Tell President Obama and the Department of Justice: This is domestic terrorism.
The despicable attack on one of the nation’s oldest Black churches is not just an act of hatred but of domestic terrorism – and the Department of Justice should treat it as such.
The shock and trauma from the images and stories from Charleston are still very much with us, and it is impossible to put into words the pain being felt by families and friends of the victims. What is possible is naming the crime accurately – and that’s an act of domestic terrorism against the Black community.
The United State’s first anti-terrorism law was the 1860 Ku Klux Klan act, passed under President Ulysses S. Grant to combat the ubiquitous culture of racial violence in the South.1
The massacre in Charleston not only fits the literal definition of domestic terrorism as outlined in federal law,2 it is an extension of a long history of terrorizing the Black community.3
Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said that the Department of Justice is investigating this attack as a hate-crime.4 And Friday afternoon a State Department spokeswoman said they were additionally investigating it as possible domestic terrorism. They should. Investigating this strictly as a hate crime would exacerbate a dangerous double standard which pervades American media, law enforcement priorities and our national security apparatus.
All too often, when American media cover crimes committed by African-Americans or Muslims, the suspects are characterized as thugs or terrorists, while white suspects are characterized as mentally unstable lone wolves – sweeping under the rug the history and ideology of racist violence in this country.5
These characterizations present a skewed representation of the real threats facing our nation. The day before the horrific shooting in Charleston, the New York Times ran an op-ed entitled “The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat” which criticized the stilted treatment of domestic terrorism stating:
“But headlines can mislead. The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists. Just ask the police.”6
Indeed, a February report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found that “A large number of independent studies have agreed that since the 9/11 mass murder, more people have been killed in America by non-Islamic domestic terrorists than jihadists.”7
The fact is, racism is deeply and structurally ingrained in our nation’s history of state sanctioned violence against and criminalization of black citizens,, resulting in an environment in which they can never feel safe, whether praying in church, standing on a playground, or walking down the street.
Federally prosecuting the Charleston massacre as a hate-crime would be an improvement over leaving it to the judicial system in South Carolina - which has no hate crime law, and still flies the Confederate battle flag at the state capitol.
But acknowledging and treating it as an act of domestic terrorism is not only appropriate, it is necessary – as a recognition of our country’s history of racial terrorism, as a move toward aligning law enforcement priorities with significant threat of domestic, white extremism, and as a vital statement that Black Lives Matter. Reports that the DOJ is considering this are encouraging, but we need them to be sure to investigate AND prosecute as domestic terrorism.
Tell President Obama and the Department of Justice: Investigate and prosecute the Charleston attack as an act of Domestic Terrorism.
It’s important to recognize that cries of “terrorism” and the fears they inspire have been abused by politicians, often in a racist way, to stigmatize people of a certain creed and color and to drag this nation into unjust wars. But we can’t let previous abuse of this term deny the reality of what’s happened in Charleston, or perpetuate a dangerous double-standard that downplays the importance of crimes when the victims are people of color.
P.S. – This is not the first time that the Emanuel AME Church and its community has been terrorized. We encourage you to consider a donation as a show of solidarity and to help the community recover from this terrible tragedy. http://www.emanuelamechurch.org/
- Dara Lind, "Why calling the Charleston shooting terrorism is important to so many people", Vox.com, June 19, 2015.
- "Definitions of Terrorism in the U.S. Code", FBI.com
- Conor Friedersdorf, "Thugs and Terrorists Have Attacked Black Churches for Generations", The Atlantic, June 18, 2015.
- Rick Gladstone, "Many Ask, Why Not Call Church Shooting Terrorism?", NY TImes, June 18, 2015.
- Anthea Butler, "Shooters of color are called ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?", The Washington Post, June 18, 2015.
- Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, "The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat", NY Times, June 16, 2015.
- Justin Salhani, "Focus On Islamic Extremism Leaves Radical Right Overlooked", ThinkProgress, June 18, 2015.