As I walked towards the Mother Emmanuel Church I found myself counting every step I took, part of me didn’t want to arrive. On June 19th I took a morning bus to Charleston, South Carolina, two days after a self-described white supremacist walked into the historic black church of AME Mother Emmanuel and, after sitting in for an hour of bible study, murdered nine black churchgoers. Reverend and Senator Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend and Doctor Daniel L Simmons Sr., Ethel Lance, Myra Thompson, and Susie Jackson were gunned down on the evening of June 17, 2015. The shooter was able to reload five times during the attack, prompting gun rights activists and some black faith communities to argue that having a firearm within the church’s premise could have prevented the attack, while President Obama spoke in the immediate aftermath, saying 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.”
I had begun fieldwork in Georgia on gun ownership a week earlier. In Atlanta, my research looks at how security and ethics intersect among gun owners, especially those who conceal or openly carry on a regular basis. If “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” I set out to better understand who these gun owners were, and what such a conviction means in their everyday life and practices. Reading about the attack in the media, I wanted to learn what sorts of conversations about good and bad gun ownership this racially inspired terrorist attack would produce. Yet as soon as I arrived I felt uneasy about the visit: was I being voyeuristic or selfish to go to the city immediately after a mass shooting for research? The afternoon summer heat amplified these feelings of unease and apprehension. I looked down and saw a yellow crayon that had completely melted out of its casing and onto the sidewalk.
But I didn’t make it to the AME Church that Friday afternoon. Still blocks away from the church, in front of a tall looming statue of John Calhoun – an early and enthusiastic pro-slavery politician – I came across a small gathering of about thirty people. At the center of the group of people stood a middle-aged African American woman in a long pale gown. In her hand was a small, charred Confederate flag. On either side of the speaker stood a well-built man waving a pan-African flag of red, black, and green stripes. To complete the symmetry of the scene were two young white men, standing at opposite ends of Calhoun’s statue, wearing matching Black Lives Matter T-shirts and burning Confederate flags. The flags burnt slowly and unevenly and another middle-aged woman in a tank top would discreetly come up and spray lighting fluid on each flag to keep it burning. “This isn’t about gun violence or mental illness,” the speaker shouted in reference to early debates that arose after the attack, “this is about racism and white supremacy.” Two men in the crowd hit hand drums to mirror the rhythm of her phrases. As I watched, police quickly took up positions on the peripheral of the gathering.
The rally I’d stumbled upon and subsequent ones in the days that followed were largely absent from reports in the mainstream media. Most accounts of the city in the aftermath of the attack highlighted the verbal forgiveness family members of the victims gave the murderer and the large, peaceful manifestations. And these dominated; while I stood in Marion Square, witnessing a series of black speakers take turns sharing their own experiences with racism in the city and their concerns about the gentrification of traditionally black neighborhoods, I could also hear a Unity March in preparation not too far away, which would be attended by thousands.
while the alternate rallies were smaller, they served as significant spaces for anger and frustration to be expressed and broadcasted
But while the alternate rallies were smaller, they served as significant spaces for anger and frustration to be expressed and broadcasted. As the Marian Square rally drew to a close, one of the principal speakers spoke up and said that if there was no one else who wanted to share their experiences they had a present for us. With that, he and one of the men who’d already burned a Confederate flag unravelled an American one and began to spray it with lighting fluid. A few disapproving murmurs could be heard in the crowd but any sort of group discussion was quickly curtailed by the immediate police intervention. Two officers in quick stride walked through the middle of the rally and forcibly took the flag. The group was asked to form a circle around the police officers to prevent them from leaving with the (only slightly charred) flag. The remainder of the rally formed a semi-circle around the police officer, many filming the events as they unfolded.
“People pay attention, this is the American government at work.” The former speaker repeated as he stood in front of the police officer who was trying to leave with the flag. The police officer first told the presenter that burning the flag was a criminal offence; at some point the officer changed his story and mentioned that this couldn’t be done without the proper permits. After hearing that, the speaker boldly reached over, snatched the flag out of the police officer’s hand, and threw it to a friend who quickly ran back to the base of the Calhoun statue.
“Form a circle! Form a circle!” He yelled, instructing everyone to link arms in order to secure a space around the flag.
The flag, now saturated with lightening fluid, began burning quickly.
“This is the beginning of the burial of white supremacy” the presenter stated. The police, no longer watching the protest, grouped in a small circle to the side of the statue reviewing cell phone footage of what had just happened. After the flag was nothing but strands of grey residue, flyers were handed out for a second gathering that would take place the coming Tuesday (June 21st) with guest speakers from the New Black Panther Party and the Dallas-based Huey Newton Gun Club.
At these smaller rallies, another issue found a place for expression. The activists there were concerned with the status of the AME Church shooting as a terrorist attack, and the sense that the murder of Senator Clementa Pinckney was an assassination. A woman at the Friday gathering described above led attendees in a chant of “Senator Clementa Pinckney was assassinated.” These points were also emphasized by Malik Shabazz – the former leader of the New Black Panthers Party and current President for Black Lawyers for Justice – during the Tuesday gathering.
