On Thursday, September 3, 2015, South Carolina state prosecutors announced their plans to seek the death penalty for Dylann Storm Roof, who has been charged with nine counts of murder for his killing spree at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church early this summer. As Solicitor Scarlett Wilson put it, “This was the ultimate crime,” and as such, “justice from our state calls for the ultimate punishment.”
The violence imposed on the Black body is not softened by an instance of white death. Supporting the death penalty for Roof boxes us into a framework of justice that is too often used against us. Such a framework understands life to be precious, yet uses violence as its preferred form of punishment. Wilson’s pursuit of the death penalty treats Roof’s crime as if his actions somehow surpass the true “ultimate” crime: the centuries of violence against the Black body that continue into the present.
Proponents of racial equality – and there are many – know better than to assume that rallying behind or even finding comfort in the pursuit of death promises anything in the way of systemic change. The proposed punishment hardly puts a dent in the political and cultural conditions that steered Roof towards the hardline racist views that led him to the AME Church in the first place. In his manifesto, Roof deems whites superior and Black people “dogs.” For him, segregation and ultimately, murder, are the only conditions that promised whites refuge from those “dogs.”
At the institutional level, convicting and sentencing Roof to death does little to address the culture of oppression deeply embedded into the contemporary US. As such, the announcement is far from a serious way to deal with the realities of racism. The pursuit of and support for the death penalty as the “ultimate punishment” reinforces the same notions of “punishment” that for too long have sought to destroy Black livelihood in this country.
There is little solace in the prosecution’s decision, except perhaps that it reaffirms our aversion to violent manifestations of racism. It allows liberals and conservatives alike to talk amongst themselves about how the Bull Connor-racists in this country are dealt with accordingly, while overlooking the more subtle ways that our culture and politics perpetuate an equally hostile environment. The relevant paradigm here – that bodily harm legitimates justice and social order – maintains that hostility.
This call for justice comes during a time in the US when social justice movements are cast off as “too impractical” and “too demanding.” Government officials and the legal system claim to model these “practical” alternatives to race- and class-related issues, few of which actually funnel resources and opportunities back into the affected communities.
The justice that our legal system seeks tends to be more interpersonal than institutional, particularly in cases that reckon with the danger and consequences of being Black in the US. In dealing with those consequences, we are quick to point at the elusive racists around us, and then show deference to a collection of policies that have always promised stability over justice. Perhaps in the coming months, as it pertains to Roof and surely beyond, we can push ourselves and the governments that protect us to seek demanding, yet ultimately more productive, frameworks for bringing justice to the Charleston Nine.
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