‘See What Y’All Can Work Out’: The State of Empathy in Charleston

Charleston’s—and our nation’s—systemic racism, through the lens of the Dylann Roof trial.

Shani Gilchrist and Alison Kinney | Longreads | January 2017 | 31 minutes (7,836 words)

 

The sentencing phase of Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof’s trial for racially-motivated mass murder is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, January 4th, 2017. The white supremacist’s trial brought together two writers of color—Shani Gilchrist, one of a small group of black reporters in the press room, and Alison Kinney, an Asian-American living in New York—who, prior to the trial, knew each other only from Facebook. Here they write about their experience in Charleston. They write about banding together to get better access to the story; about resisting white supremacy with creative collaboration and strategic silence; about working together to figure out the ethical responsibility of storytelling now—and to find hope and friendship in their conversations.

1. We write:

On June 17, 2015, a Bible study group met at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Their text was Mark 4:16-20, the parable of the sower, a narrative of words scattered, heard, received, or failing, of deep-rooted faith that withstands trouble and persecution. The parishioners welcomed a newcomer, who sat down with them, listened, reflected, and then opened fire.

Of the twelve parishioners, three survived: Felicia Sanders, her little granddaughter, and Polly Sheppard. Nine died: their names were the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel W. Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., and Myra Thompson.

A year-and-a-half later, at Charleston’s J. Waties Waring Judicial Center (named for the civil rights judge who first declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional), the two of us, Shani Gilchrist and Alison Kinney, would briefly note the scripture. We were at the courthouse, listening for the most incidental revelation, not only on the trial of Dylann Storm Roof, who would be found guilty on 33 counts of federal hate crimes, including hate crimes resulting in death, but also on the national crisis of bigotry and empathy. From the courtroom arguments and testimony, we gleaned bits of procedure, too: when Judge Gergel told the counsel for defense and prosecution to reach a resolution on the evidence, “I would direct you two to sit down together today and see what y’all can work out.”

We heard it as a directive to the nation, and to us—two writers who’d met through a Facebook group, whose prior interactions were limited to reading each other’s work there—sitting down together for the first time in real life, in coffee shops and in the courtroom, to work it out. We’d already found that we were both people who knew within five minutes if we were going to like someone, both people with loquacious, goofy senses of humor that masked our shyness. As writers on race, social justice, and culture, we were also figuring out how to participate in our country’s post-election dialogue. Some of the people we’re supposed to interview and interact with pose dangerous threats to us—although the invitations and threats we receive are not commensurate, as Shani is black, and Alison is Asian-American.

Another random moment: on the day before opening statements, Roof, who’d chosen to self-represent, reinstated his attorneys. While the courtroom deputy, Eunice Ravenel-Bright, a dark-skinned woman with a serious face whom everyone referred to as Mrs. Ravenel, readied a Bible for him to swear upon, he stood up casually, unshackled, as he’d remain for the duration, and started to make his way to the podium. There was almost a sideways swagger to his walk. Mrs. Ravenel’s body stiffened. The consummate professional, she said what sounded like, “No, Mr. Roof. You wait. Will the U.S. Marshal accompany the defendant to the podium?” But what the entire gallery heard in their heads was probably more like, “Hell no. Don’t get near me or my judge without someone with you who can legally knock you on your ass if you even look at me funny.”

An accused mass murderer. An entitled, lazy kid who was a proven danger to society. Unshackled and unaccompanied. In a courtroom. It’s an image that does not set right. An image that shatters the illusion of safety: safety depends here not on the law, but on rebuke, minding, and vigilance—not by the marshals, but by the person subject to the greatest threat.

2. Shani writes:

Two days before the New Year, as I sit in a coffee shop and write, I find myself defying all logic. On some level, I’m actually looking forward to getting back into the federal courthouse in a few days, for the sentencing phase of the trial for Roof. They say it takes 18 months to feel at home in a new city. At the end of those months, during which I hit some pretty low lows, it’s not without some guilt that I’ve been brought to the finality of “home” by this work. Despite the horrific nature of this case, I’ve found strange solace in writing, live-Tweeting, and bearing communal witness. There is relief in the camaraderie of the media pool, in knowing my work is, somehow, helping people.

On June 18th, the day after Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston to carry out his plan to start a race war, I was living just under two hours away, in Columbia, South Carolina. I’d fallen asleep uncharacteristically early the evening of the shooting, planning to get up early to drive to Charleston to look at houses. We were contemplating a move, and with my husband, Aaron, traveling so much for work, I had to do much of the investigating on my own. That morning, it was my insistently buzzing phone that awakened me, rather than my alarm clock. I had no idea what had happened the night before. Once I’d absorbed the texts I’d received, I sat at the edge of my bed and turned on the news, feeling the strength drain from my bones. I called my husband in London. “I don’t know what to do,” I told him. “I just don’t know what to do.”