The question of terrorism circulated in the national debate. Although there were politicians on both sides of the aisle who said the intent was clearly terror, the director of the FBI commented of the shooting that “Terrorism is the act of violence done or threatens to [sic] in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry so it’s more of a political act.” During a discussion on these comments, and whether the Charleston shooting was an act of terrorism, Reverend Eugene Rivers argued that, “there is no rational discussion regarding the nature of the crime. We fast forwarded quickly to reconciliation, healing, and pain. Minus the truth” that the victims were singled out specifically because they were black. The second discussant, Lisa Stampnitzky, a sociologist who has studied the history of the term terrorism, agreed that whether or not to use the term ‘terror’ is a political question and “it’s about who is considered to be representative of our national community. And I agree that in large part it’s because people in power don’t see African Americans as representative.” It is easier for white residents of Charleston to forgive and unify on behalf of a segment of the population still not considered representative of their country, the political response ending with the (necessary) removal of the Confederate flag from the state capital. And by moving straight to forgiveness and healing as a city, the problems felt disproportionately in black communities – such as gentrification – that a racially motivated attack may otherwise highlight can continue to be overlooked and neglected.
African American residents of Charleston in fact broached the subject of gentrification often. As I waited in a small barbershop for a haircut one day, two journalists from the BBC walked in and asked if they could do some interviews about local African Americans’ thoughts about Obama coming to Charleston.
African American residents of Charleston in fact broached the subject of gentrification often
The barbershop was modestly sized and clashed with the yoga studios and hair salons just further down the street. Inside a group of middle-aged African American men sat on an old leather couch and a few metal chairs, eating complementary boiled peanuts, lingering inside to talk and watch TV even after they’d gotten their hair cut. And as the BBC reporters asked questions about their everyday experiences with racism and their opinions on Obama, the men started speaking about how gentrified their neighbourhood had become.
“The only white people I used to see around here were cops,” one man commented.
Another man recounted that, after resettling in Charleston following an extended period away, he had seen a small white girl riding a tricycle down the road. “I almost ran up and stopped her,” he said. He then saw, to his surprise, more white children playing in the middle of a street that had been far too dangerous for anyone to play in when he was going to college in the city. He commented that having safer streets for children to play on was certainly a good thing; but, at the same time, the people who had been there for generations still needed some place to live.
Leaving the barbershop, I took a walk down the historic and commercial district of Charleston. The boutiques, salons, and cafes in the neighbourhood had signs in their storefront with variations on the message ‘#CharlestonStrong’ or ‘We love you Mother Emmanuel.’ Some stores advertised that a portion of all sales that week would go to the Mother Emmanuel Church. The downtown streets, while gentrification made them less and less accessible to black people, were displaying an outpouring of support for the Church.
In nearly every conversation I had or overheard with white residents in Charleston, their point was that the city stands together in unity after tragedies. Discussions abounded about how Charleston wasn’t going to be ‘turned’ into Baltimore or Ferguson. Two (white) architects I shared a table with in a crowded diner a few blocks away from the Mother Emmanuel Church told me that what they loved about Charleston was that after two major incidents: first the Walter Scott shooting and now the Church shooting, there was no rioting as there would have been in other American cities.
“We just open our arms” one of the architects said, demonstrating with his arms outstretched, “and forgive”
“We just open our arms” one of the architects said, demonstrating with his arms outstretched, “and forgive.” I asked them if they had been to any of the support events or rallies going on through the city and they said no. One of the men had been in the slow process of moving into a new house while the other was busy at work. “I’ve been meaning to go check out the Church,” he added. “I drove past it the other day on my way home from work,” the second architect mentioned. Another (white) man I spoke to, the director of a museum in Charleston, reiterated this feeling, proudly telling me that, “That boy came here to start trouble. But we didn’t let him.”
Thus ironically, after attending concerned discussions about continuing white gentrification into black Charleston neighbourhoods, I could stumble upon two white architects currently designing new condos and office spaces (among other things) in the downtown Charleston area, who spoke so enthusiastically about Charleston as a unified city, who were so quick to forgive. I wondered how these architects would speak about Charleston if it did ‘become’ the next Baltimore. And would they forgive black protestors for causing some property damage in the same way that they felt the city was capable of forgiving the murderer of nine black churchgoers?
During my time in Charleston, the Calhoun statue that early gatherings had protested under was vandalized twice. First, the message of the plaque was defaced to (accurately) include that Calhoun was a pro-slavery, racist proponent. The second time, during the morning of Reverend Pinckney’s funeral, the base of the statue was sprayed with red dye to look like blood. After this, a small barrier made of plastic orange blockages was erected around it and a police officer stood guard as the enormous lines of attendees to the funeral slowly proceeded.
I went back to Atlanta at the end of week, having gathered these images. While expensive stores express solidarity with the victims of the Church shooting, a police officer stands guard in front of a defaced statue of the John Calhoun that looks over the funeral progression of Senator Pinckney. Not calling the shooting an act of terrorism may make it easier to forgive; the object of forgiveness is but an individual, a troubled young man, acting on his own. The city can heal and things can go back to normal, without making room for a wider discussion about whether that ‘normal’ state itself is one of unity, or justice.
Bradley Dunseith is a Master’s student in anthropology at the University of Ottawa, currently doing fieldwork for his thesis on gun ownership in the American South.