Saturday, June 20, 2015

On Charleston, Race, and Violence in America

I haven't posted on this blog in quite a while. In fact, since I've been periodically writing about art & culture at, I've all but abandoned this platform except when something terrible (like getting detained by the Port Authority Police in New York for no reason) happens.

And indeed... Here I am, writing because something terrible happened.

In this case, it's the horrific shooting in Charlston, SC. For the sake of posterity, and possibly those living under a rock, at about 8pm, on July 17th, 2015, a disaffected 21-year-old high school dropout named Dylann Storm Roof walked into the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and killed nine people.

I don't think it's an understatement to call it one of the most despicable crimes to happen within my lifetime.

According to current reporting, Roof hoped to start a race-based civil war in the United States, and explicitly targeted a black church because, according to his former friends, "...blacks were taking over the world," and, "Someone needed to do something about it for the white race."j

This, to me, seems like the embodiment of the literal definition of "terrorism", whether legally defined as such or not.

From my reading of the Daily Beast's synopsis of what we know of Roof, I described him as a heavy alcohol user into hard drugs, a racist with grand dreams of inciting a civil war, a loner but not conforming to any narrative of the bullied teen lashing out. This description shows him as complex in a compounding number of awful ways... Every person who seems to have known him could likely have known what he would do, but at the same time might not have wanted to believe it. I would like to believe none would have supported it. Roof certainly seems to have had a number of psychological issues, but he also seems to have adopted one bad and wrong idea after the next.

And those ideas and bad choices ultimately led him to kill nine innocent people.

Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (54); Susie Jackson (87); Ethel Lee Lance (70); Depayne Middleton-Doctor (49); Clementa C. Pinckney (41); Tywanza Sanders (26); Daniel Simmons (74); Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (45); and Myra Thompson (59).

I should note here that I don't know any of these people.

I simply cannot know the pain their families are experiencing right now, and in no way do I pretend to have any concept of what anyone in that part of the country is feeling today.

Moreover, I am an atheist. I'm also a white guy who grew up in the Midwest/Pacific Northwest and I don't think I know anyone who's been murdered. I have no direct tie to this community or this experience at all.

However, through my work as a film producer, I've come to be rather close with the founders and pastors of a church in Tupelo, Mississippi that's probably not altogether that different from the one in Charleston. Through them, I've seen a lot of love and kindness, and a ton of hard work put in to make their community a better place, and if the folks at the Emmanuel AME Church were anything like my friends, I think I might begin to understand a tiny bit of the loss a lot of people in Charleston are feeling right now.

But even still, I recognize that I can't really know what they're going through.

And for me, that makes the massacre itself very difficult to comment on. I've stayed out of most (not quite all) of the discussions I've seen on social media so far and I've not written much of anything about it until right now.

I'm heartbroken, incredulous, angry and sad.

Like most people, I wish this kind of stuff didn't happen. There is simply nothing to be said about the shooting except that it was evil, horrifying, and that I have nothing but sympathy for the families of the victims - who, given their response, are some of the finest people imaginable.

Apart from saying things, I do also think it's important to help the people of Charleston recover and showing our support in more tangible ways... Currently, it seems like the best way of doing that online is through the Pinckney Fund (, but I'll try to go back and update this if more information becomes available.


In spite of all the legitimate outrage I feel about this, what I don't want to do at this point is rush to judgments about people and situations I have just admitted I know very little about.

From the reports I've read so far, it seems like Dylann Roof had family and friends at one point, and it's tempting to point a finger at them and claim that they could have seen this coming, and could have done more to reach him. It's tempting to ask why a father would give a .45 caliber pistol to an angry teenager.

It's tempting, but probably wrong.

I don't know any of those people and I don't know what they did or did not do to help Dylann Roof before it came to this. It's not for me to pass judgment in that way.

I also think it's extremely unwise to try to jam this event into any pre-existing narrative you want to fit it into.

So far, I've seen people within just hours of the first reports of the shooting blame the supposed lack of gun control legislation, too much gun control (the church was essentially a gun-free zone), the state flag of South Carolina, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, Dylann Roof's parents & family, the mental-health system, and a whole culture of racism - conveniently all conforming perfectly to what they would have said before the shooting.

Note: Eric Garner's case is still 100% insane.
One of the worst things I saw were questions about why Dylann Roof wasn't immediately shot and killed by the police like (supposedly) a black person obviously would have been, as if the goal should be for police in America to kill more suspects. Ugh. Notably, Roof didn't get shot by police during the arrest because he immediately surrendered, and I'm actually glad he did as I want him to have to look his victims' families in the eye during his trial.

