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As confessed shooter in church massacre Dylann Roof is arrested, South Carolina activist Kevin Alexander Gray traces the history of white supremacy and the struggle for black liberation as the context for the killing of nine worshippers

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The gunman that killed nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, Dylann Roof, was charged with nine counts of murder and possession of a weapon during a violent crime. He confessed to his actions on Friday, and when asked why he did it, his response was, to start a race war. The victims were clergy and parishioners of historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Three men and six women were among those killed, and the youngest victim was just 26 years old. Charleston police officials have called it a hate crime, but South Carolina has no hate crime laws to prosecute the perpetrator. Hence, the federal hate crime laws will have to be enacted, and those laws were strengthened in 2009, allowing federal authorities to bring resources for investigating and prosecuting potential hate crimes in cases where there is no local law or ability to do so. Joining us now from Columbia, South Carolina to discuss these latest developments is Kevin Alexander Gray. Mr. Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina, and co-editor of Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence. Kevin, thank you so much for joining us today. KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY, AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST: Thank you for asking me. I’m sorry that it’s under these circumstances. PERIES: Kevin, give us a sense of what the community is talking about at the moment in terms of these horrendous crimes. GRAY: Well, right now the community’s in mourning, as you would expect. And there are a lot of people making pilgrimage to the church, Mother Emanuel. There are a lot of people calling for unity in the Charleston community, as they should. People are grieving, and they want to bury their dead. The lost souls. And they have to carry on, but I think that’s the first order of business. The state community’s in shock. Of course all souls are equal, and people are mourning all nine victims as they should, but of course the pastor of the church, State Senator Clementa Pinckney, was someone that was well known to a lot of people. As they say down there, he was legit. He was a person that was accessible, that was reachable, that was someone that would reach out to you. The fact that that young man could come into his church and sit next to him is a testament to the kind of person that he is, that he would welcome people who would come in and want to be accepted by his church. A historic church that fought for the abolition of slavery, a historic church that was founded by activist Denmark Vesey, who looms large in the history of South Carolina. Mother Emanuel, which was the first African Methodist church, which is why it’s called Mother Emanuel. The largest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the Southeast. People are mourning about what happened in the church, but they understand the historical import of what happened in that church. And on the day that it happened, that it was a day in which Denmark Vesey and his compatriots were planning a rebellion of enslaved Africans in Charleston. So people are mourning. People are grieving. People are preparing to bury their loved ones. And now that Dylann Roof has been caught the trial process will go on. Of course, the Governor’s calling for the death penalty, and I think that’s a way of trying to avoid dealing with the fact that that young man operated on the ideology of white supremacy, which is the foundation of the underpinnings and the founding of the state. PERIES: Kevin, embodied in Mr. Roof is the history of the state, that has experienced a tremendous amount of racial violence. Give us a sense of what that history is. GRAY: Well as I said, the state was the first state to secede from the Union. It’s proud of that history. The shots that it fired at Fort Sumter that kicked off the Civil War–right down the street a block away from Mother Emanuel church there’s a statue of John C. Calhoun, who was known as the great nullifier. When you hear the speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, who talks about interposition and nullification, those words come from South Carolina. They meant that South Carolina did not want the United States, the Union, to abolish slavery. It’s about protecting Africans as property and expanding slavery across the whole of the United States. And so South Carolina, to a lot of people, is the ideological home of white supremacy in America. The fact that Mr. Roof wore the Rhodesian flag and the flag of South Africa before the end of apartheid, which represented white supremacy, and the flags of the Confederacy on the front of his car, three flags, the naval jack, and of course the main flag, the stainless white banner, which was the original Confederate flag. A flag that stood for white man’s country. So to go down and attack Mother Emanuel church, the church that represents liberation in South Carolina, the church that historically stood at the center of the fight against the enslavement of Africans in this country, someone taught him that. And part of the teaching of white supremacy is in the history, rooted in the history of the state. If you go to the state house grounds here in Columbia, it’s a monument to the Confederacy. Where people like Pitchfork Ben Tillman on the state house grounds, who led the redemption period, which was the fight back against reconstruction, who forced black people out of the state at gunpoint at a time when blacks were the majority of the population