Aaron told me I needed to get my camera, notebooks, and laptop, get in the car, and drive toward Charleston. The kids already had a sitter. Just go.

I went. Instructed to meet some local friends for a “small community meeting” at a sister organization, I arrived fifteen minutes early at Morris Brown AME Church, but there was no possibility of getting in. It was packed. Pretty much all of the Charleston peninsula’s residents who weren’t inside the church could be found outside it, dazed and grief-stricken, wandering around the 100-plus-degree sidewalk looking for someone to hold them together in a hug or in prayer.

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Placard on the Mother Emanuel AME Church. Photo by Alison Kinney

I drove back to Columbia knowing that moving to Charleston would soon be a definite reality.

Aaron arrived home, and the following week, our realtor dragged us, practically kicking and screaming, into a house we’d deemed ugly and ostentatious based on the photographs on the real estate website. To our surprise, we arrived to find that we loved this house. It was the one, even though we’d never considered living downtown with any serious tone. Built in 1999, it was much newer than the other homes in the area, built between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. It had an open, welcoming feel to it. And it was within 1,500 feet of Mother Emanuel.

I am thankful to be an editorialist, not a reporter, during this time. There were the victims who attended the church I walked past every day. A defendant whose stomping grounds were uncomfortably close to the horse farm my family owned when I was a teenager. His Eastover home was mere steps from the general store I used to visit to buy feed buckets, frozen quail, or a ham biscuit. As an adult, while returning from visiting friends in the country, I’d probably pulled my car over in front of his home to scold my children on more than one occasion. Roof’s attack was racially motivated, and I harbor no compassion for him, the killer. But knowing the communities in Columbia and Eastover where he spent his time, I’m unable to separate the devil in his deeds from the humanity of his surroundings. I’ve rested my eyes on the same scorched hayfields and neighbors as that strange, curious, and repulsive boy did.

We have yet to understand why we’re really here; when people ask us, we have a hard time answering. To be brutally honest, I’m still not there yet. The last two months of 2016 gave rise to many unuttered questions regarding the wisdom of our decisions. First, there was Election Day—the first and only day I allowed myself to believe there was no way for Sec. Hillary Clinton to lose to Donald Trump. That evening, I gathered friends at a favorite hotel lounge, where we watched the returns come in on my laptop and sipped champagne. Taking advantage of having two women of color with me who used to work in broadcast news, we discussed what was happening via Facebook livecast. There was an omen in that evening, though. My throat, out of nowhere, began this weird, slow burn. By 10:30 that evening I was in my bed, begging for mercy on my chest and throat, knowing that Donald Trump was in the lead, but unable to think beyond that.

The next few days weren’t full of mourning and grief, the way many friends have described. For me they were filled with an anguished anxiety that wouldn’t cease its ebb and flow. The feeling wasn’t a direct line to the President-elect. Instead it was filled with worry about a worsening of polarity and lack of empathy between American individuals. I was seeing it in the graffiti popping up in the street. I was terrified one day when, within five minutes, I learned that “Trump” and a swastika had been spray-painted on a light pole in my neighborhood, and that my son’s school had performed its first-ever practice lockdown drill.

I was seeing it in the murderous crescendo of language coming from social media—the dark side of which had previously been the domain of fringe, so-called alt-right types. It was in language directed at supposed friends and colleagues. When I wrote a post about the need to listen to people who know more about the world and the way its gears turn, a now former friend—a Trump fan—started in with comment after comment attacking me for being dishonest about my agenda in my writing, for “baiting him” when I had the gall to defend myself, for being a sore loser and a basic, run-of-the-mill left-wing propagandist. This man was once a mentor to my husband in his early career. This man’s daughter was the favorite babysitter of our first child. This man had, to our knowledge, hardly ever said a vitriolic word about people and politics. Soon after that, I deigned to wag a finger at people who put naked photos of Melania Trump on social media. I understood their anger. But I perceived such posts as an abandonment of our ideals in resisting Trump ideology and rhetoric, when a feminist who argues for women and their bodies to be respected adds a big “EXCEPT FOR…” I lost a few liberal social media friends over that one.

I started shedding pounds at an alarming speed. I felt extremely lonely. My husband was out of town, and I seemed unable to make a connection with anyone through the static of high emotions and bad decisions. Within a couple of days, I barely had it in me to leave the house.

When legendary journalist and PBS News anchor Gwen Ifill died on November 14, I recognized that I was in danger of severe depression, and tried to lift myself up a bit by inviting some friends, one whom had known Ifill, over for dinner and a toast to her great life. With that, I started to climb out of my dark hole. A few of my essays were published, one of which had to do with the mistakes in the national narrative about the families of those who were slain in the Emanuel AME Church massacre, railing against the Unity & Forgiveness narrative the nation had gotten so swept up in after the massacre. “Charleston was exemplary in not erupting into violence or unrest,” I wrote. “Vigils, marches, and rallies abounded. But if these moments of ‘unity’ don’t result in a change—a continued empathy and a continued inclusion across racial lines—they become nothing but a pacifier.” I wanted to see the story set straight, without the exhausted survivors and families being held up as the nation’s gracefully subservient black citizens. I wanted to see them get a break from being cast as the embodiment of the plight or blight of being black in this country. These were unfair typecasts in which no one wanted to take part. These typecasts, made from different angles by black and white writers across the country, had very little to do with who they actually were.

