By Dan Siegel
Dismissing Dylann Storm Roof as simply a crazy bigot is a big mistake. He may be both, but so were Hitler and the Klansmen who killed four Black children in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963, a month after MLK’s “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington.
Roof is surely as canny as he is crazy. Like other violent racists, he claims to be motivated by the fear that Blacks are taking over the country.
He spared potential victims at Emanuel Church so they could describe the massacre. He apparently chose June 17 for the attack because it was the anniversary of a slave revolt planned by Denmark Vesey, a founder of Emanuel Church, in 1822.
Webster defines terrorism as “the use of force or threats to demoralize, intimidate and subjugate, especially such use as a political weapon or policy.”
Racist terrorism and police violence play a similar role in American society by helping to reinforce a status quo that subjects African Americans to glaring inequities in every area of society – social, political, and economic.
One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War and 50 years after the passage of important civil rights laws, African Americans continue to face the worst conditions of any group in U.S. society.
Statistics documenting arrests, incarceration, high school graduation rates, family income, home ownership, unemployment, life expectancy, and critical health measures prove the point.
Individual acts of police and racist violence may be random acts, but government policies that condone and even promote these acts serve an important social purpose – the maintenance of the status quo through violence and threats to “demoralize, intimidate and subjugate” those who challenge it, whether through organized political action or the inchoate rebellion of anti-social or criminal behavior.
Ironically, the white perpetrators of racist violence – like Roof – experience some of the same oppression as their victims – poverty, lack of education, and minimal opportunities to succeed in life.
Government policies that condone racist, hateful, and extreme right-wing media and allow even the most marginal to acquire advanced weaponry turn people like Roof into terrorist soldiers in the war to maintain the status quo.
Only a concerted political movement for racial, social, and economic justice will end the cycles of discrimination, poverty, and inequality.
Dan Siegel is a civil rights attorney in Oakland.