, after defending it nonstop for two terms. Liberals threw spitballs, but she emerged looking good; she was all ready for her close-up, Mr DeMille! It was hard not to get mad all over again, as our very conservative, nonwhite governor decided to be nonwhite for the networks, and make a name for herself at long last. CABINET POSITION, she was whispering to herself... along with THIS IS MY SECOND TERM, THE RACIST LOONIES CAN'T VOTE ME OUT.

And so, Governor Haley signed the order and I waited around for hell to freeze over solid. She also attended every funeral, wearing her pricey, trademark designer duds. She even hugged Al Sharpton forgodsake. Luckily, cameras were around constantly to catch her dabbing at her eyes.

Believe me, this was hard to take.

Senator Lindsey Graham distinguished himself during the proceedings, talking not to the Masses but straight to South Carolina conservatives (his base) when given two minutes on any network: Please you guys, this is not the time to protect the flag... I understand how you feel, BUT THIS IS NOT THE TIME. Etc. He sounded like a kindergarten teacher trying to soothe an ill-behaved child who had locked himself in the utility closet with a rifle. Maybe that IS who he was talking to. The whites who feel wronged, left behind, their folkways and customs made fun of in international media, the southern whites who have felt the mass contempt of the world, sitting in their trailer parks, daily shit on by the rich. Angry, because its one more thing "they" are telling the poor whites they must leave behind, one more thing the liberals on the coasts have decided they can't have. Their resentment percolates, and in some times and in some places it is so pronounced, you can feel it.

And I watched confederate flags unfurl in the week the flag was removed. Many in the rural areas are still waving. One guy in a pickup was driving all over Woodruff Road with a stars-and-bars the size of Saskatchewan. But I looked around, and I saw other drivers pointing at him. Some shaking their heads in open disapproval. Its one thing to wave your flag before the NASCAR race, but another to wave it after someone has shot nine people to death, waving it in selfie after selfie. That wasn't cool, and even conservative SC citizens could clearly see that.

Progress of a sort. I wondered, does blood have to be shed before there is PROGRESS? Must we have martyrs before there is any damn PROGRESS???

More tears, more inability to write.

As you can see, it has taken me months.


Our Confederate Memorial Day state holiday remains untouched, as I reminded the kids on tumblr. In addition to South Carolina, there are official "Confederate Memorial Days" in Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia and Louisiana. (Virginia and Arkansas appear to have escaped this fate somehow, and good for them.) What are we going to do about that, anything?

Certainly, eradicating Confederate Memorial Day just doesn't have the ready-made media optics of taking down a flag, so maybe nobody cares? Except of course for the state workers insulted by the holiday. Do they count?

I say, lets get rid of it. And all those statues of John C. Calhoun? Calhoun Street, where Mother Emanuel is? Wade Hampton Boulevard, within spitting distance of me, also the name of a local high school? The entire South is named after slave-owners and confederate heroes. We have our work cut out for us.

As an American, I always believed the Germans went way too far, outlawing nazis, naziism and nazi paraphernalia for good. You know, free speech and alla that blahdeblah First Amendment bullshit I was raised with. But see, NOW they don't have to deal with this--they don't have towns, streets, boulevards and schools named after dead nazis, and that is the reason why. I stand humbled, and I officially apologize to the German people. You saw what needed to be done, and in your shame, you did it. Good for you.

Our turn now.