I applied for media credentials to attend the Roof federal murder trial and started to make plans to cover it. Work was helping the dark fog around me to clear, until fear planted itself even further into my psyche.

On November 17, my 10-year-old got up at 5:45 a.m. I’d been imploring him to use his alarm clock to save me from groggily pulling myself up the stairs each morning. He finally relented, but we’d forgotten to set the clock back an hour a couple of weeks before. It had been cold that week, and we’d had our fireplace burning every morning. As he sleepily padded down the steps, he heard footsteps and called out, “Dad?”

When he moved to the bottom of the stairs, my son saw a man standing by the kitchen door. It was still dark, so most of his details were shrouded in shadows. His back was facing my child, and he looked over his shoulder in my son’s direction before, mercifully, he walked out the door. It took a while for my son to register what had happened. At first, he assumed that my husband was fetching wood to start the fire. My son padded back upstairs and took a bath, then walked into our bedroom, and was surprised to find Aaron lying in bed.

It turned out the intruder had taken my laptop and my husband’s, a wi-fi speaker, my Nikon camera that I use on assignments, and my son’s iPad. He had taken the purse that contained my wallet and a notebook, and two notebooks out of another purse that was nearby.

As soon as the police left our home, my mind started to reel. According to the officers, crimes like this were highly unusual in our little neighborhood. Yet here we were, with an anxious 10-year-old who felt guilty for not doing anything to stop the intruder, and all of the equipment I used for my work stolen. Friends, some of whom work in law enforcement in Columbia, speculated that the intrusion was a targeted one—against me and my editorials. One even suggested I get self-defense and weapons training.

I spiraled downward again. It’s one thing to know your writing will agitate people, but most of them live in the realm of the Internet comments section. It’s completely different when that agitation or anger enters your home for your children to see. Horrified, I began to seriously consider giving up my career, which was also my lifeline, the way I thought through and processed everything. Writing my next column for Charleston City Paper was a slow, arduous exercise in self-doubt. I was lucky to have friends from far and near sending messages of encouragement. Neighbors stopping by to make sure I was remembering self-care. But the piece, once published, drew this threat:

No little liberal Black girl, its not fear, its anger—anger at all of the BS we have had to put up with for the last eight years. But it’s over. And things are going to change. One thing that’s going to change is the [Confederate] FLAG that you Black bastards and the worthless rag-headed bitch that sits in the Governor’s chair, took down. Until that flag goes back up, its open war on all of you miscreants. When it goes back up, I will get along with everybody; but not intil. If we have to get rid of the whole lot of you to do it, we will. [sic]

The firestorm that was November wrapped up with the acceptance of my credentials to join the media pool at Roof’s federal trial.

* * *

In the beginning, before members of the national media started trickling in, I felt a little funny sitting with print and broadcast journalists from around the state. I was the lone editorialist, and even when the guilt phase had ended, I was the only editorialist to have attended almost every day. Increasing my initial discomfort was the fact that I didn’t really know what I was doing there, at least not at first.

This is when Alison flew in from New York—a cerebral, analytic, Asian-American writer. She had the beginnings of a story idea, but didn’t feel she had the right to tell it.

I tried my best to explain the multilayered, deeply nuanced situation of Charleston and its history. In just 18 months here, I haven’t yet had a chance to nail it all down. Many people who’ve lived here their entire lives either can’t or won’t do this. It’s impossible to walk to the corner store always thinking about what it means to live in a city that was the epicenter of the slave trade and is, as a result, the epicenter of race relations and conflicts in America. When tectonic plates shift, breaking the continuity of the solid ground, the movement travels out from the event in rolling waves. The same is true of the system—America’s original experiment in agrarian economy based upon forced human labor—that broke the continuity of America’s fledgling founding principles. The effects of the waves are felt with a little less poignancy with each mile travelled away.

When it comes to America’s deeply troubled racial history, the further the destructive waves travel, the easier it is to forget that their source is a real place filled with actual humans and their interconnectedness. Mother Emanuel’s story—Charleston’s story—is, no matter how you slice it, an all-encompassing human story that has been and continues to become more deeply shrouded in stereotypes in the work of writers and journalists living far from this epicenter. If no one’s telling the truth of this story, I told Alison, somebody has to do it. In this case, the story’s rights belong to all who are affected by it. As long as the truth and nuance are being shared, we’ve got to start somewhere.

