When you read about Dylann Roof, the man who killed nine black men and women as they prayed, think about the patterns he represents.
Over the next few days, we’re going to hear about mental illness. We’re going to hear about troubled loners. We’ll hear about a young man’s racist fantasies, so outrageous that he would
celebrate the apartheid regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia. We’ll hear from family, neighbors and high school friends, and the picture that will emerge is of a young man who was strange, disturbed, sick, abnormal. The message will be that the massacre in Charleston was an unpredictable, unavoidable tragedy carried out by an individual madman.
Don’t lose sight of the patterns.
When Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African Americans at a bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, it was a hate crime. We know, because Roof told the survivors precisely why he had come to this historic church to commit mass murder: “You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.” It was an act of domestic terrorism. Roof has reportedly told investigators that he wanted to start a race war with his actions. Shooting nine black people as they prayed was a way to terrorize all black people and to destroy the safety and comfort of what should be the safest of spaces.
Attacking black Americans was also part of a pattern.
The United States is a dangerous place to be a black person. Black Americans are twice as likely to die from gun violence than white Americans are. Hispanic and Asian Americans are less likely to die from gun violence than white Americans. Gun violence is a tragedy that disproportionately affects Black Americans.
So is murder. In 2012, blacks represented 13% of the US population and represented 50% of homicide victims. Black men were 8.5 times more likely to be the victim of a homicide than white men. Politicians and commentators – notably Rudy Giuliani – are fond of pointing out that most black men who die of homicide are killed by other black men. That’s true. But it’s also true that most white men are killed by other white men. Most murder – 78% between 1980-2008 – is committed by someone the victim knew well, a family member, friend or other acquaintance. Given high rates of homophily in American society, it’s not surprising that black people know – and kill – black people and white people know – and kill – white people.
What is surprising is how police handle these murders. In New York City, the “clearance rate” for homicides with white victims is 86%. For homicides with black victims, the rate is 45%. In other words, in the majority of homicide cases where the victim is black, the case is unsolved and the murderer remains on the streets. Yes, investigating homicides of black people is often complicated by a culture that discourages cooperation with the police, the result of decades of mistrust between police and the communities they serve. But they are also the result of police decisions about resource allocation, and a culture of underpolicing black neighborhoods, in which police have demonstrated that they’re more likely to harass individuals at random through racial profiling than they are to investigate serious crimes.
And while we’re talking about the police, let’s remember that at least 101 UNARMED black people were killed by law enforcement in 2014. That includes Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley and Darrien Hunt, but it includes dozens you probably haven’t heard about, like Justin Griffin, a 25 year old basketball coach who had an argument with a referee – the referee was an off-duty sheriff’s deputy and he and another deputy beat Griffin to death. From 2010-2012, teenage black men were 21 times more likely than teenage white men to be killed by police.
We need to learn to see these patterns, some of us more than others. The pattern of police violence against black lives is much easier to see if you’re personally affected by it than if you’re not a member of a targeted community. In that case, it can be hard to see patterns from single incidents. We read about the death of a black man in police custody and are likely to see it as an isolated incident, unless someone points out the larger pattern of undue force applied by police to black suspects.
Thanks to Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, we have a narrative – #blacklivesmatter – that helps draw connections between Walter Scott’s death at the hands of the police in North Charleston, and the slaughter of nine of Charleston’s finest citizens at the hands of Dylann Roof. As Cullors has explained, #blacklivesmatter is not just about the death of black people at the hands of police or vigilantes: “The media really wants to say ‘This happened in Ferugson, this happened in Baltimore, this happened in New York. Are they the same?’ Yes, they’re the same. Black people are not a monolithic group, but what we are facing is something that’s extreme – and that’s poverty, that’s homelessness, that’s higher rates of joblessness, that’s law enforcement invading our communities day in and day out – and we are uprising.”
Cullors talks about a “Black Spring”, a parallel to the Arab Spring, where black people and their allies start uprising and demanding a more just nation. People who knew Roof tell us that he was obsessed with the protests resulting from the Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray deaths – a Black Spring is exactly what he appears to have feared the most. Those he killed, notably the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who as a state senator was a key figure in the fight to bring body cameras to South Carolina police, were precisely the people working to better the lives of the black community – and the community as a whole – in Charleston, SC.
Was Dylann Roof a troubled loner? Yes. But he was also resident of a state where a segregationist flag flies above the State Capitol and can’t be taken down or lowered to half mast without approval by the state assembly. To reach the scene of his crime, he drove on highways named for confederate generals. He lives in a country where black people are disproportionately the victims of official and unofficial violence. Dismissing him as a uniquely sick individual ignores the pattern.
Roof also lives in a nation with a unique and problematic relationship with guns. Reflecting on the murders in Charleston, President Obama pointed out, “At some point, we as a country, will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.” Rates of private gun ownership are higher in the US than anywhere else in the world – it’s twice as high as in Yemen, a conflict-torn nation in the throes of a domestic insurgency.
