Understanding Dylann Roof, the Disturbed Perpetrator of the Mother Emanuel AME Church Massacre
As with all ideology-centered terrorism, the social conditions that created Roof must be examined to prevent future disaster.
By August Wright, College of Charleston
Charleston has made national news twice: Once in the summer of 2015 when a man went into Mother Emanuel AME Church and opened fire on the all-black congregation, and once last week when this same man was tried and convicted in federal court for his crimes.
Using a gun he obtained through the Charleston Loophole, he killed nine people, including SC State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney, and injured one other person. When he was apprehended the next morning in Shelby, North Carolina, people were shocked to learn that he was just some 21-year-old kid from Columbia named Dylann Roof.
What I remember about the shooting is being unable to get anyone to answer the freaking phone at my college. I was finishing up some paperwork for the upcoming fall semester, and I needed to talk to someone at Financial Aid. I didn’t, and still don’t, live in the center of Charleston—where my college’s campus and AME church are—so I had no idea that a massacre had just taken place.
To be fair, North Charleston, Charleston’s ugly and abusive cousin, has an extremely high crime rate, and ranks a measly three out of 100 on the crime index. For comparison, East St. Louis in Illinois, which ranked number one for murders in 2016, is also ranked at three out of 100 on the crime index.
I’ve lived in-and-around North Charleston for a while, so when I first heard about a shooting at a church, I immediately assumed it had happened in this socio-economically depressed, crime-riddled pocket of shit. When the story made national news, I had a “what the hell” moment, because literally no one cares about what happens in North Charleston. The “city” is so run-down that there’s an old, drive-in style pornography theater that hasn’t operated in decades. I think now it acts as the unofficial murder victim bludgeoning spot, but that’s just my guess based on all the corpses I’ve found there.
Charleston has a much better reputation in the minds of people who live in billion-dollar homes, and somehow don’t notice all the homeless congregating in the parks to sleep at night. Students were less surprised by the news of the shooting, but students also get robbed, shot, stabbed, assaulted and raped far more frequently than Lady Elizabeth Jane Mullins the Fifth, heiress to the once extremely profitable Mullins Slave Trading Co. (Okay, okay, I’m exaggerating, but most of the incredibly wealthy people in Charleston all come from “old money,” which is a very polite way of saying, “My ancestors were slave traders, so I help my community by living alone in a fifteen bedroom mansion, and bitching about the city’s homeless problem.”)
Most people, I think, were shocked that it was a college-aged white person who had committed this completely random hate crime. Of course hate crimes happen here—Michael Slager’s murder of Walter Scott is one example—but people, aside from expecting hate crimes to be perpetrated by police, want explanations that undermine the hate crime’s nature (you know, “Oh, this white/black guy was only killed by this other white/black guy because of a bad drug deal. Race had nothing to do with it!”).
For Roof, though, there was no explanation other than he just really, really, really hates non-whites. I mean, Nikki Haley, the governor of SC, told prosecutors to go after the death penalty (whether he gets it or not will be decided when he goes to his state trial in January).
The case with Roof is hard to understand, because the entire mass murder was driven by pure hatred. When captured, Roof admitted that the shooting was driven by his desire to incite a race war. According to his roommate, he also wanted to begin a civil war, and believed strongly in racial segregation.
Roof also had a webpage, now taken down, that had multiple pictures of himself posing at various slavery-related locations across North and South Carolina. One of these places included Sullivan’s Island, which was the largest slave-trading port in North America, and which once had two massive slave plantations on it. The prices of homes on Sullivan’s Island, where mainly older white people live, stretch far into quadruple digits, which suggest the whole “buried treasure” idea from Poe’s “The Gold Bug” wasn’t so far off (just kidding—the island’s wealth comes from old blood money).
The most disturbing part of the entire massacre, aside from Roof laughing during his confession to the FBI, is that his extreme, white supremacist views were condoned by other white supremacists organizations. I know that sounds like a “well, duh” statement (it is), but I think it needs contextualization to make sense.
