Charleston’s—and our nation’s—systemic racism, through the lens of the Dylann Roof trial.
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.Continue reading “‘See What Y’All Can Work Out’: The State of Empathy in Charleston”