in the state, and instilled the Constitution that ensured that white supremacy would be the rule of law in this state for centuries to come. People like James Marion Sims who operated on enslaved black women, who was recognized as the father of modern gynecology. People like Strom Thurmond. It honors people like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee. If you ride down the street in South Carolina it’s apt to be named after a Confederate hero. You can walk in any building or school in just about any county in the state, and they’re named after Confederate heroes. And they revere that history, and they revere the history of the enslavement of Africans. And it has resonance today in that when that young man said that black men want to rape our women and take over, that kind of racist talk is as old as the relationships between blacks and whites in this country. And as–it’s in the air in this state. And that’s what people don’t want to deal with. They want to say, where did this young man learn all this? Well, he can learn it simply by living here. PERIES: Kevin, this is the culmination of the latest series of hate crimes, whether by way of police perpetrating it or individual citizens perpetrating it like in the case of Trayvon Martin, and you have written about that–. GRAY: Well, I don’t want to validate–I mean, you can use it if you want to, the use of the term hate crime. All crimes are crimes of hate. And you know, I’m for one standard. He killed nine people. Prosecute him on nine counts of murder. He committed murder. I believe that the ideology of white supremacy is terrorism. But the word terrorism has been so overused, for the most part people look at the word terrorism and they think Arab. You think about Latinos, you think illegal. You look at black people, you think of thugs. And more often than not when you think about white people committing such heinous crimes you say they have a mental illness. Well, let’s just have one standard. Let’s try him for murder. I don’t believe in the death penalty. I don’t think that he ought to get the death penalty so that we can bury the ideology that drove him to do this. Let’s deal with the fact that there’s structural white supremacy in this country, let’s deal with the fact that this country was founded on racism and genocide, and that South Carolina, from the way I see it, is the ideological home of white supremacy. We ought to have one standard, and that is, let’s not give ten extra years for killing a cop, or another ten, twenty years for killing an elected official. Let’s have one standard. All souls are equal. He committed a crime. Prosecute him for that crime. Imprison him in jail for life. Let the people who fed that into his head, let them go visit him in jail for the rest of his natural life. That is punishment. You’re not going to prove that killing somebody is wrong by killing somebody. PERIES: Kevin, at this time people are looking for some guidance in terms of what they should do. What do you have to say to them? GRAY: Well, I think the people that want to look at the underpinnings of the politics in our country, which is white supremacy and racism. Racism doesn’t mean that I simply don’t like somebody of another race. The appropriate term would be bigotry. Racism is a system in which people based on skin privilege hold power over another. Keep people movable, keep people vulnerable, keep people as second-class citizens under a structure. And that structure as we can see it manifests itself as disparate wealth, in disparate income distribution, housing , education, prison rates, dropout rates. That’s what structural white supremacy and racism is. And that is the foundation of the so-called Confederacy, a country that, an ideology that was based on white supremacy, that has spread across this country. It’s the underpinnings of the philosophy that lead all these Republican governors and Republican legislators across this nation to talk about voter fraud when none exists to deny people the right to vote. This is the same underpinning that denies people the right to own property that results in gentrification, that results in disparate jail sentences, disparate use of the death penalty. It’s the underpinnings that allows America to claim American exceptionalism and bomb people of color all around the world. That’s what we ought to be talking about. PERIES: Kevin, we’re going to be continuing this discussion on The Real News Network, and I hope you can join us again very soon. GRAY: Thank you very much. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch/AK Press), and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He is the editor, along with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair, of Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence from CounterPunch Books. Gray and his younger sister Valerie were among the first blacks to attend the local all-white elementary school in 1968. Since then he has been involved in community organizing working on a variety of issues ranging from racial politics, police violence, third-world politics and relations, union organizing & workers' rights, grassroots political campaigns, marches, actions & political events. Gray is currently organizing the Harriet Tubman Freedom House Project which focuses on community based political and cultural education. He is an organizer for the National Mobilization Committee Against the Drug War, and the former managing & contributing editor of Black News in Columbia. Gray now serves as contributing writer to other minority newspapers in South Carolina. He served as a national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union for 4 years and is a past eight-term president of the South Carolina affiliate of the ACLU. Gray is also an advisory board member of the Drug Policy Reform Coalition Net.