3. Alison writes:

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The Confederate Museum in Charleston. Photo by Alison Kinney

Charleston International Airport welcomed me with at least eight red-and-white-decorated Christmas trees, and a matching sign: “NO CONCEALABLE WEAPONS ALLOWED,” with a white gun in a red circle-and-slash. I took photos there, and in the downtown tourist district where I was staying, walking the streets to compile a graphic lexicon of the city: “JESUS SAVES,” emblazoned on a church steeple. “GONE SHOOTING,” in a shop window dedicated to the chase. “Daughters of Confederacy” and “CONFEDERATE MUSEUM OPEN,” with a little blue wheelchair symbol stuck on the corner. “Mother Emanuel Way Memorial District,” at 110 Calhoun Street, named for the slavery advocate John Calhoun, whose statue looms one block away, and who, as I knew from Shani’s essays, had declared on the U.S. Senate floor in 1837: “But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil:–far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”

I visited Charleston with the outward purpose of researching jury selection and death qualification for a long-term project. In truth, I went in search of words that could help me understand my own world better. These Charleston words, with their contradictions, understatements, evasions, and violence, felt familiar.

For weeks I’d been hearing writers, politicians, and activists, at political meetings, in editorials, and on social media, urging me to listen to and empathize with disaffected white Trump voters, as the best strategy for winning their votes and saving the country. Their visions of the country, and of empathy, were incomprehensible to me. I grew up in a small Northern town, afraid of the local Klan and neo-Nazis. Three of my white grandparents worked at the zinc mines. I have poor and working-class white relatives, some right smack in the Rust Belt, who’ve suffered every kind of privation—but in defiance of stereotypes, they didn’t vote for Trump. And the affluent Trump voters, who just kind of believed that immigrants and people of color—like me, say—weren’t really human, didn’t need to be normalized by liberal New Yorkers.

The word “empathy” began to fill me with a bitter, creeping despondency; I began to think that I no longer understood the language of my peers and profession. Empathy for whom, and from whom, at what cost? Meanwhile, I was overwhelmed by appeals from friends: Black, Brown, Muslim, Jewish, Latinx, queer, immigrant, women, people suffering verbal and physical attacks, whose children were terrorized, upon whom the election had unleashed not unprecedented assault, but an escalation of the hatred and violence they’d always known. These friends were writers, scholars, and artists. They weren’t attending the meetups or writing op-eds, because they were too hurt. Exhausted. Fearful that, this time, they wouldn’t survive.

Then there were the total strangers. On November 9, during the first of the New York protests, a beautiful kid, mouth taut with pain, walked toward me with a sign saying they were Black, queer, and, “I need a hug.” I am an East Asian woman in her forties, whose body everybody reads as anodyne—who doesn’t attract the attention of riot police—who can say in the most unthreatening way, “Do you still need that hug?” In our embrace, the kid’s bones felt slight enough to buckle and blow away. I tried to cast blessings for four more years of survival over that young body, born after the time I’d stopped believing in God. Those encounters kept happening, that night and in the weeks afterwards, till I lost count of the friends and strangers who needed comfort. On the train, at a party, there’s always somebody crying, somebody in danger, somebody who needs to be held by any stranger who might notice, who’s carrying extra tissues in her pocket.

So I flew to the Blue city of Charleston, where the simultaneous trials of Dylann Roof and Michael Slager, the white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed Black man, Walter Scott, represented a microcosm of the national debate on white supremacy. Here, where the terms of courtroom participation required fairness and impartiality, the jurors might as well be stand-ins for the undecided voters of racial justice, chosen to spend two weeks doing nothing but to listen, weigh evidence, and decide the verdict on Roof.

My walk ended at Shani’s, where she welcomed me with tea and freshly baked cookies, deprecating the state of her lovely house, although she’d managed somehow to attend the trial all week, decorate her tree, and throw a kids’ party. She set me in the best armchair before the fire, where her enthusiastic dog leapt into my lap. Immediately, she offered me enticements to embed in Charleston: she could hook me up with local historians, reporters, politicians, artists, families who’d lived in Charleston for generations, people directly impacted by the violence at Mother Emanuel. She told me about her op-ed—soon to be killed—on the difficulties of finding a truly impartial or representative jury in an interconnected society like Charleston’s. “People need to be telling these stories! Nobody in Charleston wants to talk about race!”

Each time she paused for breath, I said, “Oh my God, have you written about that?” or, “Wait. Did you just say that [South Carolina Governor] Nikki Haley babysat you?” She mesmerized and troubled me. I’d come here with national press authorization, yet I couldn’t read, much less parse, so much of Charleston’s language. (That paint color: it wasn’t black, but Reconstruction-era Charleston green. The Christmas shop where I bought Shani a present was a minefield of plantation houses, cotton bolls, white Santas and Christs—but which of the beach ornaments represented segregated white beaches, and which were historically Black? As for the calling card—a letterpress card bearing only a name and telephone number, not a business card—given to me by a fellow writer, Shani would explain that that wasn’t a contemporary Southern gesture, but a Los Angeles transplant’s whim.)

