It seems we barely have time to grieve and process one tragedy before we are struck by another. It has felt that way especially since 2014, when the high-profile cases of Eric Garner, John Crawford and Michael Brown occurred in rapid succession and brought police brutality to the forefront of the national consciousness. Each day brought a new headline, a new hashtag, a new violence, a new trauma.
We began to ask, “Who will be next? Who will survive in America? Will I be the next hashtag?” We lifted up the names and cases of those who are marginalized even within marginalized communities: the queer, the trans, the undocumented. We expanded the scope of the national conversation beyond police brutality to the systemic nature of injustice and inequity in the United States. We shined light on how this system especially devalues the lives of the poor and non-white, how it inflicts violence and trauma upon historically oppressed communities. Despite this work, the trauma continues—routine, repetitious, unceasing.
We didn’t even arrive at the one year anniversary of the Charleston massacre before the nation was rocked by yet another hate crime, another mass shooting, another attack on a community that has suffered systemic persecution. With so much repeated trauma, how do we possibly make time to process what has happened?
For me and other human rights advocates, the Confederate flag became an immediate focus in the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting, which happened one year ago today. The flag was first raised over the South Carolina State Capitol in the 60s as a statement of white supremacist power in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and had long been the focus of protest and economic boycotts. When photos surfaced of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine people at the historically Black Emanuel AME Church, waving the Confederate flag, it brought renewed attention to South Carolina’s continued endorsement of this hate symbol. The flag was a logical place to focus as it was a visceral, visual link between racism as it has historically manifested in the form of policy and racism as it has historically manifested in the form of terrorism.
The massacre in Charleston was, of course, hardly the first time such racist violence has been targeted at a black church. Black churches have long been targets because of their historical role as hubs of black community organization and activism. Those of us who participated in the nonviolent direct action of removing the flag from the Capitol grounds did so for the same reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. outlines in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, to “create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” In other words, we could no longer allow the world to look away.
We couldn’t allow it to be said that what happened in Charleston was the product of one individual and not related to the larger issue of racism as it has existed in South Carolina, stretching back to the time when Charleston’s ports were filled with slave ships and its markets sold human beings alongside baskets of rice. The flag is gone now, of course, and that’s good. But the official removal of the flag by the state of South Carolina is akin to applying an anti-inflammatory salve to an arthritic knee; that is, it lessens the pain but isn’t a cure for the underlying illness.
When diagnosing a patient, a doctor examines the current symptoms and condition of that patient within the context of the patient’s life and medical history. No honest analysis can be given to the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando without consideration of the homophobia and transphobia that exist in the larger society and without consideration of the history of violence and unjust policy rooted in this bigotry. The same is true of the massacre in Charleston.
It must be said, however, that there’s nothing uniquely ill about South Carolina or the South itself so as to distinguish it from the rest of the states to which it is united. The nation today suffers from the same ideological schism that existed in the minds of its founders who used lofty words while speaking of freedom, yet used brutal violence to deny full rights and humanity to the vast majority of Americans for the sake of their economic interests.
For those committed to the cause of social justice, the struggle we fight today began long ago, in the twilight hours of this nation, when it was first decided that the indigenous Americans were lesser humans than whites and that this racist reasoning justified murdering them and taking their land. That’s why there is no such thing as making America great again since the story of America from that time to now has been one of struggle—the struggle of everyone who didn’t belong to the same class as the founding fathers—fighting, advocating, protesting, resisting and, at times, dying in the pursuit of equal rights.
Our current struggle reminds me of these words from Langston Hughes:
“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be…”
We fight for a nation that has yet to exist in this land, a nation that values the lives and contributions of all, that assigns and affirms human rights on the simple basis of one’s being human; a nation whose political and economic system is not built upon the devaluing and disenfranchisement of its people.
It’s been argued that the United States is in the midst of a second post-Reconstruction Era. Similar to the first Reconstruction Era from 1863 to 1877, when newly freed Blacks began making significant gains politically and economically before being violently suppressed by white supremacists, this second era is marked by visible gains made during the social justice movements of the 60s as well as a visible backlash against those gains. The Trump presidential campaign itself—which has its own historical parallels in George Wallace, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—presents like a visible symptom that can’t be ignored or even temporarily treated. Perhaps that is its purpose and value in the current times: to make plain the underlying illnesses of classism, racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia and to stir people of conscience toward demanding more for this nation than the political salve of yesteryear.