Our gun murder rate is off the charts in comparison to high-income nations – to find adequate comparisons, we need to look at countries like Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Parts of Latin America greatly outpace the US in gun murders per capita, but some of our most dangerous cities for gun violence – New Orleans, Detroit – have as high a rate of gun violence as the world’s most dangerous countries.
Not only were Dylann Roof’s crimes part of a pattern of gun violence that’s near-unique to the US, they are part of a pattern of mass shootings. Mother Jones, tracking shootings by single killers in public places in which four or more people were killed, has identified more than 70 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Like most mass killers, Roof used a handgun, and like the vast majority of mass killers, he obtained his weapon legally.
We have a pattern of mass gun killings in the US, and we have a pattern of doing nothing about them. Two years after the massacre of elementary school students in Newtown, CT, The New York Times has tracked gun laws passed in the year after the Newtown shootings. 39 laws tightened gun restrictions; 70 loosened them. If the pattern continues, South Carolina – a state where you do not need a permit to own any sort of handgun – is more likely to legalize concealed carry without a permit than it is to significant restrictions on handgun ownership.
We didn’t have to wait long to hear the argument that more guns would have saved lives in Charleston. Fox and Friends managed to find a pastor who argued that religious leaders should preach while armed, so that they could defend the flock from attack. NRA Board member Charles Cotton found a way to blame Roof’s crimes on a man he slaughtered, Reverend Pinckney: “he [Rev. Pinckney] voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”
American resistance to sane gun control laws is based on fantasy. We fantasize that guns will protect us from being victims of crime. They don’t. Gun owners are five times more likely to be shot than non-owners. Women who live in a house containing one or more guns are 3.4 times more likely to be killed than women who live in gun free homes. For each instance someone used a gun to kill in self defense, more than fifty people were killed with guns. We fantasize that we will stop crimes with guns, if only pastors or teachers or any brave civilian were allowed to carry concealed weapons. We’d do well to remember Joe Zamudio, a bystander at the rally where Representative Gabby Giffords was shot, who had a concealed weapon and narrowly missed killing not the gunman, but the man who wrestled the weapon away from the gunman.
These fantasies keep us from seeing the pattern. We live in a country where it’s far too easy for anyone – a disturbed individual, a criminal, or an ordinary untrained citizen – to obtain a gun, and where gun violence is an endemic public health problem. People in other countries think we’re crazy. As the Economist wrote today, “Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass killings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.” These fantasies are constructed and marketed by people who don’t want us to see the pattern, people who believe, sincerely or cynically, that America would be a safer place if everyone was armed.
Here’s why patterns matter. So long as we treat each mass shooting, each black death as an isolated tragedy, there’s nothing we can do. We’re the victim of the law of large numbers, the reality that in any large group of people, there are those that will harm others, abuse positions of power, do crazy and horrific things. Every news report that focuses on Roof’s mental state, that tries to unpack the biography that led him to his crimes is a distraction from these patterns. There’s nothing we can do to bring back the lives of the nine people Roof killed. But there’s work we can do to make sure black lives matter. There’s work we can do to help Americans see our neighbors as people, not targets.
If it’s hard to see patterns, it’s really hard to see how they intersect. Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to explain how forms of oppression reinforce and compound each other, that understanding the challenges black women face involves considering not just racism and sexism, but the intersections of the two. The killings in Charleston are the product of intersectionality as well, of a society where racial hatred makes it possible for a young man to want to kill black people and where the ready available of weapons makes it possible for him to kill a lot of black people. America’s obsession with guns is a big part of what makes this nation so dangerous for black people. America’s endemic racism is a big part of what makes American buy, own and lobby for guns, to protect ourselves from an “other” that we fear.
Jon Stewart did a wise thing in reacting to the shootings in Charleston – he admitted that there were simply no jokes that could be made. But he also articulated a sense of hopelessness that’s easy to feel, and hard to fight: “I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack shit.”
We’ve got to do better than that.
Help people see these patterns. When you talk about Dylann Roof, don’t talk about a sick. sad young man. Talk about the lines that link Charleston to Ferguson and Charleston to Newtown. Rail at the confederate flag flying over South Carolina, but rail at the less obvious ways we disrespect black lives – over-incarceration, underinvestment in education, the disappearance of economic mobility and the rise of economic inequality – that prevent black people in America from having a fair chance. Understand that fighting gun violence is a way to fight racism. Help build a narrative to understand and combat gun violence in America the way that #blacklivesmatter helps us work for a Black Spring.
Mourn, but act. Support the people working at the intersection of these patterns, as the Brady Center is in campaigning against “bad apple” gun dealers, the 5% of dealers responsible for selling guns used in 90% of crimes. Look for new patterns, like the emergence of anti-government “Patriot” groups, heavily armed and often racially motivated, whose actions get far less media attention than protests against police violence.
We can’t bring back the nine people Dylann Roof killed. But we can and we must work to fight the patterns that make these killings possible.