I also saw people immediately rush to criticize "the media" for not calling Dylann Roof a "thug" (insinuating a racist double-standard, although prominent people have used that term to describe him), and mere moments later, others asked why we're not calling him a "terrorist"... Which we basically all are at this point.

Except for this guy, Philip Bump, who advocates not calling him a terrorist because such language elevates his status in a way that he shouldn't warrant:
"To the extent that labeling his actions as racial terrorism helps America come to terms with the fact that the ideology he assumed is dangerous and urgent, fine. And to the extent that labeling his actions as legal terrorism results in a stiffer punishment, also fine. But each of these is predicated on our insistence that terrorism is somehow a higher order of evil than simply murdering elderly people for being black even as they held their Bibles in a church. It implies that his mass murder was one thing, but that his scaring us was [what] made things more problematic. Perhaps we should demonstrate to him -- and every other angry young man like him -- that we aren't scared of his dumb Internet rhetoric. Not in the least."
More seriously, though... If the news of a tragedy like this is less than 12 hours old, maybe we shouldn't expect newsrooms across the country to have a fully developed style guide on how to describe a tragedy like this or the people involved. These kinds of events are exceptionally rare and terrible, and everyone - especially in the early stages of reporting on it - is just doing the best they can to figure out how to do their jobs.

No... Actually.... Let me go one step further.

Not only should we not expect reporters to have perfect knowledge so early after a huge event, we should actively want them to demonstrate humility under these circumstances.

One of the biggest problems news media has in this country is a drive to instantaneous judgment and over-reporting on pure speculation. Within a few hours of this shooting, there were reports - rumors more than anything - that Dylann Roof targeted the church because he was a racist. But unless you were actually there, as a reporter, it would be extremely irresponsible of you to immediately judge a shooter's motivations before you even had so much as a confirmation of his identity.

We now know that he was not only there for that reason, but keep in mind that at that point, we didn't know anything about the situation other than the fact that 9 people were dead and the police were chasing a suspect.

Yet there were people on my feed who already seemed to have perfect knowledge of both the causes and solutions to this tragedy.


Making those kinds of assumptions has little positive value at all, and these kinds of hysterical public responses have a really detrimental effect not only on people's accuracy in understanding these situations, but also on people's long-term ability to carefully think through causes & effects. We forget or selectively remember all kinds of important events and details, and then we deliberately try to fit new information into a framework of our pre-existing ideas regardless of whether or not it actually makes any sense to do so.

On Facebook, one former colleague of mine said the Charleston massacre was, and I quote:
"...clearly a harbinger of a larger murderous anti-black ideological movement in this country."
Really? As horrifying as this shooting is, where is the evidence for that claim?

A couple years ago, investigative reporter Radley Balko, one of the leading voices on criminal justice reform, wrote a well-sourced piece called, "The Good News About Race & Crime in America".

Here's a key bit:
"Civil rights leaders and progressive activists have cited Zimmerman's acquittal and the proliferation of robust self-defense laws as evidence of a "war on black men" -- or, similarly, that it's now "open season on black men." Meanwhile, Zimmerman supporters and many on the political right have used the case to bring up old discussions of black-on-black murders in places like Chicago, and to argue that violence in black America is spiraling out of control. Both positions are cynical, and both tend to pit black and white America against one another.

But both are also wrong on the facts.

First, about the alleged "war on black men." The argument here is that laws like Florida's "Stand Your Ground" are encouraging white vigilantism, and moving white people to shoot and kill black people at the slightest provocation. But there just isn't any data to support the contention. Black homicides have been falling since the mid-1990s (as have all homicides). Moreover, according to a 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, more than 90 percent of black murder victims are killed by other black people. And if we look at interracial murder, there are about twice as many black-on-white murders as the other way around, and that ratio has held steady for decades.

