The Charleston massacre's political roots


The original African Methodist Episcopal church, Charleston, which was burned down by a white mob after Denmark Vesey's planned slave uprising in 1822.

The mass murder of nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white racist on June 17 has been widely denounced. But to understand this hate crime — a terrorist attack — it has to be put into the broader political context.

The killer, Dylann Roof, deliberately spared the life of one woman, telling her he wanted her to report on what he had done. Among other things he told her, he said decided to kill Black people because they “are taking over the country”.

In short, Roof's motives were explicitly political. The massacre took place in the context of the rise of the new Black Lives Matter movement.

This movement has featured mass mobilisations across the country since a Black teenager was murdered by a police officer last August in Ferguson — and a racist counter-movement spearheaded by the police in reaction to it.

Roof’s action should be seen as part of that broader racist reaction, and inspired by it, even if it is an extreme example. We may see more violent racist actions in opposition to the new Black movement, as happened in the 1960s with murders, bombings and arsons against the civil rights and Black liberation movements of that time.

In case there was any doubt about his motives, Roof posted a racist manifesto online before he committed the massacre, along with photos of him posing with the Confederate flag — the symbol of the pro-slavery states in the US civil war.

In his manifesto, Roof says he became attracted to extreme racist and violent white supremacist views due to his identification with George Zimmerman, the racist vigilante who murdered African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators in this past year point to Martin and the “not guilty” verdict in Zimmerman’s trial as immediate precursors to the new movement.

Roof's choice of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church as the scene of his terrorist attack was also political.

Roof says he studied the history of the church before selecting it as his target. It is one of the oldest Black churches in the South, having been established as a refuge for slaves in the early 1800s.

Ever since, it has played an important role in the fight for Black rights, including up to the present.

One of the church's founders was a former slave, Denmark Vesey, who had been able to buy his freedom from his owner. Vesey was the main leader of a planned armed slave revolt, which was to have taken place in May, 1822.

The conspiracy was hatched in the church, where Blacks could meet out of the sight of whites, but was betrayed. As a result, 130 Blacks were rounded up, charged and convicted of various crimes, and 36, including Vesey, were hanged.

Four whites were arrested and jailed for supporting the planned rebellion. The church was burned down by a white mob as a result, but the congregation survived and the church was later rebuilt.

The present church has a shrine dedicated to Vesey. During the Civil War, one of the first Black regiments in the Union army to fight the slavocracy was named for him.

All this history is well known in Charleston. The church, affectionately known as the “Mother Church” among Blacks, is a symbol for the Black struggle — and hated by racist whites.

Roof entered the church ostensibly to join a bible study class (whites are welcomed in the church and do attend it). A survivor reports that he asked to have the pastor, Clementa Pinckney, pointed out to him. Roof then sat down next to Pinckney, his central target.

Pinckney was well known in Charleston as an advocate for the Black community. He was also an elected member of the South Carolina state legislature. Roof singled him out for political assassination because of his record and political stature.

When Black man Walter Scott was shot dead by police in nearby North Charleston on April, Pinckney and the Emanuel AME church helped organise Black Lives Matter protests. Pinckney got the state legislature to pass a law requiring cops to wear body cameras.

Scott, who was unarmed, was shot in the back by a police officer as he tried to flee. This was all caught on video by a bystander, so the cops couldn’t cover it up, though they tried. The video was so damning that the cop has been charged with murder, unlike in so many of the other cases of Black people killed by police.

The fact that charges were brought at all infuriated racists — who were especially angry at Pinckney. It is symbolic that now Roof is in the same cell block in the state prison as the cop who murdered Scott.

In the wake of Roof’s coldly calculated massacre, there have been mass demonstrations and an online petition signed by more than 500,000 in a matter of days demanding the Confederate flag be taken down from state buildings in South Carolina.

The racists’ paranoia about Blacks “taking over the country” was also demonstrated in another recent case in Cleveland, Ohio. This stemmed from an earlier police shooting in November, 2012.

In that incident, two unarmed Black people, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, led police on a high speed chase after police tried to stop Russell for a wrong turn.

Sixty police cars joined the chase, which ended in a hail of 137 shots, killing both. Officer Michael Brelo fired 49 of those bullets. When other cops stopped firing, Brelo jumped up on the hood of the stopped car and fired 15 bullets through the windshield at the pair.

A report from the Ohio attorney-general called the chase and the shooting “a systematic failure” of the Cleveland police. More than 60 cops were suspended, but Brelo was the only one criminally charged.

His trial was held before a judge who made public his finding of “not guilty” on May 26, and there were mass protests that night.

After this ridiculous verdict, one of Brelo’s lawyers told the press that “We stood toe-to-toe with an oppressive government” and won.

Where do the beliefs of the racist far-right that they are the victims of an “oppressive government” or that “Blacks are taking over the country” come from?

Whites in the defeated South certainly felt this way after the 19th century civil war, but such beliefs came to the fore again after the gains won by the civil rights movement in overturning the system of legal segregation in the Jim Crow South in the 1960s, as well as other gains won by the Black liberation movement.

These struggles forced the federal government to reluctantly codify these victories — causing racist whites to blame the government itself.

As a result of these victories, more Blacks have been elected to office, such as Pinckney. A Black man was even elected president, fuelling the paranoia that “They’re taking over!” In one of Roof’s photos posted online, he even burns a US flag — presumably the flag now being tainted due to Black individuals holding high-ranking positions within the US state.

This is at the heart of the mantra of the right wing against “big government”. They are not against the bloated “big military”, but against government programs they see as aiding Blacks and the most-exploited workers generally.

With the rise of the Blacks Lives Matter movement, the federal government has conducted investigations into many police departments, and found indeed gross racism and violence against Blacks, Latinos and others. One such report involved the Cleveland police, hence the pride of the police officer's lawyer to have beaten the “oppressive government”.

The whole history of capitalism in the United States has been intertwined with the oppression and economic exploitation of Blacks, from the institution of Black slavery up through the institutionalised national oppression of Blacks today. Victories have been won, from the Civil War itself, to the defeat of Jim Crow. But as Black Lives Matter has demonstrated, de facto segregation and oppression still exist.

This is so engrained that even well-meaning people talk about “the Black community” without even questioning why there is such a category at all, accepting segregation as almost a natural phenomenon.

Racism, as an idea, is not the cause of the oppression and exploitation of Blacks, which means that it is not possible to simply solve problem by changing people's minds. Rather than the cause, racists ideas are the result of Black oppression — and its ideological justification. Racism is a useful tool for the capitalist ruling class to divide and weaken the working class.

The government maintains the system of national oppression evident in the police, courts and jails enforcement of it, but at the same time it pretends the US is no longer a racist society. The result is apparently contradictory government stances.

It is this system that spawns the racism that grips the minds of the Dylann Roofs of this world.

An earlier version of this article was published on June 20.

“All we want to do is take the chains off.” J. Cole performs his song about Black Lives Matter and systemic racism on Letterman.

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