Shani was better than embedded: she was a Black South Carolinian woman who’d endured and chronicled this year in Charleston, and would carry on, long after the national reporters had left. She had insight, talent, and many friends in the media, so where were her national bylines and paychecks? To facilitate the conversation she desperately believed Charleston needed, she’d give away her contacts and stories to any taker. But she wasn’t just a source or native informant. She was a writer, observer, crafter, and interpreter.

I write not to master my words, but to struggle with them through ethical, aesthetic, and personal problems. Yet sometimes the right sentence—the just sentence—is the sentence drafted, but not pitched and published. Sometimes the best response is to shut up, defer, and amplify someone else who has greater authority. Shani had that authority, and I wanted to hear the stories she might tell. If Roof’s grandfather was a prominent Columbia lawyer, how was whiteness being put on trial here, and how did it feed the post-election narrative of disenfranchised whiteness? Who was going to report on the poems of Tywanza Sanders, about whom several memorial poems had already been published in literary magazines? What steps would be taken, or not taken, in Charleston and around the country, to make sure that this never happened again?

I decided to abandon my own project, instead offering Shani my contacts and logistical and editorial assistance for her work. She demurred. “I see your point about appropriation and staying in your lane. But who’ll talk to all the people who’d listen to you, but not me? The people who won’t do anything otherwise, because they see this only as a black issue?”

By the end of the evening, we’d decided to collaborate. Maybe we could write something together, that we couldn’t write singly, about empathy and survival.

4. We write:

Every morning, the court grants the press a few courtroom access passes, first-come, first-served; the overflow media may work in a nearby courtroom equipped with video screens. The judge has banned all electronic devices—phones, computers, recorders—inside the courtroom. Those who have to live-Tweet, or file breaking news, grab what seats they may in the media room, at the counsel tables, the jury box, or gallery benches.

The media room is very quiet during the prosecutor’s December 7 opening statement, while he names and describes each of the parishioners at Bible study that day, those who died and those who survived. When he moves on to describe Roof’s preparations, the sound of fingers striking soft laptop keys fills the room, like the sound of teeth biting into hundreds of chocolates. Listening and writing are simultaneous acts here. What we hear, then choose to transcribe of the narrative, becomes the news.

The counsel for the defense says, “This is going to be a hard decision. It’s going to be unbearable at times…. But you have a job to do that no one else does, and that is to go deep, go beyond the surfaces, and ask questions that no one else is required to ask.”

5. Shani writes:

As I sat in the courtroom during jury selection, a side of myself emerged that hadn’t in the past: I’d never shared a room with an accused murderer before, to the best of my knowledge. A “work wall” came crashing down, and the vulnerability and fear I’d begun to feel, just walking to the store, disappeared. At one point, as the room was getting settled in anticipation of the court’s adjournment, Roof turned to survey the gallery, and our eyes met. It wasn’t awkward on his part or mine. We just kept on with what we were doing. Later, I realized that, in any other situation, this would have been an extremely jarring and frightening experience. My “work wall” instinct had kicked in before, but not when covering a racist murderer in a potentially triggering environment. I started wondering how this might affect other black and/or women journalists.

There was the way we were greeted each morning of the trial, for example. Homeland Security guards were posted every twenty feet or so from the corner of Broad and Meeting Streets, past the courthouse door, toward the end of the block where Broad meets King Street. They were hulking, mostly middle-aged men in dark sunglasses, bulletproof vests, and carrying weapons. They must have been a strange sight to tourists ambling by to gawk at the trials on their way for a tour of the supposed “pirate’s dungeon” in the Old Exchange building.

I’d spent the last year-and-a-half amongst juxtaposed images, so their presence didn’t strike an unusual chord. I greeted them cheerfully after walking a mile from my home. They greeted me back. The ma’ams and sirs of the formal South were only used for a day or two. By the day of opening statements, my husband laughed aloud when he arrived to pick me up for lunch, and one of the guards—weapon and all—was helping to adjust the belt of my coat, which was now two sizes too large after the weight I’d lost from stress. These days, privilege, safety, and familiarity are often presumed by the marginalized and their allies to be reserved for white citizens. In the small confines of downtown peninsular Charleston—just a fraction of greater Charleston—residents enjoy a small bubble of safety, where the safety provided by law enforcement is presumed to be for all residents, included in the gruesome and intimate familiarity that arose out of professionally bearing witness to a horrific trial.

