We registered the grief of mass killing — this time of nine black church members in South Carolina — with horror, empathy and recognition. Our recognition includes the trauma, not only of our Isla Vista community in May of 2014, but also of the six killed inside a Wisconsin Sikh temple in 2012, that same year when 26 children and staff members suffered fatal gunshot wounds inside Sandy Hook Elementary School. The same year, 12 were killed inside an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, filling a monstrous list of gun violence incidents in America that has covered our newsfeeds since their creation, a list that is ever expanding. We recognize yet another individual claiming the right to decimate a chosen populace, yet another instance of violence against the black community. The explicit hatred, the psychological inexplicability is frustratingly familiar.
The horror of the shooting in Charleston is a far separate incident from that locally in Isla Vista, and it requires a deeper discussion involving knowledge of the history of racism and unreported violence against people of color than I am qualified to present. But the familiar discussion surrounding these lone male killers bears analysis, especially as it has been focused upon by numerous media outlets already which spit the same rhetoric, dismissing the killer’s own stated ideology while demonizing the catchall category of “mentally-ill.”
Charleston’s violence was pointedly grown from the land on which white supremacy and black resistance holds a long history. Easily picking up a gun is a “right” afforded to the majority of Americans today, and the plan to enact racial hatred was part and parcel of the killer’s self-directed education. No biological predisposition or psychological assessment guides this plot of terrorist action — it must be fostered by social forces.
Superficially, it looked like some of our elected leaders finally woke from their inexcusable silence and political vagueness following the tragedies of past years. Last Thursday President Obama stated, “We do know that once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun … At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this kind of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. It is in our power to do something about it.”
Powerful words to those of us who remember the long silence — broken only by a video message from Joe Biden and local campaigning — following the shooting in Isla Vista. Obama did respond in a June 10, 2014 Tumblr Q&A to a question by UCSB student Nick Dineen about how to prevent future gun violence. The issue of keeping “guns out of the hands of people who can do just unbelievable damage” he recognized as his “biggest frustration,” held at bay by special interest groups such as the NRA. Mass support of the public, according to Obama, was the necessary instigator of “change in Congress,” without which it “will not change.” An unspecific response, because regulating the accessibility of guns is only a small facet of addressing terroristic violence.
The social change we need begins far before legislative action. While the accessibility of specially designed killing devices undergirds the lethal impact of these tragedies, equally prominent are the ideological vehicles through which violence is executed. The Charleston shooter publicly celebrated his absorption of white supremacist values, undeniable in the reported words to his victims: “You’re taking over our country.” His alleged Facebook rants and racist posts bespeak overt hate. But the trappings of this hate, the racist ideology, are so familiar to the killer’s social media acquaintances that they are seen as just another opinion. Yes, the actions of one person cannot be entirely attributed to inaction on the parts of others, but if we are to reach for any semblance of justice in our world, it must come first in the form of social accountability. What ambiguity is there in the killer’s uniform of Rhodesian and apartheid South African patches, his representative Facebook image now covering the web? This is the social aggression for which we must remain watchful and ready to counter before it results in irreparable loss.
The proliferation of internet hate-groups outside the reach of federal or state sanction represents a self-propagating ignorance that must, at least partially, be combatted with education. The historical discussion tagged with #Charlestonsyllabus, begun by Brandeis University Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of African and Afro-American studies Chad Williams, represents the kind of counter-education needed to immunize the population against regurgitating institutionalized and implicit acceptance of white supremacy and other culturally ingrained ideologies. Anyone with social media access can read and contribute to the crowd-sourced syllabus, a curated version of which is available at aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/, to find multimedia on the history of Charleston, SC, racial violence and further context on the dense background of U.S. racial history. The reading list is extensive, supplementing a lifelong course for which we are collectively responsible.
Worst of all is the fact that a single gunman with rounds of lethal ammunition disposable in a few seconds (available at the nearest gun-shop) creates a catastrophe that can only be addressed through prolonged, collective, pluralistic action. We have witnessed the rough slog through which Richard Martinez, father of I.V. massacre victim Christopher Michaels-Martinez, and local Senator Hannah Beth Jackson have pushed for change on the legislative front. Martinez still speaks out for gun regulation, to reduce the ease with which an individual can so quickly inflict massive trauma. Jackson authored Senate Bill 505 and co-authored Assembly Bill 1014 last year, increasing the possibilities for family and law enforcement to restrict gun possession in the face of disturbing behavior, and she continues to provide a rare example of commitment to public safety with similar legislation.
Last year’s rallying cry — initiated by Martinez — was the call for #NotOneMore. Now, the general consensus seems to be a resignation to the fact that there will be more. If not after Newton, Sandy Hook, Aurora, why should this instance be any different? Mapping our history through hashtags, last year’s discussion of #YesAllWomen heightened after the Isla Vista Killings, and the deaths of South Carolina AME Church members provides more justified impetus for #BlackLivesMatter. The certain horror of the Charleston shootings is that they weren’t random; they happened in a historically prominent black church, committed by a man determined to kill members of the black community after waiting an hour through peaceful service.
Hope doesn’t exist in changing this kind of person. Preventative measures require vigilance, increased connection and attention to those within our community and practiced rejection of those views which may seem to be just another retrograde opinion, just something to ignore. The dichotomy between viewing these crimes as either the result of mental illness or social forces is a false one, as no diagnosis is yet possible to isolate what turns an individual person into someone who hates, and turns the hate into an active plan.
We recognize the shock and mourning of South Carolinians, of our fellow citizens once again hearing about a lone gunman brutalizing an innocent gathering.
And we support those who actively demand informed social change.
Suzanne hopes hashtags can supply the information forgotten from or left out of text books.
[Editors Note: This article appeared in the June 25, 2015 print edition of The Daily Nexus as “Another Avoidable Tragedy: Why We Need to Change Today.” The online retitling is by request of the author.]