On his website, Roof had written a manifesto that credited the Treyvon Martin case as “the event that truly awakened” him. He then wrote, “I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was able to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right. But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words black on White crime into Google, and I have never been the same since that day.”
That last statement has some truth to it. A childhood friend of Roof’s was Caleb Brown, a half-black kid from SC.
When asked about the incident, Brown responded, “This whole racist thing came into him within the past five years.”
Roof credited the website of white supremacist group Council of Conservative Citizens as the site where he discovered the truth about black-on-white murders—that the media ignores them. He wrote, “The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on white murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Treyvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on white murders got ignored?”
Unfortunately for Roof, no one ever taught him about biased sources, statistics and doing more research than just clicking the first webpage Google brings up.
When the Council’s president was asked to comment on the murders, he said that his organization wasn’t responsible for the attack. The group also said that, while they don’t condone the murders, they understand his “legitimate grievances.” The spokesperson for CofCC made things worse when he then tried to blame society for Roof’s murderous actions: “Our society’s silence about [black on white] crimes—despite enormous amounts of attention to ‘racially tinged’ acts by whites—only increase the anger of people like Dylann Roof. This double standard only makes acts of murderous frustration more likely.”
Similarly, the founder of the white supremacist group Northwest Front—the infamous group that participated in the 1979 slaughter in Greensboro—stated that Roof’s actions were “a preview of coming attractions.” By the way, the founder of this group is a rightwing sci-fi writer who has been linked to numerous race-based crimes. The sci-fi part isn’t important, but is that not the weirdest thing you’ve ever heard?
The president of CofCC and the founder of Northwest Front are complete dicks, an opinion which I expect is supported by everyone who isn’t a white supremacist. If you contrast what they had to say about the shooting with what the editor of “The Daily Stormer,” a white nationalist news website, had to say about it, there’s a very distinct difference in attitudes. The editor, though supporting Roof’s views, said that murdering innocent people, including old women, was “a completely insane act.”
I think the CofCC and Northwest Front’s responses to Roof’s crime are the most disturbing part of the entire incident, because they’ve clearly illustrated just how hard-line their views are. To them, it doesn’t matter if it’s men, women, children or the elderly who’re killed—just as long as they’re not white. Sure, these groups say they don’t condone the murders, but every statement after “we don’t condone the murders” begins with “but.”
I’m not sure about anyone else, but if someone says, “I’m sorry, but…” I already know their apology isn’t real, and I think the same logic could be applied here. “We don’t condone the murders, but we understand them” is a bit reductive, although it reflects the basic idea of what both groups have said.
More concerning, I think, is that Roof wasn’t always a racist, and he had friends (right before the shooting, he had dropped his them off at Lake Murray). He was even part of an Evangelical Lutheran congregation, and the two reverends Roof killed—one being Senator Pinckney—“had both graduated from one of the domination’s seminaries.” Does this mean the CofCC, Northwest Front or any other white supremacist group with whom Roof had contact is to blame? Probably not completely, but I think more attention should be paid to how powerful extremely-biased content can be. Too many people are focused on the perpetrator, but regardless of whether Roof lives or dies, he won’t ever leave prison, which means the justice system is doing its job.
In the meantime, the focus should be on where Roof was getting his information, and on how this extremely biased, racist rhetoric played a role in his decision to murder nine innocent people who were just participating in a bible study at church. People underestimate how powerful language is, even though it’s through language that everyone creates and represents their identities.
Roof, who was jobless and spent his time self-medicating with cocaine, Suboxone and cheap liquor, didn’t really have an identity, and I think that’s why he clung to the Treyvon Martin case, and why the CofCC’s webpage made sense to him. Maybe seeing Zimmerman go from nobody to somebody spurred his decision. Maybe all the racist shit he was reading helped him craft this pseudo-identity that eventually evolved into his identity as a murderer. I don’t know, and I don’t think Roof knows, either. However, if he doesn’t receive the death penalty, he’ll certainly have a long time to figure it out.