With church shooting suspect in custody, a community reels

Religious and activist groups gather for comfort following Wednesday night’s massacre

by

An overflow crowd gathers in front of Morris Brown AME Church for a prayer vigil. - PAUL BOWERS
  • Paul Bowers
  • An overflow crowd gathers in front of Morris Brown AME Church for a prayer vigil.

Police in Shelby, N.C., arrested church shooting suspect Dylann Roof before noon today following a concerted effort by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said in a press conference that the arrest came about after an alert citizen in North Carolina called police to report a suspicious vehicle.

Even with a suspect in custody, some community and religious leaders remain ill at ease. Jerod Frazier, minister of social justice at Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, says his congregation will probably have a lookout posted at its entrance during its Sunday worship service. "We can't arm ourselves and confront the assailant, but we'll have a way to get people out of harm's way as fast as possible and neutralize the threat," Frazier says.

Morris Brown AME, another historic black church in downtown Charleston, held a prayer service at noon that quickly overflowed into the street. Hundreds gathered as speakers stood in the blistering heat to pray aloud, sing hymns and spirituals, and offer words of encouragement. Members of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations were present.

Erica Alcox was one of the community members who gathered for a quiet meeting near the Denmark Vesey statue in Hampton Park. - PAUL BOWERS
  • Paul Bowers
  • Erica Alcox was one of the community members who gathered for a quiet meeting near the Denmark Vesey statue in Hampton Park.

Erica Alcox, a Gullah-Geechee woman who is active with nonprofit organizations including Geechee Girl Inc. and Generation YEP, says the deaths have been felt by a strong network of families and friends. She says a friend who attended Burke High School lost her mother in the shooting.

"Charleston is a close-knit city where either your relative is across the street or around the corner, and so when one person is affected, we're all affected," Alcox says. "If we're not related, we're a play-cousin or we went to school together. All night long and all morning, my alerts have been going off with people I went to high school with and even who went to rival high schools."

As national media gathered for a midday press conference announcing Roof's arrest, Alcox was one of about a dozen people who gathered around a statue in Hampton Park of slave insurrectionist Denmark Vesey, who was a founder of Emanuel AME. The gathering was organized by Black Lives Matter Charleston, an activist group that has been holding protests and rallies in the area since the 2014 police-involved deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Black Lives Matter Charleston organizer Muhiyidin d'Baha, who previously chanted slogans into a megaphone following the police shooting of Walter Scott in April, hardly spoke above a whisper as members of the group held each other and wept or gathered in small circles to talk.

"We had to fight to get this statue erected," d'Baha said of the Vesey statue, which was placed in the park in February 2014, nearly 192 years after authorities executed Vesey following a failed slave uprising. "We had to fight through the thickness of white supremacy that doesn't want to recognize the horrifying experiences of domestic terrorism ... It happened last night ... the same massacres. Once they were condoned by the law, by white supremacist law, and now it's just possible. It has the same impact on the community."

Black Live Matter Charleston plans to meet at 5 p.m. Thursday in Marion Square near the John C. Calhoun statue, and from there the group will march to "spaces where white supremacy still exists," d'Baha says. On Friday at 6 p.m., d'Baha says the group will meet again in Marion Square in a ceremony to "bury white supremacy and terrorism."

Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, head of state of the Gullah Geechee Nation, said in an email late last night that she was a friend of the Rev. Pinckney and had worshipped in Emanuel AME Church before. She composed a poem about the shooting. It reads, in part:

"They were speaking of nine people having been shot in the church that I had passed every day this week. / The same church in which I've prayed, sang, and been invited to speak! / Before I could focus to read what scrolled by on the screen, / I heard words that I know, but had to pause to ensure what these words did mean — / 9 shot while in Emanuel AME? / No! NO! This cannot be!"

Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. addresses the media in a press conference announcing the arrest of the church shooting suspect. - PAUL BOWERS
  • Paul Bowers
  • Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. addresses the media in a press conference announcing the arrest of the church shooting suspect.