Inside, the trial was nothing if not an affront to simplistic, linear explanations of who Roof is—a side which hasn’t been reported much. I sent pitches to numerous national editors juxtaposing Roof’s tangled family background—addiction, a jumble of class privileges and disadvantages, his grandfather’s being a prominent, progressive lawyer in Columbia—with the interdependencies and conflicts of neighbors within systemic racism; analyses of Roof’s coddled, entitled demeanor in court; his refusal to meet eyes with anyone on the witness stand; redemption; and white supremacist ideology. Many of my pitches were either ignored, or the editor would cast them off with a comment about readers being interested and upset only about “the race thing.” They wanted confirmation that Roof’s racism, as a product of “the South,” was the root of all racist evil. They didn’t realize that that storyline reinforced the fantasy of being able to blame individual pathologies for the problems and prejudices of the many, of whole communities—of systemic racism.

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Via Twitter, New York Times reporter Alan Blinder corrects Slate on its incorrect reference to the timing of Roof’s mother’s passing out. Screen Capture by Shani Gilchrist

The few attempts to depict the unusual dynamics inside the courtroom resulted in inaccuracies, like a piece in Slate claiming Roof’s mother had a heart attack after hearing the testimony of survivor Felicia Sanders. The truth was, Roof’s mother collapsed earlier that day, when court was adjourned for lunch, after the prosecution and then the defense gave opening statements. I was seated two rows behind, and didn’t see his mother fall over to lie down on the bench. By the time I noticed something was off, all I could see was her belly button ring, revealed as her cropped t-shirt pulled up and exposed the gap above her sky blue leggings. Her partner sat next to her, talking softly, calmly. His mustache barely twitched. After a minute or two, she was sitting up again and his arm was draped casually across her shoulders. She was talking. Making sense. A stretcher was on its way as a safety precaution. Later, we would learn of Roof’s yearning for his mother, and I wondered—no matter the state of her health, her mental state, or her demeanor—if he’d really considered how his actions would affect her movement through the world.

Once it was apparent that the woman would be fine, the rest of us filed out of the courtroom. I hadn’t yet processed what I’d seen. All I could do was work hard to hide the way my body wanted to start quaking with some mixture of emotional exhaustion and overstimulation. A black woman journalist from out of town was next to me. I’d noticed her during the prosecution’s statements. They were difficult to hear, the claims of such inhuman calculation against living people whose humanity the defendant refused to acknowledge. During the more graphic explanations, she’d looked around the room. Her eyes were watery and wide and afraid. We locked eyes for a moment. I observed, but in order to retain my own composure a little longer, I’d gone back to taking notes. As we exited the courtroom I saw that the level of inhumanity shining through Roof elicited no empathy for his mother from this journalist.

There are still people—journalists, even—who were there, but insist that Roof’s mother pleaded for forgiveness and passed out in response to Sanders’ testimony–which occurred after lunch, after Roof’s mother had left the building This was the level of emotion that constantly ran through the room. Everyone was affected. No one was immune. The memory and the mind’s eye became unreliable. One could never tell what one was or was not perceiving.

I witnessed black journalists visiting Charleston for the trial who seemed to have an earnest desire to learn about the community, its grief, and its humanity. There were other journalists of color who came into Charleston with their minds already made up that this must be a sinister, evil town that only wants to kill its black people. There were people in the gallery and media room of many skin tones and no direct association to these trials who were so overcome with empathy and anguish when faced with the idea that such cases still exist and how far the ripples of repercussions flow.

Later, within minutes of the guilty verdict, the guards had gotten so used to me that we all laughed together when I tripped over the cobblestone on the sidewalk. In that moment, a white man—presumably a tourist—also felt safe enough to yell, “And we didn’t put nothin’ in that sidewalk to do that to ya, neither!”

6. Alison writes:

On the corner of Meeting and Broad Streets, a white man of about 60 years stands holding a sign: Blue Lives Matter. He says, “Good morning.” I look up at the St. Michael’s Church bell tower where snipers surveil us, and down the street at the law enforcement officers clustered by the otherwise inconspicuous courthouse door. There’s a German shepherd. We’ve gathered on this stretch of pavement specifically because of violence against Black people, and the security presence is supposed to make people—which people?—feel safe. But I wonder if a swastika would attract the same scrutiny, through a rifle scope, as the one Black Lives Matter T-shirt I see would.

It’s the morning of December 5, the Monday after jury deliberations have begun in the trial of Michael Slager for the murder of Walter Scott, hours before the judge will declare a mistrial. I join a small crowd of bystanders listening to the Charleston chaplains who are conducting a prayer vigil outside the courthouse. A white man strikes up a friendly conversation with me. For about twenty minutes we chat about the case, the city, how long I’ll be in town, what I’m doing that evening (working), and where I can find him later, before I wonder, “Is he hitting on me?” and “Wait, is he a cop?” (Fact-check: unverified, and yes, respectively.)

