On Wednesday, June 17th in Charleston, South Carolina, nine black people were brutally murdered by a white, male shooter. They were attending weekly prayer services at Emanuel AME Church, one of the oldest black churches in the South and an important community space serving the black community for over 100 years.
This heinous, racially motivated act of violence stole nine beautiful lives. They, who welcomed the shooter into their sanctuary, are at the core of why we are writing this letter. Alongside their beloved community, we mourn and honor the lives taken by a violent act of white supremacy.
Rest in love and peace
Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41
Cynthia Hurd, 54
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45
Tywanza Sanders, 26
Myra Thompson, 59
Ethel Lee Lance, 70
Susie Jackson, 87
Daniel L. Simmons, 74
Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49
You can read their biographies and watch this video of a prayer delivered by one of the victims, Pastor Clementa Pinckney in 2013, to learn more about their lives. The powerful history of this church is rich and inspiring, please take some time to read more here.
Call to Action
Sign this card
Sign this card to share your support with the survivors and family members of those killed. They will be delivered in-person to the community.
The Mother Emmanuel AME Church, whose 9 members were murdered, needs your support to cover the funeral costs for the victims and counseling services for their families. Please give to support the well-being of these families. It is important to remember that mental health has always been at stake for black people. Part of extending our compassion and our solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter is to support the healing of black communities that have been deeply and eternally disrupted by white violence.
As we have seen time and time again, mainstream media misrepresents events involving race continually. Media is one of the pillars that uphold structural racism and white supremacy, and it is too often used to condone white violence. It is vital for the truth to be written and shared, although more difficult to hear. Consider writing an op ed for a large paper, a blog post, etc. If you would like some support on how to do this, feel free to reach out to Emili Abdel-Ghany.
Part of what constitutes privilege is the ability to ignore the things that don’t affect you directly with little to no consequence. It is important to recognize how colorblind racism perpetuates these systems of oppression.
Colorblind Racism is a tendency within the sustainability community to leave out critical racial analysis in favor of emphasizing the oneness in all of humanity. Although it is important to see the beauty in our sameness, it would be wrong to ignore our differences. It would be wrong because we do not live in a world where all are equitably treated. It would be wrong because it would erase the diversity of our lives. In ignoring our differences, we ignore how the world treats us differently, and in our ignorance or “blindness,” we contribute to the unjust racist system we all still live in. This is called colorblind racism.
Hold or Attend Vigils
Thousands unite at prayer vigil at Charleston AME church. Find out where vigils in your community are taking place and show up, physically and emotionally. These moments of community and healing are important and necessary. They bolster our humanity and remind us that attacks on black lives should be relevant to our own. The issue of racial oppression should be taken on by white allies as well.
Participate as an ally in #BlackLivesMatter and associated actions
This is a video of a #BlackBrunch direct action that took place in April 2015 in Charleston, SC. The group, in unison with a multi-racial group, called upon the majority white room to stand up with them if they believe that Black Lives Matter. No one stood up. It is in white silence that white violence is allowed to fester. However, we must remain mindful of our privilege and of our position as allies and not take up or demand space that should be held by frontline communities.
Talk with your loved ones
It is essential for us to discuss this for what this tragedy was truly about: Structural racism and white supremacy in America. Too often, our self-education and frustration is kept to ourselves, and we choose to not discuss these issues for fear of “awkwardness” or not being eloquent enough to describe the complexity or scale of the issue. It is critical that we share because committing ourselves to isolation not only allows the dominant narratives that condone white violence to persist, it also affects our own capacity to be as fully human as we desire to be. It is critical that we share with those closest to us, the ones for whom these conversations are most difficult. If we remain in an echo chamber, we are not taking on the role that we are called upon. It is essential that we combat the media’s diluted presentation by having earnest conversations with each other. Through building authentic understanding at home and in our community, we can begin to build shared power around envisioning a just world.
