On Tuesday a unanimous jury sentenced Dylann Roof, a 22-year-old white supremacist who killed nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., to death. This sentence made Roof the first person in United States history to be given the death penalty in federal court for a hate crime. It only took three hours of deliberation for the jury of nine whites and three blacks to return their verdict condemning Roof to death for his attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
As an active opponent of the death penalty, I was left silent after hearing this sentence: It is state-sanctioned violence that I can neither cry over nor celebrate.
In an odd way, Roof's sentence leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, I am relieved that such a sickening crime was punished to the total extent of the current written and applied law—rather than undermined by white supremacy as it has been many times before. We are called to revisit the innumerable instances when black people were underserved and life was devalued. It is part of the many reasons the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer frustrated many black people, who are the main individuals on the receiving end of wrongful convictions and death penalty sentences.
On the other hand, I emphatically disagree with what the full extent of that current law is and how it has been applied to black people presently and historically. This has caused me to be against it in all forms, against all people.
Therefore, I am left with only one conclusion, despite how tough that is to iterate here: The death penalty will always be wrong.
In Marc Lamont Hill's book Nobody: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, From Ferguson to Flint and Beyond, he discusses the history of the prison system and the current practice of prison privatization and the prison-industrial complex. Part of this discussion centers on how quickly the United States is willing to execute a person for criminal acts, even though that execution is an act of state-sanctioned violence. The U.S.—one of the few "civilized countries" with such practices—literally kills people to teach us that killing others is wrong. In Nobody, Hill notes, "[S]ince 1976, when the Supreme Court lifted its ban on capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia, there have been 1,413 executions, nearly half of them non-White convicts; 528 of those executions occurred in Texas; 112 in Oklahoma."
Make no mistake: States with highest incarceration and death penalty rates remain those situated within the old Confederacy—like South Carolina. And because South Carolina remains a state with such a vehemently racist history—so much so that on June 27, 2015, one week before this country celebrated its own independence, Bree Newsome received international acclaim for climbing atop the South Carolina Statehouse to remove the Confederate flag. Once it was removed, Newsome exclaimed, "You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!”
Newsome was and still is right.
But when it comes to Tuesday afternoon’s sentence, I cannot cheer for a death penalty sentence. Not only does it make Roof a white supremacist martyr, but it is also uncomfortable to advocate for a practice and/or position that has taken the lives of thousands of black people. It doesn't escape me that this internal conflict may be a result of his whiteness—that is, the fact that we are discussing how humane a treatment another individual should receive even when he has shown none for others.
So let’s be clear: F—k Dylann Roof.
It isn’t up for debate just how twisted Roof and his racism is and was. Anyone who can go to a house of worship (pretending he wants to be saved), be invited in by people genuinely wanting to help and then take their lives inhabits a world in which we shouldn’t have to live. No one can justify Roof’s act of malice that took the lives of nine individuals.
True to form, Roof, and many other white mass murderers before him, allow us to see the complicated and racist relationship between crime and who has access to labeling. It doesn’t take long for shooters of color to be named “terrorists” and “thugs,” while white mass murderers are often quickly referred to as having a “mental illness.” The black community understands that this is done to remove the culpability from a white trigger-happy defendant, while we are frequently forced to accept that mainstream media and the legal system are not worried about black people receiving any semblance of justice in the United States or globally.
So when we see white people receiving the death penalty for taking black lives, it is something that many of us will celebrate—celebrate because we rarely, if ever, get to see an instance in which we remotely receive an equitable, deserved treatment. This is true even if that treatment is in the form of the same state-sanctioned violence that we so often protest and advocate against because of how it affects the most marginalized of black people.
It is that line of reasoning that led me to travel to Austin, Texas, in 2008 to fight for the eradication of the death penalty by lobbying policymakers. Black people are no strangers to the spitting, urinating, kicking, screaming and defecating that result from the death penalty’s administration. Even for those who have never personally seen an execution, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ portrayal of a death row inmate in Monster’s Ball provides a nearly accurate visual representation.
One year later, while interning at the ACLU Capital Punishment Project in Durham, N.C., I studied the disparate application of state and federal laws and polices—including sentencing, who received the death penalty and who were the perceived victims. It was apparent that black people, the South and the death penalty went hand in hand.
Through my relatively short time working and advocating against the death penalty, I understood that I wanted no part of being excited about it, regardless of the crime and no matter who received the administration. This is not an approval of Roof’s vitriolic acts but, rather, a condemnation of the death penalty for not reducing or deterring crime, for being anti-black and for being one of the many forms of state-sanctioned violence that the United States uses.
I am also a black person who experiences daily injustices. That means I understand that it is state-sanctioned violence when (approximately every 28 hours) a black person is killed by a law-enforcement officer. I am also aware that when a Guantanamo Bay detainee is tortured by a U.S. government official, that is state-sanctioned violence. What’s more, when the U.S. government condones sending drones to other countries and imposing our own beliefs, that is state-sanctioned violence. And neither am I.
Why, now, is the imposition of an anti-black tool a fundamental good? Yes, this case is cut-and-dried, but the legal system thinks the same when it comes to a black defendant. Regardless of how the death penalty is applied to horrendous people like Roof, black people will still be the main targets on the other side of the deadly needle.
So, what’s next?
Just so we’re clear: My objectives are not to make people think twice about Roof. He is a monster, and frankly, the lethal injection, the primary method of execution, may be too peaceful for his crime. And, at times, we simply get exhausted by thinking. We want to sit back and let what appears to be “justice” run its course. It makes sense that we wouldn’t rush to protest a white person who has taken the lives of so many black people.
But this isn’t about Roof. This is about whether we as a society should emphatically advocate a practice that has taken the lives of so many black people. Because although this may feel good now, we know that our justice system will take that good feeling and thank a majority-white jury for killing its own, all while happily knowing that it will do the same to a black defendant tomorrow.