Atticus on the Trail: Notes on an American Tragedy

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June 21st, 2015

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – The only thing we can agree on is that last Wednesday a twenty-one year old walked into the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and killed nine of its members in cold blood. It was an act of terrorism and hate, though opponents have argued against both labels.

Despite eyewitness accounts and a recently discovered manifesto in the killer’s own words, Republican frontrunner Jeb Bush has said he “doesn’t know” if the killings were racially motivated.

Pundits on FOX News and Right Radio have lined up to say there’s no way we can know what was in the young man’s heart at the moment.

On the Left, the answers have come in predictable fashion.

Get the guns.

Strengthen mental illness protocols.

And, while we’re at it, take down the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina statehouse.

Hillary Clinton, Bush’s counterpart on the left, stood behind a mic Saturday and said it was time to have long-overdue conversations about guns and race in America, a call that has been echoed time and time again as we’ve seen these tragedies mount in both number and frequency.

The only thing we know is that Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday and killed nine of the parishioners in an act of unmitigated cruelty.

Well, besides the fact that we know that this won’t be the last time this happens or the last time we do this dance.

We’ll call it unspeakable.

We’ll argue about guns and mental health and race.

And then we’ll do nothing until the next time.

 

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The South Carolina Statehouse sits on unbelievably well-kept grounds featuring beautiful trees and landscaping and sight-angles most state capitols could only aspire too. On Saturday, braving temperatures north of one hundred degrees, I stride through the campus and watch other visitors stand in quiet deliberation as the Confederate Battle Flag flies over the Confederate War Memorial in front.

Throughout my drive, from Statesboro to Columbia, every single flag is at half mast. The Stars and Stripes. The Christian. The South Carolina Palmetto. All but the Confederate, which still waves at full height in every location. Atop the Statehouse the flags are properly lowered, but there, at the Confederate Memorial, no such dignity is bestowed.

Throughout social media sites a petition is circulating demanding South Carolina to remove it. Its signees number in the hundreds of thousands. It’s been a longstanding issue in the state, particularly when the presidential primary season returns and candidates, primarily Republicans, are forced to take sides.

So far Jeb is the only one to call for its removal, and he’s joined by an unlikely ally in former-nominee Mitt Romney, but other hopefuls are a little more hesitant to join the chorus. To do so, as John McCain showed in 2000, is to put your bid on the line and possibly lose South Carolina’s primary, which has a long and storied tradition in prognosticating the eventual winner.

Simply put, the Confederate flag, and accompanying Confederate history, are hardwired in the South Carolina DNA and any attempt to separate the two is met with strong and instant resistance. A walk around the grounds reveals a history that is inextricably linked and revered, a past that is at all times both the past and undeniably the present. The area is full of memorials to Confederate soldiers and champions of the Southern Cause and Confederate ideals, including former senator Strom Thurmond, arguably the most powerful and revered politician in the state’s history.

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Those unfamiliar with Thurmond would do themselves a favor by perusing the man’s history, if only for a cursory view of the oft-troubled story of race relations in America. This is a man who broke from the Democratic Party over segregation and famously ran for president as a “Dixiecrat” with a platform of denying the “nigra race” admission into “our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

The statue of Thurmond stands not far from the back entrance, directly on a line that extends from the Confederate Memorial in the front and dissects the Statehouse, and finds the memorial of Strom in midstep, down the sidewalk, apparently marching, with South Carolina in tow, toward another Confederate memorial of an angel crowning a Confederate with a crown of laurels.

Now, one could argue that these are only symbols. Statues I’m reading out of context. That’s fine. You can make the argument that there’s even a memorial for African-Americans on the same lawn, a fine statue of a fairly modest obelisk surrounded by images from the history of blacks in America, including a map of the slave-trade that brought them to the continent in the first place.

Sure. There is that memorial, and it’s a step in the right direction, but any mention of that honor has to be included with it a description of a nearby statue, that of former governor and lieutenant general in the Confederate Army, Wade Hampton III, atop a horse in his uniform. It absolutely dwarfs the African-American display and, from the right angle, it appears that he’s watching over them. Almost like, if they decided to stray, he’d be more than ready to pursue.

