Some Charleston Residents See a Connection between the White Cop Who Killed a Black Man and the White Teen Who Killed Black Worshippers


Jury selection began on Monday in Charleston, South Carolina, in the federal hate crime trial of Mother Emanuel church shooter Dylann Roof, who has opted to represent himself in court. On Wednesday afternoon, jurors in the trial of former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager went into deliberations to decide whether Slager is guilty of murder or manslaughter. An April 2015 smartphone video showing Slager shooting Walter Scott, an unarmed 50-year-old black man, as Scott tried to flee, thrust Charleston into the national debate over race and police violence. Roof’s massacre of nine black worshipers roiled the region again two months later, leading to the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse.

The two trials are now overlapping in downtown Charleston in a racially charged post-election atmosphere. I reached out to Mari Crabtree, a professor of African American studies at the College of Charleston and an expert on racial violence, about how the two shootings have shaped local conversations about race and how the current political climate bodes for racial violence in America.

Mother Jones: What did the Mother Emanuel massacre symbolize to African Americans in Charleston?

Mari Crabtree: What I’ve heard from people is that the murders themselves represented this extreme manifestation of the marginalization that black people feel like they experience in Charleston every day, be it the way they are policed or feeling like they have never been recognized as part of the city because of the Confederate symbols displayed throughout it, for example. The scale of premeditation of the massacre also meant something. But another piece of it has to do with what the church represented. It’s literally a sanctuary. But is has also been at the center of a long history of anti-racism in Charleston. It’s this space of protest and assertion of dignity, and attacks on it have always been about white pushback against that. So some pockets of the black community call the shooting an act of domestic terrorism.

MJ: How does this differ from the way black people view the shooting of Walter Scott?

MC: A police officer killed Scott, so his death symbolized the devaluation of black life by the state—versus by a private citizen like Roof. Many people note that incidents like the Scott shooting—if not in terms of death, then in terms of harassment and brutality—happen on a fairly regular basis. So black people here absolutely see Scott’s death as part of the daily marginalization that the Roof massacre reflected. Scott’s shooting is seen as racially motivated as well. For many black people, both are tied to a broader issue of white supremacy in the United States and how it is used to protect power. That goes back to the colonial period.

MJ: I gather that’s not how white people relate to these shootings?

MC: One interesting thing about the way many white people have talked about the shootings is this attempt to distance them from their own experiences. There’s this idea that North Charleston is not Charleston, and the police brutality that happens there doesn’t happen here. With Dylann Roof, they’ll say, “He’s not from Charleston. He’s from Columbia. He’s not a part of our community.” There’s this attempt to deflect. Many are also much more sympathetic to the church victims than to Scott because of Scott’s criminal record and the fact that he ran. I don’t hear that from black people.

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