However, it also isn't true that black America is growing increasingly violent. Again, black homicides, like all homicides, are in a steep, 20-year decline. In fact, the rates at which blacks both commit and are victims of homicide have shown sharper declines than those of whites. It's true that Chicago has had an unusually violent last few years, but this is an anomaly among big American cities. The 2012 murder rate in Washington, D.C., for example, hit a 50-year low. Violent crime in New York and Los Angeles is also falling to levels we haven't seen in decades."
In the article, Radley also references a Scripps Howard study that talks about these crime rate trends:
"The Scripps Howard piece also takes a regional approach: 'Contrary to popular stereotypes, interracial killings are relatively rare in rural Deep South states, occurring at a rate well below the national average. Several crime experts agreed this rise reflects increasing social contact between Americans of different races occurring in many, but not all, communities.'"
[Sidenote: The above is an important quote in context, but read Radley's full article to understand more about the Scripps Howard study's flaws]

Anyway... In addition to those fantastic trends on violence, it's also true that more people than ever - currently 87% according to Gallup - think interracial marriages are just fine. This is just the kind of thing you'd expect not to see if there was a growing, murderous trend of white supremacy in the United States.


There are clearly still a lot of problems with racism in this country, and I don't want to sugarcoat anything here. Allow me to repeat that:

There are still a lot of problems with racism in America. 

Apart from the measurable disparities in income, education, crime rates, and experiences with the criminal justice system, Gallup polls are now showing an increasing trend of people worried about race relations in America. Trust for the police is understandably on the decline, and far more so among blacks than whites.

Here's the thing, though... I honestly have to wonder how much of those trends are driven by the media and by sensationalist claims like the one I boldly quoted above?

The truth is, most of the media reports on violence in very, very different ways depending on the narrative they want to portray, and what if a lot of those narratives are just... well... wrong?

My dear friend Mary Katharine Ham (and her buddy, Guy Benson) have an excellent new book out right now called "End of Discussion" that actually gets into this problem in some depth.

Chapter 7 of their book is titled, "(Different) Rules for 'Radicals': Double Standards on Violence and Rhetoric", and it begins by telling the story of a shooting in 2012 that to be honest, I knew next to nothing about. I suspect most people know little about it, even though it's actually quite similar to this one in a lot of ways.

The beats are eerily familiar:

A young man with a gun and a political agenda entered a religious organization with the goal of murdering as many people as possible to prove to the world that their existence would not be tolerated.

The difference? The organization in this story was the Family Research Council, a social conservative group who opposed gay marriage; and the shooter a gay-rights activist named Floyd Lee Corkins II, who brought with him a hundred rounds of ammunition and 15 Chik-Fil-A sandwiches that he intended to stuff in the mouths of all his victims. He was, fortunately, stopped by the building manager Leo Johnson, before he could murder anyone.

Also wrong, and by the standard definition, a terrorist.
Leo Johnson took a bullet in the arm for his trouble, but no "national conversation" was started about the violence-inciting rhetoric of the left - even though Corkins literally selected his target due to the Southern Poverty Law Center having labeled FRC as a "hate group" for their opposition to gay marriage, yet they've never advocated or participated in any kind of violence against gay people.

I figure there are two big reasons why most people probably don't remember this.

The first is simply that Corkins' plans failed. He didn't kill a dozen people and stuff sandwiches into their mouths, and thus, as macabre as this really is, there were no bodies to show on the nightly news. However, I also suspect that had the roles been reversed and a conservative extremist working off a list supplied by the Family Research Council attacked an gay organization, it would have dominated national news for a week regardless of whether or not he'd actually succeeded.

And turns out, Mary Katharine's book supplies an awful lot of evidence that this would, in fact, have been the case.

From their book:
 "Gabriel Malor, a lawyer and blogger in Washington, D.C., has spent several years cataloging the various violent incidents attributed to the political Right during President Obama’s term in office that later turned out to be either apolitical or inspired in part by liberal politics:

“Media assumptions that violence is right-wing are routine—and routinely wrong,”he wrote in a 2012 New York Post column precipitated by the occasion of ABC News investigative reporter Brian Ross’s speculation in the aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado, mass shooting that killed twelve that accused shooter James Holmes was a member of the Tea Party. He was not, but Ross’s casual association of the two with no verification is representative of the media’s reactions to such incidents.