 

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Sexton

Dylann Roof’s former home is crawling with reporters and cameramen, each of them of scrambling up the dirt driveway to get a quick glimpse or shot of the house before they’re run off. All in all, it’s a pretty unremarkable home. Shitty gray siding. Shitty white lattice. A lone American flag flies from a flagpole despite reports that, up until today, symbols of white power flew alongside.

Across the road is Mr. Bunky’s Market, a down-and-out kind of establishment lined with advertisements for Budweiser and Mountain Dew. Inside the rafters are filled with heads. Hogs and boars. Deer. The shelves hold giant bags of feed for dogs and hogs and chickens and horses, the smell of all of it, mixing with the cutrate butcher cabinet shoved in the back, permeates the air. Fridges of live bait by the door – crickets and worms – buzz along with the badly piped-in radio.

In line, I’m behind a sun-bleached local with two fistfuls of Natural Ice tallboys. He’s already drunk enough I can smell it wafting off him. The girl behind the counter says she checked out Roof a bunch of times, that this is where he came to get his groceries. She’s already decided she’s leaving town. Having just come back from vacation, she doesn’t know why she didn’t just stay gone.

Down the road from a National Guard base, replete with a fighter jet positioned like its in the middle of a suicide bombing run, Eastover is the type of town that most Southerners can recognize. There’s nothing for as far as the eye can see except bullshit that doesn’t matter anyway.

Crumbling houses that are either abandoned or soon-to-be.

Areas and infrastructure leveled by winds from some distant storm that have never been rebuilt or attended to.

The only thing nearby is a stretch of franchise restaurants and stores.

Shitty jobs with shitty pay.

As I stand in the gravel parking lot, trying my best to survive a hundred and eight degrees, I gaze across the road at a house I wouldn’t want anyone to live in and think of Roof shopping in this store every single day. I can only imagine how hellish life must’ve been. He must’ve sat in there and stewed and grown in hatred for everything.

 

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When the manifesto hits the Internet I’m sitting on a leather couch Roof must’ve rested on at some point. It’s outside the Shoe Dept. store where a manager called the police on Dylann in March after he “hung around” and “asked a bunch of unsettling questions”. In one of the more unnerving and stranger moments of my life, I read the purported statement just ten feet from the entrance.

Any debate about Roof’s motives are gone now, as if any existed in the first place. Almost immediately after the shooting pictures circulated of him wearing a jacket with patches from the Apartheid and Rhodesia, a pair of despicable, white-dominated cultures. The writing was on the wall at that point and anybody who wanted to debate the impetus was just lying to themselves.

That didn’t stop the Right, of course, because reality has never mattered to them in the 24 Hour News Era. Immediately FOX News tried its best to contort the tragedy into an attack on Christianity and sought out every black pastor in the country willing to agree. A blitz that stunk of self-preservation. They knew the jig was up. That One Of Theirs was responsible and the political backlash imminent.

When that crashed and burned, they pivoted to this new “who can tell what he was thinking” and “leave it to the Liberals to turn this into a political issue” defense.

But I’m not thinking about that now.

I’m reading one of the most pure and concentrated accounts of personal prejudice and racism I’ve ever come across.

Say what you want about Dylann Roof, and all of it is warranted, but he’s not illiterate. When I first heard he dropped out of school after the tenth grade, I expected whatever writings or notes we might come across to be the terribly worded and consistently misspelled rantings of an idiot. Instead, from a syntactical standpoint, we have in our hands now an obviously researched and labored over summation of motivations that, despite their ignorance and totally indefensible politics, are the deeply-held and structured thoughts of a young man who, upon first blush, isn’t totally insane or mentally incapable.

That puts a giant wrench into the traditional thinking of Why This Happens. We prefer our psychopaths easily dismissible. We want them to be simply wrapped up as loony loners, quiet people who tend to froth at the mouth, outcasts from whom we should’ve “seen this coming.”

Roof, it appears, is the type of person who could’ve very easily afforded himself in high school and even possibly gone to college, where, I assume, maybe wrongly, that he might’ve been purified of his obviously inherent prejudices. He could’ve gotten a job, could’ve gotten out of Eastover, could’ve escaped whatever gravity and orbit held him there and bathed him in a learned and consistent hatred of groups of people who never meant to do him harm.