 

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Charleston chaplains conduct a prayer vigil outside the courthouse. Photo by Shani Gilchrist

Flabbergasted, I go jaywalking back across the street to the other courthouse. My slowness in reading his identity and intentions suddenly strikes me as a sign of my relative racial invulnerability. As a person of color, I’m far more agile at registering racist affronts—epithets, discrimination, a white man taking a swing at me on the street with a glass bottle—than at recognizing all the subtle ways I benefit from white supremacy. But as an Asian-American in this place, I’m remembering how members of my community supported Peter Liang, the former cop who killed Akai Gurley in Brooklyn.

White supremacy isn’t just on trial here in Charleston; it’s the environment in which all of us reporters and writers think and work, all the time and everywhere. Except that we don’t all experience the same anxiety, encumbrance, or precarity—even from moment to moment, as I watch Shani and the few other journalists of color, among dozens of white media members, navigating the security. I remember this the first time I hear Roof’s voice in person: medium-pitched, with the hollow timbre you get from speaking on the intake of breath rather than the exhale. I can’t imagine a more stereotypically ghoulish voice, or a more chilling smile than his, when he moves toward the door, turns, and grins at everything or nothing. I scribble a note: it’s easy to find him repulsive, but personal disgust doesn’t do anything to dismantle systemic racism. On another day, I glance at a white journalist’s notebook, where she (I presume it was she) had sketched the back of Roof’s head with the text, “Boyish head, long neck.” Was that insouciance, whiteness, empathy, or something else?

How do those of us who are more implicated put white supremacy on trial?

My relative privilege confers a responsibility on me. That happens at protests, where it’s my privilege, but also an abatement of despair, to try to extend the boundaries of safety around me, looking out for those who are more endangered: by my recording the police, by carrying a first aid kit and extra goggles to loan, by lowering my emotional defenses against strangers who need help. In the courthouse, I try to leverage some of the privilege and ease I experience, as a non-Black person of color and as an absurdly fortunate writer, for the sake of our project. On the day Shani stays away, because she can’t make herself watch, I look at the panoramic photos of the Mother Emanuel fellowship hall, at what the first responders and crime scene investigator repeatedly call “chaos” and “chaotic,” and compile the catalog of chaos for our records. Stuff like that, and getting up extra early to secure our coveted courtroom pass, are the least returns I can make on Shani’s contributions. They’re also selfish acts, because our coffeehouse workshopping, phone calls, and frantic editorial texting give me hope. But she doesn’t exist to be my inspiration porn, either: we are collaborating, arguing, thinking together—and, sometimes, giving each other room to back off.

During the opening arguments, I sat in the media room typing notes. The prosecutor said of Roof’s taped confession, “He described the mental preparations too, how he mentally prepared himself. He described sitting outside the church in his car. He described sitting with the parishioners during the bible study. To listen to their prayer, to listen to their study and their word. He admitted he almost didn’t do it. He almost just walked out the door. And in the end, he decided. And he explained that he had to do it.”

Afterwards, Shani returned from the courtroom to the media room looking drained and sick. She handed the courtroom pass from her lanyard to mine, and we hugged. After the break, I took her place to hear the first witness in the trial, one of the three survivors.

Felicia Sanders’ eyes looked steady and tired behind her glasses; her expression was grave, but occasionally broke into a smile as she reminisced. Her voice was pitched low, as though for control and endurance over what felt like an endless afternoon of testimony. In response to the prosecutor’s questions, the showing of surveillance video clips from Mother Emanuel’s parking lot, and a sequence of photographs of smiling people, she identified every person who came to the church on June 17, 2015.

But any person’s story, given enough attention, deference, and time, will exceed legal necessity. Sanders’ testimony burgeoned, becoming a litany of names of the beloved dead, the memoir of a community, with histories of work, faith, and love. She evoked long, complex relationships, with dry humor and with irremediable regrets that made her voice break (“I asked Cynthia to stay at Bible study. I feel bad at that”). She recreated all the glorious messiness of real lives, which defy neatness or resolution, the lives of her spiritual mentors, her friends, her aunt, Susie Jackson—“She was my best friend”—and her son, Tywanza. “He left me enough poetry to read the rest of my life.”

Near the end of her testimony, Sanders, who was by now weeping, challenged Roof, who had barely moved. “The defendant over there, with his head hanging down, refusing to look at me, said, ‘I have to do this. Y’all are raping our white women. Y’all are taking over the world.’

“My son said, ‘You don’t have to do this. We don’t mean you no harm.’

“That’s when he put about five bullets in my son,” she said. “I watched my son come into this world and I watched my son leave this world…. It was a lot of shots. Seventy-seven shots, in that room. From someone who we thought was there before the Lord. But in return, he just sat there the whole time, evil. Evil. Evil as can be.” Under cross-examination, she clarified: “There’s no place on Earth for him except the pit of Hell.”