Where CSSC stands
Racism is not a mental illness as it is often presented in media; it is a social construction. Racism pervades every corner of American society’s institutions, operating on a system-wide level to benefit white people while it disadvantages and oppresses people of color at large. We call this systemic or structural racism. The Charleston massacre was not the work of a rogue “madman” or “troubled young man.” Attributing these atrocious actions to mental instability is degrading to those who live and struggle with mental illness and stigmatizes them as ‘dangerous’ and ‘unstable.’ Furthermore, it recklessly misses the main point: this was an anti-black hate crime, the latest in a centuries-old tradition of white supremacy and white racist violence. The root causes of such white violence are structural racism and white supremacy — two sides of the same coin that mutually reinforce one another. Structural racism and white supremacy are not about individual acts. Rather, they are self-perpetuating systems of oppression that drive individuals’ behaviors to perpetuate and condone violence and inequity, preventing the United States from healing our centuries long racial trauma. To learn more about white supremacy and structural racism read this resource from the Catalyst Project.
While only one person was the shooter, the motivations of the crime extend far beyond his singular actions, his singular ability to access a gun, and this singular moment of violence. The motivations were rooted in the communities he was a part of, the socializations he received (as a white male), and in the silence of voices that allows white supremacy to persist.
Allies should be wary of attributing this incident to the problem of gun control. It is true that guns are incredibly easy to access and the U.S. has the highest rates of gun-related violence in the “developed” world. However, more importantly, these weapons are too readily used as a tool to maintain a racist society: by police, by the military, by white men in the US with racist or sexist manifestos. It must be said that white men commit 65-87% of mass shootings in the United States. (1, 2) Gun control is an important part of the conversation, but it cannot be separated from its role in maintaining white supremacy. To learn more about the racial history of gun control, read here.
It is in dismantling this system of oppression that progress will be made. White supremacy tells us not to talk about race and to ignore it, even as the Confederate flag flies over the SC state building and over houses, and as the streets are named after Confederate generals. White supremacy tells us that race is not relevant even though black folks are reminded of their own race every day. We must speak up. We must not remain silent.
Once we stop being silent, we must move beyond speech to action. CSSC works on climate justice campaigns, we work on sustainable food systems, we work to change systems and to change our everyday lives to be in line with our morals. In this effort, we cannot ignore structural racism. In the effort to create a more sustainable world, social justice must be at the forefront, otherwise we are contributing to oppression. Although we are founded on principles of holistic sustainability (equity, ecology, economy) we must work to place equity at the forefront of our work, on a personal and institutional level.
Deconstructing the use of the word “terrorist”
In this moment, our members are deconstructing the meaning and use of this word. Although we have not come to consensus on the ability to effectively repurpose the word or not, this conversation is incredibly important and ongoing. Ultimately we assert that the shooter is a “terrorist” who acted out of racist hatred, who used violence to promote white supremacy, and who stole the lives of nine black people who welcomed him into their space. These are some of our thoughts on the word:
- It is important to reframe the narrative often repeated in our society about white violence. White violence is rarely condemned nor denounced as much as other types of violence in our media. Riots and looting after a sports event are referred to by the media as “rowdy crowds.” However, a peaceful protest against systematic racial violence is referred to as a “riot” if one window is broken. Focus on the larger picture.
- Do not lump this act in with others that have been called acts of terror. Instead, let us see the real terror as that which comes from those who will violently maintain systems of oppression.
- People of color whose actions are criminalized are called words like “terrorist,” “thug,” and “rioter.” These words undermine people’s value in the eyes of society and stigmatizes the individual for making a violent or otherwise “wrong” choice. However, in the rare occurrence when a white person makes the news for their crimes or acts of violence, they are framed as “mentally ill” or “troubled” or “on the wrong path,” reinforcing their “inherent” value and implying less guilt.
- The word “terrorism” is often employed in this country to demonize the actions of people of color who are (often through desperate measures) resisting U.S. imperialism. We want to challenge that use of the word terrorism, and recognize that racially charged murders–heinous acts that are committed for racist political gain– are acts of terrorism.
