Some of you are waking up – in more ways than one – to the news that a White man walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, and massacred nine people.
The church is one of the oldest in the country, co-founded by Denmark Vesey, who unsuccessfully attempted a slave rebellion. That revolt involved a plan for hundreds of enslaved Black men and women to kill slaveholders, commandeer ships and sail to a recently liberated Haiti for refuge. However, the plan was quickly foiled, and Vesey was later executed with 35 other co-conspirators. This month marks the 193rd anniversary of the failed rebellion.
As of last night, this historic church has a new legacy. Among the nine dead in last night’s shooting include the church’s current pastor, State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney. And according to the New York Times, the F.B.I., the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division are assisting in the manhunt for the lone gunman. He is described as a clean-shaven White man in his early ’20s.
According to Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, the shooting is being labeled as a hate crime. He also said, “It is unfathomable that somebody in today’s society would walk into a church while they are having a prayer meeting and take their lives.”
Unfathomable? No. Unconscionable? Yes. Still, there is a bigger cause for concern here, and it is about how we look and label this cowardly act of violence. I’m just going to go right ahead and say that the mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church is not a hate crime. Most crimes, particularly premeditated mass murder, are about hate. But rather, what happened in the sacred temple of Emanuel AME was nothing less than terrorism.
It may seem presumptuous to make such a bold declaration considering the suspect in the shooting has yet to be fully identified or apprehended. However, as defined by Title 18, section 2331 and 2332 of the U.S. Codes, terrorism – both domestic and international – is defined as violent acts dangerous to human life. These actions attempt to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”
What else could possibly be more intimidating to both a civilian population and its political representation than a possible lone White gunman walking into a church where unarmed Black parishioners are engaged in the most non-threatening act of Bible study, and opening fire, killing a state senator and eight others in the process? Black churches in America have been the target of White racialized violence, aggression and intimidation since their inception. Therefore, it is not inconceivable or incomprehensible that this is still the case.
And how we label these acts of mass violence matters, as these labels directly affect how we respond to them. When Boston bombing suspect and Islamic extremist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was labeled a terrorist, authorities used their full constitutional powers to shut down mass transit, ban civilian aircraft from taking flight around the area, and to conduct door-to-door searches. When ex-LAPD police officer turned cop killer Christopher Dorner was classified as a domestic terrorist, law enforcement too went into overdrive. Not only did they conduct door-to-door searches and stop (and in some instances shoot at) every blue SUV they could find, but they also offered a $1 million dollar reward for his capture and protection for the families of up to 50 police officers. And when Denmark Vesey attempted his slave rebellion, the U.S. government did not hesitate to call him treasonous (and to this date there is still a raging debate among historians in South Carolina as to whether or not he was a terrorist) and form large militias to hunt down his 34 co-conspirators.
But when racially motivated crimes happen to Black people, we rarely treat these occurrences as anything more than isolated incidences, and never do we call them terrorism.
As in most cases of domestic terrorism, this mass shooting should have us in panic mode. We need to hear from both President Obama and the Department of Homeland Security about possible chatter among White supremacist extremists who may have foreseen this shooting. We need everyone one who has ever left a threatening comment on social media or sent a hateful letter to President Obama detained and questioned. We need our officials to tell us to report suspicious White behavior to the proper authorities. We need the entire weight of the U.S. government, law enforcement agencies and counter-terrorism units patrolling the streets, stopping and frisking and damn near harassing every clean-shaven White man in work boots.
We also need 24-hours news coverage. We need for our news channels to play in continuous loops video of heavily armed White men draped in the American flag as well as Biblical quotes while talking heads explore and dissect whiteness. Just like they do every time a Muslim commits a crime. Or when a Black person kills another Black person. Or when that God-awful Rachel Dolezal story surfaced.
We need to prematurely draw direct and indirect lines to both domestic and international White terrorist networks, including the White Christian church, Rome, Fox News, and the conservative political right. We need to talk about their history of violence. We need all the White antagonistic race-baiters to be called to the carpet and made to explain what is it about White people, their culture and their God that makes them hate and kill others so much.
It may sound inflammatory to some, but this is what happens each and every time a radical act of violence is labeled a terrorist attack. And there is no reason it shouldn’t be happening now. But when we only label violence committed by Black, brown and other skinned people as terrorism while failing to properly label racialized violence against people of color in the same vein, we send a clear message. And that message is that the only real threat to sovereignty and peace that matters is what happens to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant power structure, and that is nothing more than racism.