Some of the published accounts of the trial relate that, by the end of Sanders’ testimony, many of the victims’ family members and friends were weeping in the gallery. Many members of the media wept, too, there and in the press room. There came a point when I had to put down my pen and notebook, because my hands were so cold, and trembling so hard, that I couldn’t take any more notes. Then, when I held my scarf to my face and cried and cried. I found it impossible to hold onto any journalistic poise, as though this were all business as usual.

Yet it was business as usual. The defense would move for a mistrial based on Sanders’ characterization of Roof as evil; the judge would aver that it was a “religious sentiment, not a sentencing sentiment.” Regardless of the verdict and sentence, whether Roof were executed or sentenced to life imprisonment, there could be no sufficient response, from any framework of redress short of a hell I don’t believe in, to this crime, or to the suffering in that room.

We were there to witness the enactment of law and justice, but law is finite, and justice is ideal. Whatever the rule of law might achieve in that courtroom was already confounded by the courtroom across the street, where the trial of Slager, another agent of the law, had ended in mistrial. We could take this room full of stifled moans and cries for the nine people who died—and then multiply them by the sorrow and suffering from across the street—and then again, for the mourners of hundreds of deaths that would never be tried. Take the word “chaos,” multiply it by past atrocities, and by all the incipient violence threatened by white supremacy, bigotry, and institutional power—and see, not chaos, but the horror of a system that suppresses and denies human rights, dignity, and life.

And cry, knowing that to these outrages, the liberal political discourse offers the solution of dialogue, forgiveness, and empathy—attractive narratives, to those in power, because they propose no real measures for achieving justice. They propose no solutions, apart from sitting down at the table (covered, at Mother Emanuel, with a cheery plastic tablecloth), so that people who face the continual, unrelenting, and politically licensed threat of being silenced, harassed, attacked, disenfranchised, deported, or killed, can sit down to chat, extending understanding and affection to those who avert their eyes, listen, reflect….and decide to destroy, anyway.

Cry, knowing of so many sacrifices already made by the kind, welcoming, and good, and anticipating still more affliction, while the people in power hash out their rules for empathy and civility. Cry, fearing that there is no better solution available, except to hold onto our empathy, in the face of staggering losses, to keep resisting, and to keep fighting for those who are most vulnerable.

7. We write:

For over 30 years, Jerry McJunkins has worked as a portrait and courtroom sketch artist, drawing judges, lawyers, witnesses, survivors, and “some horrible people.” We watched him working with pastels in the courtroom, drawing Sanders in glowing violet, umber, and chestnut. About her testimony, McJunkins would tell us later, “They were the strongest, most incredible emotions there”; he thought she should have been reserved for last, to have the biggest impact on the jury. But the face to which he’s devoted a sheet of close studies is Roof’s, capturing the asymmetry of the eyes, the twisted lip, the mousey hair.

The people with the most to lose in this country will continue to make art, write stories, testify to violence and injustice, give mercy, and demand better—through danger, the unequal toll of witnessing, and the lack of support. Even if we managed to summon up boundless empathy for everybody, political will is not boundless; neither are the editorial bandwidth and resources that determine whose stories get heard. Our communities are being threatened not only by the incoming administration, white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, but also by our profession, which, by investing increasingly in narratives by, about, and accommodating bigots, has started erasing both our stories and our storytellers. We are desperately holding onto empathy, and we’re saving it for those who need it most, whose voices have always been marginalized, who continue to resist and witness to injustice.

Our attempt to collaborate is only one more attempt to start a conversation, like Gene Demby’s and Bim Adewunmi’s accounts of those weeks in Charleston. Our collaboration is necessarily imperfect and unfinished; sometimes we don’t understand each other; sometimes we defer to each other’s different perspectives without agreeing—on topics like safety pins, on how exactly people sounded, on capitalizing “black.” (Shani prefers not to capitalize “black” in racial terms; She sees it more of a physical descriptor “because as a term of race it means different things around the world, and does not denote a country of origin or ancestry.” Alison uses the capital B, as per usage at The Root and Ebony, and optional Chicago Manual usage.)

But still, we’re sitting down together, trying not just to listen, but also to change our practices, to share resources and ideas, and never to mistake silence for unity. One night, when we went out for drinks with another black journalist, the three of us toasted to “the truth.” It should have been “truths,” but with a full acknowledgment of our differences, there really are moments, sometimes, when sorrow, outrage, and resistance unite us.

This is how we’re going to try, together, to survive the next four years.

* * *

Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist based in Charleston, SC. She writes about gender, race, and identity while attempting to figure out why some Americans find “diversity” a scary word. Her essays have appeared in Catapult, The Toast, The Daily Beast, Literary Hub, and more. She is also a columnist with Charleston City Paper and Muses & Visionaries magazine.

Alison Kinney is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. She’s the author of Hood (Bloomsbury 2016) and correspondent for The Paris Review Daily, and has published work online at Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly, Hyperallergic, and other publications.

Editor: Sari Botton