On a final note, we would like to recognize the immense power that the relatives of the victims have shown. A great demonstration of this was in their extension of forgiveness to the shooter. Bethane Middleton-Brown, the sister of Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor said the following:
“And I just thank you on the behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress and I acknowledge that I’m very angry… But one thing DePayne always joined in my family with is that she taught me we are the family that love built … We have no room for hate. We have to forgive.”
This statement is incredibly powerful in its acknowledgment of her anger and in its capacity for compassion. What it is NOT is an absolution for this crime. What it is NOT is an excuse for us to remain idle. What it is NOT is a signal that their suffering is over. What it is NOT is peace. Their forgiveness is NOT ours to claim.
Black forgiveness of white violence is necessary for survival in a world that sees black people as less than human. It is necessary in order to continue to fight for justice. It is a call to action for non-black folks to fight with them. Do not let this statement of forgiveness be co-opted as an indication that this “is over with.” Our thoughts come from this great interview with Carvell Wallace, entitled “You’re Not Off The Hook: The White Myth Of Black Forgiveness.”
Who we are
This section is taken from a recent letter of solidarity written by CSSC to the organizers in Ferguson and our community.
We are a primarily and historically white, upper-middle class, educated, privileged group of organizers. We are not a monolith, however, and never have been. Although it has been a struggle to raise the voices of marginalized peoples even within our own leadership, we are making strides to do this within our own organization as well as the lives we touch. We are also a diverse group of minds, identities, backgrounds, and experiences. Those writing this statement are not all of the same identity but we also cannot speak for every affiliate of CSSC. Instead, as current or alumnus of CSSC who care deeply about this transition to incorporate social justice more heavily into our organizing, attempt to convey where we stand in the hopes that it will be a way for us not to remain silent and for others to begin to join the conversation and the fight for racial justice.
CSSC was founded on the three pillars of sustainability: equity, economy, ecology. Our Mission is to unite and empower California’s community of higher education to collaboratively and nonviolently transform ourselves and our institutions based on our inherent social, economic, and ecological responsibilities.
We have been the leading statewide student-run organization for California youth who are passionate about sustainability. Our convergences have been moving from the traditional focus on ecological and environmental stewardship toward a greater understanding and valuing of justice, uplifting economic transition and equity as the priority. We still very much value environmental and ecological stewardship but with recognition of the social and economic context of such issues.
For the last few years, we have been working actively toward embracing this intersectionality, heading up campaigns like Fossil Free UC and Students Against Fracking as explicitly justice-based campaigns working toward climate justice. In 2014, we started the first ever Solidarity Organizing Program. We strive to create an intentionally diverse space, lifting up organizers of color and those who identify as members of an oppressed community. Our organization is devoted to learning and developing our social and climate justice analysis, and we fully recognize the internal and external progress that needs to develop the radical inclusion of students dedicated to justice, equity, and sustainability.
Our work is inspired by groups such as the California Climate Justice Alliance, who paint this picture so well and help us to understand the crossroads of our work:
- “The tragic killing of so many young Black people, like Mike Brown, the environmentally-caused illnesses and death from disproportionate pollution in so many communities of color, and climate chaos are all linked by the same systems of racism and oppression.”
- “The fight for Black lives, racial justice and the incredible organizing of #FergusonOctober is inextricably linked to the fight for environmental justice & we stand in solidarity with everyone in Ferguson”.
- As a group with the word “sustainability” in its name, we recognize that if we are to be truly sustainable, we cannot ignore equity and justice. This is inherent to sustainability and inherent to building a safer, healthier, cleaner, more beautiful, and just world.
Continue the Conversation
If you are part of CSSC or would like to join the ongoing discussion of how various systemic oppressions intersect with our work, please reach out to Emili Abdel-Ghany: emabdel [at] ucdavis [dot] edu 310-744-5031
California Student Sustainability Coalition
Emili Abdel-Ghany, former Field Organizer
Shoshanna Howard, Campaign Director
Zen Trenholm, Development Director
Emily Williams, Campaign Director
Silver Hannon, Campaign Director
Alyssa Lee, former Field Organizer
Colin Murphy, CSSC Alumnus, Activist, Writer: Oakland, CA