It’s been difficult to cope with what happened in Charleston on Wednesday night. My emotions have been a mix of sadness, rage, hopelessness and fear. Mostly, I’ve been just absorbing the news and dealing with the trauma of yet more Black lives taken away in America. I’ve watched the victims get eulogized by just about every outlet imaginable and – while their lost lives are obviously tragic and something that should be remembered – something about their memorials have disturbed me.
There seems to be a slight shift in rhetoric to insinuate that these nine victims of the Charleston Terrorist Attack are more innocent than other Black lives lost. And that’s simply not the case. The victims in Charleston are not victims of some anomalous instance of violence and irrational rampaging. They’re victims who hold the same amount of innocence as countless other Black men and women killed by police in this country. The Charleston victims are innocent bystanders caught in the line of racist gunfire. They’ve been rightfully characterized as nine Black men and women who were simply minding their own businesses in a place of worship. Then they were gunned down. They’re victims of racism.
But Trayvon Martin was murdered while minding his business and buying Skittles. Freddie Gray was murdered while merely riding his bike. And Tamir Rice was just playing in the park.
And then there’s Aiyana Jones. What would have happened if Aiyana Jones were in that Charleston church during the massacre? After all, Aiyana Jones was also minding her business, sleeping on a couch at her home when terrorists bombed her living room and murdered her – forcing her family to sit in a pool of her blood. But since Aiyana was killed by police, her death isn’t eulogized. She isn’t treated like a victim of a violent rampage.
Conversely, if Aiyana Jones were in that church when a “lone gunman” killed her, America would treat her death as a tragedy. Conversely, if a police officer had gone into that church and opened fire, America would be wondering what Reverend Pinckney did to deserve being shot. His past would be brought up as an excuse for his death.
I’m disheartened by the way America is differentiating the people killed in the Charleston church from the hundreds of Black boys and girls murdered by police officers and racists across the country. Myra Thompson, who was murdered in Charleston, is just as much a victim as Tamir Rice was. The same thing that killed the Charleston Nine is the same thing that killed Mike Brown: fear of Blackness, hatred of Black America and a desire to see Black men and women die in this country.
When the Charleston Murderer – no, I’m not saying his name – walked into the church and said, “you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country … I have to do what I have to do,” he’s stating out the loud that same motive that compels a police officer to open fire on a 12-year-old boy in the park. Or the same fear that makes George Zimmerman follow a Black teen to see what trouble he’s up to. “I have to do what I have to do” is basically the same justification as “I was being attacked” or “I was acting in self-defense.”
The Charleston victims are not outliers of the #BlackLivesMatter movement – killed by a happenstance shooting spree. They’re victims of the racist construct that is America. The nine victims of the Charleston massacre are not exceptions to the 500 or so Black people killed by police in America. Their deaths are extensions of that racism.
South Carolina will hang flags at half-staff for nine days in response to the lives lost as part of the massacre. I hope that the state, and the rest of the country, are prepared to keep flags at half-staff for longer because racism in America is likely to claim more Black lives before those nine days are up.