Shooting deaths of nine people at historic black church by white man have Obama calling for gun control and many worrying ‘there are no more safe havens’
Dylann Roof, a white male aged approximately 21, suspected of shooting dead nine people in what investigators are calling a hate crime
The killing of nine people by a young white man at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, has sent shockwaves across the United States, as the nation confronts a breaking point over race and gun violence following yet another mass shooting.
Investigators described a suspected hate crime at the hands of Dylann Roof, whom they apprehended as reports emerged that he had been given a handgun by his father for his 21st birthday. Pictures also surfaced from a Facebook page depicting him with the flags of apartheid South Africa and white government-era Rhodesia emblazoned on his jacket.
Six women and three men were killed during the stealth attack – including a pastor and local politician who had been a vocal advocate for gun control and police reform, as well as more clergy and a librarian – inside a prayer group meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church on Wednesday evening in this metropolis known as the “holy city” of the American south.
The suspect is said to have walked into the church – a symbol of the American civil rights movement, having given birth to slave revolts and survived burnings by white supremacists – and sat with the congregation for an hour before opening fire.
President Barack Obama addressed the nation from the White House, expressing heartache at the killings and saying American communities have had to endure such tragedies too many times.
“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Obama said. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency – and it is in our power to do something about it.”
The African American community in Charleston and indeed throughout the United States is still reeling from the murder just 10 weeks earlier of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot dead by a North Charleston police officer just miles away from the site of Wednesday’s shooting.
‘I have to do it’
Further chilling details of the shooting began to emerge on Thursday, as TV news quoted the relative of one of three survivors who claimed the gunman reloaded his weapon five times and stated: “I have to do it … You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.”
A sweeping, multi-agency manhunt for the shooter culminated in police arresting Roof in Shelby, North Carolina, nearly 15 hours after the attack. Police said a citizen reported the vehicle to law enforcement, citing “suspicious activity”. An officer with the Shelby police department pulled Roof over and arrested him during the traffic stop. Roof made a brief court appearance before being returned to Charleston.
Police say they believe Roof acted alone in the attack, and any motive remained unclear.
Carson Cowles, who identified himself as Roof’s uncle, told Reuters that Roof’s father had recently given him a .45-caliber handgun as a birthday present and that Roof had seemed adrift.
“I don’t have any words for it,” the 56-year-old was reported to have said in a telephone interview. “Nobody in my family had seen anything like this coming.”
Joey Meek, one of Roof’s childhood friends, said he alerted the FBI after recognising him in a surveillance camera image that was widely circulated by law enforcement agencies early on Thursday, Meek’s mother, Kimberly Konzny, told the Associated Press. Roof had worn the same sweatshirt while playing Xbox videogames in their home recently, she said.
“I don’t know what was going through his head,” Konzny said. “He was a really sweet kid. He was quiet. He only had a few friends.”
Police also released a mug shot of Roof, who had previously been arrested on drug and trespassing charges.
The US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, described the atrocity as a “barbaric crime” as the federal Department of Justice launched its own hate crime investigation into the mass killing, alongside local and state police.
“Acts like this have no place in our country and in a civilized society,” Lynch said in Washington on Thursday.
The youngest victim of the shooting was 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, a 2014 graduate of Allen University. The school described him as a “quiet, well-known student who was committed to his education”.
Cynthia Hurd, 54, was a manager at the St Andrews regional library in Charleston, which will renamed for one if its hardest working librarians. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, was a speech therapist and high-school track coach.
The Charleston County coroner, Rae Wooten, identified the other victims of the attack, as Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Myra Thompson, 59; Ethel Lance, 70, and her cousin Susie Jackson, 87, both longtime members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church.
Daniel Simmons, a 75-year-old pastor, was the only victim who died at the hospital. All the other victims were pronounced dead at the scene.
The Rev Clementa Pinckney, the pastor and state senator, was the first victim of the shootings to be identified. He had introduced legislation – later failed – to require background checks for gun purchases in South Carolina.
He also campaigned for police to be equipped with body cameras, which he said “may not be the golden ticket, the golden egg, the end-all-fix-all, but [would help] to paint a picture of what happens during a police stop”. Mandatory body cameras became law in the state one week ago.
Thomas Dixon, a pastor who has been working with a local chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement, told the Guardian in Charleston that he had met Pinckney when the senator led prayer vigils in the aftermath of Scott’s death.
Dixon said that in the wake of the latest shooting, he was “disheartened but not surprised”.
“It is a sign of the times,” he said. “Whereas in the past we were able to say there were safe havens for people where they could be treated well and respected, unfortunately in today’s world we have no more safe havens.”
Brokenhearted in the ‘holy city’
Politicians and religious leaders in this tight-knit community – known as the “holy city” for its deep Christian history – responded to the shooting with overwhelming grief and increased security.
“We woke up today and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” said the state’s governor, Nikki Haley, as she fought back tears during a press conference on Thursday. “We allow ourselves to grieve, we allow ourselves to pray, we allow ourselves to question, and then we allow ourselves to heal.”
One of several planned vigils on Thursday was evacuated following a bomb threat, as community leaders from Charleston to Washington came to grips with larger implications for race and violence.
“Events like this are further evidence that we need to be fighting for racial equality in our daily lives,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church traces its roots to 1816 and is one of the largest black congregations south of Baltimore. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr addressed the church in 1962.
Muhiyidin d’Baha, an organizer with the Charleston chapter of Black Lives Matter Charleston, said the mass shooting echoed church bombings from the civil rights era and followed a string of police shootings that has captivated the nation since the killing of an unarmed 18-year-old last summer in Ferguson, Missouri.
“There is a story being replayed, and it needs to be changed,” d’Baha said at a Thursday meeting held next to a statue of Denmark Vesey, an accused slave insurrectionist from Charleston who was a member of the AME church.
A crowd of more than a dozen gathered near the statue, including 75-year-old Paul Mack.
He was there with his daughter and her family, and Mack said it was important for his grandchildren to learn the history of racism in the American south.
“These kids know nothing about their history, nothing,” Mack said.
‘A broken peace’: from religion to race and guns
Jerod Frazier, minister of social justice at the predominately black Charity Missionary Baptist church in neighboring North Charleston, said he worried about the future of race relations in the region.
“The thing I hate about it is Sunday morning is the most segregated hour across America, but especially in the south – you can clearly tell who’s a visitor and who’s not if someone of another race comes in,” Frazier says. “We consider that to be a sacred time, and this threatens that peace.
“If someone black goes into a white church or someone white goes to a traditionally black church, heads are going to turn around and say, ‘What’s going on now?’ It’s kind of a broken peace, if you will – a disturbance of peace.”
Obama is estimated to have made 14 statements in response to mass shootings during his six years as president. He failed in his attempt to pass national gun control legislation after a 20-year-old shot and killed 20 children and six educators at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
He has also been criticised by some for failing to make a strong enough response to police shootings of unarmed black men, which have led to international protests.
On Wednesday, Obama expressed hope that the latest American shooting might “shift how we think about the issue of gun violence”.
“I have had to make statements like this too many times,” the president said.