I think of Roof and the literally dozens of boys I’ve known, both in the South and the Midwest, who affixed Confederate flags to their trucks and clothes, to their jacked-up pick-ups and camouflage hats. Good ol’ boys who self-identify as Rednecks and who paste every sticker and patch they can find with that phrase, and any other accompanying phrases like “Proud White-Trash” and “Cracker” in an effort to puff out their chests and assume some identity that could be construed as something larger than themselves.

For a long time, I’ve thought of these people and puzzled over their idolatry of the Stars and Bars. In Indiana, my home state, there’s never been a reason for somebody to identify themselves with the Confederacy, be it from a geographical or political standpoint.

But there is.

In the South, obviously, people can claim it’s a link to heritage, an argument that holds only the tiniest trickle of water as anybody with half a brain can retort that it’s an instantly recognizable symbol of hate. They can trace their heritage back to the War of Northern Aggression, to their forefathers who either fought for the rebellion or who supplied the goods necessary to continue that fight.

The flag stands for all of that, but, much like it does in the Midwest and other parts of the country, the Confederate Flag stands in the South as a symbol of opposition, of a middle-finger in the direction of not just The Union, which left the South an economic and social disaster, but The Way Things Are, an ever-pervasive feeling that Maybe Things Aren’t The Way They Should Be.

 

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One of the hardest things to understand about all of this, and all of the escalating racial tensions around the country, is that race isn’t about race.

It is, of course, and it isn’t.

Race is simply one of those levers of economic influence that has consistently kept the Machine of America buzzing along its happy line. It’s a manipulator that allows political forces, such as the prevailing ruling class in Washington, and primarily the GOP since the Nixon Administration, to pit huge swaths of Americans of similar economic status against one another in an effort to produce unlikely voting outcomes.

Since the 1960’s, Republican candidates at the federal level, including Barry Goldwater and eventually his successor Richard Nixon, saw an opening in Democratic-strongholds in the South due to the issue of segregation and civil rights and dove headfirst into the controversy, adopting what came to be known as the Southern Strategy, and ensured themselves a generation’s worth of a monopoly that continues to this day by signaling, via carefully-created dog whistle phrases and stances, that the Right is perpetually on the side of racist whites.

Anybody who doesn’t believe this strategy still exists needs only to turn on FOX News any random night and watch for an hour or two. The programs are littered with thinly-veiled criticisms of African-Americans, including rants about “thugs,” black-on-white crime, and, during the recent turmoil in Baltimore and Ferguson, long and stylized shots of looters.

 

 

On every one of these issues, be it Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, or the McKinney outrage, FOX News and the Republican Right have consistently tied themselves to the viewpoint that we’re living in a post-racial world, that calls of racism and studies of continuing racial unrest and mistreatment in this country, are liberal fantasies, even going so far as to shame black leaders for “playing the race card.”

Make no mistake, the Right still plays by Nixon’s rules, and they’re benefitting wildly. They are making more money – mostly via advertising for “safety” and “crisis” goods, including gold bonds, weapons, prepper kits, panic rooms, and, I heard this this weekend, lined wallets that prevent “electronic pickpocketing” – than ever, and they’re reaching an audience that doesn’t believe it’s racist but sees the world as it really is.

Roof is one of those. In his manifesto, interestingly enough, he cites the web pages he frequented, including the Council of Conservative Citizens, a confirmed hate-group that backed up their ignorance with a slew of bullshit statistics and out-of-context quotes. Using their long list of racist drivel, and mentioning the media’s coverage of the Trayvon/George Zimmerman fiasco, he said he had no choice, that there was no other way than to kill nine innocent people.

This kind of hatred, this back-against-the-wall mentality, is the feeling of raw panic that FOX News and their compatriots have sought to cultivate for the last forty some-odd years. Every election is one more opportunity to stop the growing fascist momentum of liberalism, a last chance to slow the rising tide of immigrants and moochers and enemies of the state before they finally kill off the Constitution and come for your family.

“I have to do it,” Roof was reported as telling his victims during the massacre. “You rape our women and you’re taking over the country.”

