Last weekend tragedy struck Jacksonville, Florida, after a gunman shot and killed three Black people — Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr., Jerrald Gallion and Angela Michelle Carr — at a Dollar General store. The 21-year-old gunman’s attack was motivated by racism: He left behind racist screeds and carried out the attack with a swastika-emblazoned assault-style rifle, according to officials.
The gunman, Ryan Christopher Palmeter, first tried to target the historically Black college Edward Waters University. A student noticed Palmeter putting on a bulletproof vest and alerted a campus officer. Campus police pursued the gunman, who fled the campus. This encounter didn’t deter Palmeter, who then targeted Black locals at the nearby store. The shooter’s father confirmed the motivations of his son by sharing Palmeter’s racist writings.
During a prayer vigil Sunday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis condemned the mass shooting as “unacceptable” and promised increased security budgets for Edward Waters University but was booed and heckled by locals who weren’t fooled by his false sympathy. One attendee reportedly shouted, “Your policies caused this.”
I couldn’t agree more that DeSantis’s policies enable such violence. A few months ago, DeSantis rolled out a new law allowing people to buy guns without a permit earlier this year. He also continues to attack Black history throughout the state to win over right-wing voters.
I’m likewise not interested in DeSantis’s false condolences. The country is witnessing a resurgent far right extremist movement, and Republican politicians like DeSantis have fanned the flames. The shooting victims were people full of love who deserve a governor who doesn’t trivialize their lives with his politics. As a Black woman and Florida native, I’m tired of the thoughts and prayers of politicians who hypocritically contribute to a culture of hostility and violence.
In these moments of tragedy, we need to look to the actions of the Jacksonville prayer vigil participants and speak truth to power. Politicians don’t get to use our communities’ pain as a photo-op for their empty promises. DeSantis’s “solution” of increased school security is a farce amid his loosening of gun laws and bolstering of anti-Black sentiment. Increased policing will not stop these white supremacist attacks. Contact with law enforcement did not deter the shooter or prevent the murder of Black locals less than a mile away.
It’s no coincidence the shooter initially targeted Edward Waters University; historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been the site of Black education, culture and politics for centuries. They’ve also been targeted by white supremacist violence for just as long. My younger sister is attending an HBCU in Florida, and in the midst of political repression, I’m both proud and terrified. Being Black already makes us targets, and on top of that, HBCUs are continuously targeted for bomb threats and violence more than other institutions — especially leading up to Black History Month. I’m filled with excitement knowing that my sister is joining the beautiful tradition of Black education at an HBCU. But the fear of something happening to her lingers in the back of my mind. Yet that’s the everyday reality of all Black people, and it hasn’t yet shuttered the bright minds of Black students.
The shooting also coincided with the 63rd weekend anniversary of “Ax-Handle Saturday,” when, in response to peaceful lunch counter demonstrations by young activists with a local Jacksonville NAACP chapter, nearly 200 white rioters attacked Black residents with ax handles and baseball clubs as police stood idly by. A Black street gang intervened to stop the violence, which is when the police joined in with the white mob. This history is a clear reminder that white supremacist attacks didn’t start with contemporary conservative movements.
Unfortunately, violence that targets marginalized people is not unique in U.S. history but a longstanding trend. The election of former President Donald Trump shouldn’t be conflated as the root cause of white supremacist violence. The reason why conservative politicians can tap into white supremacist ideology as a rallying point is because it’s embedded in the foundation of U.S. politics.
Those killed in the recent Jacksonville shooting were not just victims of hate, but victims of a long history of white supremacist violence. If we hope to address this violence, superficial solutions like increasing police or even individual hate crime charges will not be sufficient. Boldly refusing to accept the sympathy of politicians who tap into white supremacist ideology for votes is a start. But to truly address racial violence, we need policies that target the roots of white supremacy, not just its fruits.
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