Malor offers this troubling list and explains the tautology that leads to these repeated mistakes:

“Media figures sincerely believe the right wing is violent, so naturally they assume that violent people must be right-wing.”
  • September 2009: The discovery of hanged census-taker Bill Sparkman in rural Kentucky fueled media speculation that he’d been killed by anti-government Tea Partiers. In fact, he’d killed himself and staged his corpse to look like a homicide so his family could collect on life insurance.
  • February 2010: Joe Stack flew his small plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas. The media immediately suggested that the anti-tax rhetoric of the Tea Party led to the attack. In fact, Stack’s suicide note quoted the Communist Manifesto.
  • That same month, a professor at the University of Alabama, Amy Bishop, shot and killed three colleagues at a faculty meeting. The gun-loving Tea Party came under immediate suspicion. But Bishop was a lifelong Democrat and Obama donor.
  • March 2010: John Patrick Bedell shot two Pentagon security officers at close range. The media went wild with speculation that a right-wing extremist had reached the end of his rope. Bedell turned out to be a registered Democrat and 9/ 11 Truther.
  • May 2010: New York authorities disarmed a massive car bomb in Times Square. Mayor Bloomberg immediately speculated that the bomber was someone upset about the president’s new health-care law. The media trumpeted the idea that crazed conservatives had (again, they implied) turned to violence. In fact, the perp was Faisal Shahzad, an Islamic extremist.
  • August 2010: Amidst the debate over the Ground Zero Mosque, Michael Enright stabbed a Muslim cabdriver in the neck. It was immediately dubbed an “anti-Muslim stabbing,”with “rising Islamophobia”on the political right to blame. In fact, Enright, a left-leaning art student, had worked with a firm that produced a pro-mosque statement.
  • September 2010: James Lee, 43, took three hostages at the Discovery Channel’s headquarters in Maryland. The media speculation was unstoppable: Lee was surely a “climate-change denier”who’d resorted to violence. Oops: He was an environmentalist who viewed humans as parasites on the Earth.
  • January 2011: Jared Lee Loughner went on a rampage in Tucson, Ariz. Again the media knew just who to blame: the Tea Party and its extremist rhetoric. In fact, Loughner was mostly apolitical—a conspiracy theorist who, to date, has been judged too mentally incompetent to stand trial.
In 2013, Malor added the initial reaction to the Boston Marathon bombing to the list. Because it happened on April 15, many in the media immediately speculated it was a crime of antigovernment or tax protesters commemorating either Tax Day or Patriot’s Day. In fact, the date holds significance for Muslim Chechen separatists, whose cause the Tsarnaev brothers embraced.

We’ll add another instance you probably haven’t heard of: in the early morning hours of September 11, 2014, someone attempted to firebomb the district offices of Missouri congressman Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat.

An investigation determined that the perpetrator was a twenty-eight-year-old white male who held very intense political opinions, such as: "The Missouri congress has been a willing partner in the US governments [sic] capitalist war hungry agenda." Ah. The dude was a Far Left "Occupy" type. Rather than touching off a national civility emergency, the arrest of Eric King was met with ordinary, mostly local, news coverage."
To be clear, I don't share all this to make light of any of these cases, or to make light of Charleston in any way, shape or form. Nor is it to insinuate that (Ah ha!) all the truly violent people are leftists. I don't think that's the case at all. In reality, I don't think that mass murder of any kind fits neatly into those kinds of boxes. Reality is rarely so simple.

Most cases aren't even "about" anything specific. Most of the time, there's no political statement, no big social change goal, no grand scheme... Usually it's just an insane person.

But the media's double standard is fascinating to me.

I think it sort of gets to the heart of how a lot of people in America might ultimately think about Charleston. If all they've ever been led to believe is that violent crime against black people is on the rise (even though it's not), and that there are racist "hate groups" lurking around every corner (also not true), then the Dylann Roof shooting fits right into that narrative.

If all that is true, then he's not just a lone, deranged terrorist with delusions of grandeur, he's part of a rising pattern of evil.

It's not - at that point - just about him anymore, it's about "society". It's about racial disparities in education, and criminal justice. It's about Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray... It's about #blacklivesmatter.

Suddenly, Dylann Roof is emblematic of everything that's wrong with the United States.

And well...... Maybe I'm being too optimistic here, but I just don't think he is. Consider for a second that even in Roof's own demented "manifesto", he wrote:
"I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me."
I know this is going to sound nuts to a lot of people, but isn't this - in some way - a bizarre sign of progress? In one of the most historically segregated cities in America, Dylann Roof couldn't even find a community of racists big enough or active enough to carry out his insane plan.

That's the sliver of good buried inside a flood of terrible evil.

So maybe the lesson we should take away from all this is that when the dust settles, there are actually way fewer murderous racists out there than there are good people who want to live peacefully with all of our neighbors, regardless of our various differences. We're all in this together, and maybe now would be a good time to remember that.

At least... That's what I'd like to think.