It’s the language of a monster, of a psychopath, of a misogynist in a globalist economic present.

Here, it’s “our” women, meaning ownership.

The country is also theirs, and in Roof’s photos he’s posed in front of old plantation homes, slave quarters, the Confederate museum. He’s yearning for a past where the economic tables were turned and even poor whites had it better than somebody. For a past where blacks were still just tools of the economic system instead of active participants.

I’ve often felt that politics is a friendlier-face put on economics, and the more I’ve followed them the more I’ve come to believe it’s true that politics is the public visage we put on the forces that continually effect us, whether we recognize them or not.

While Liberal politics represent a general distrust of the System working fairly, Right-wing politics, for the most part, are a manifestation of the fear and uncertainty Americans, primarily white males, are feeling in the face of changing times and economic realities. FOX News and their friends on the radio are providing a certain Id-based experience where these beliefs are being tiptoed toward and occasionally said outloud, such as when Ron Paul, father of current candidate and past candidate himself, argued in a newsletter that the Civil Rights Act should’ve never been passed and de-segregation realized.

In an era of social networks and ever-present media, we now live in a time where somebody like Roof can live in a reality of their own choosing. They surround themselves in echo chambers that confirm every dark and twisted fantasy and suspicion they have, whether they be purely racist in nature or conspiratorial, such as the kind of bullshit Alex Jones peddles and profits from daily.

They are told, constantly, that there’s nothing else for them to do.

Their backs are against the wall.

“I have to do it,” he said.

And, in his corrupted mind, he did.

 

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A little after six I park my car on a side street in Charleston and run to join the tail end of the parade. There are hundreds of people marching, some toting signs reading “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “BLIND JUSTICE: WHEN DO WE GET OURS?” Most are carrying flowers they’ll soon leave on the makeshift memorial outside the Emanuel church.

We cover six or seven blocks before we hear the singing. It’s so loud it’s echoing off the ivy-covered homes and through the shared courtyards of the historic husess we pass. Old women and disabled men line the route and hand us flowers to take with us to the memorial. Up ahead, the choir has moved onto “How Great Thou Art.”

Calhoun, the street that runs in front of the church, is filled with a strange mix of mourners and media, the latter consistently wrangling the former into teary-eyed interviews where they ask, always, “How can something like this happen?”

In the cluster is a black choir that looks like it’s been at this for hours. Sweat drips down their faces and yet they continue to rouse the crowd in hymns and prayers for healing, protection, and action.

Next to me, across the street, a young African-American family in their Sunday best bow their heads and join hands in prayer. I listen as the father, wearing a vest and slacks, maroon shirt and tie, prays that his children, in matching green dresses, will know a safer tomorrow.

When they’re done, the choir calls for a prayer, for the gathered to join hands. I’m sandwiched between two men, both of them large in stature, and as the prayer goes I hear both of them begin to sob uncontrollably. In a few minutes, the one on my right will address the gatherers and tell them his father was the victim of a shooting in a Wisconsin Sikh Temple, a massacre perpetrated by a white supremacist trying to start a race war.

“This…just…keeps…happening,” I hear somebody say nearby, their voice choked with tears.

Another pastor wades into the circle while more and more people gather and bring flowers. “He meant to bring war between the races and he has brought us together.”

There’s a cheer before a trombone player plays “When The Saints Come Marching In” and the mourning turns, spontaneously, into revelations of laughter, clapping, a choir of Amen’s and Hallelujah’s. When the last note is through, “Amazing Grace” begins and the tears come in short order.

“Let God touch our leaders,” the choir director says in his prayer, “and let God touch our country and keep this from ever happening again.”

The crowd finishes with an amen and there’s an odd moment, as the sun sets over the Emanuel Church’s beautiful white walls, where we’re not sure when or where the songs will begin again. Where we’re not sure if the prayer was heard or if it will forever fall upon deaf ears. Where we’re waiting for something, for a deliverance and revival that may never come.

 

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About Author

A born and bred Hoosier, Jared Yates Sexton is the author of An End to All Things (2012, Atticus Books), The Hook and the Haymaker (2015, Split Lip Press), and Bring Me the Head of Yorkie Goodman (2015, New Pulp Press). He currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University.

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