Most of last week’s headlines included one of two names: Donald Trump or Dylann Roof. As I’m writing this after scrapping two drafts, 99.9 percent of those who’ve already seen the story about China’s “message” to PEOTUS via tactical aircraft are rightfully chewing off all of their fingernails. Last week was not a week for the faint of heart, especially in Charleston, and particularly for writers and journalists.
While Trump was dithering about, playing hooky from the intelligence briefings that could have possibly given him a heads-up that China’s annoyance with him was bigger than 140 characters, Charleston — a city that has yet to let out a full breath since the horrible silence that filled the air at the Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME when Dylann Roof stopped shooting — has been dealing with real American problems.
Charleston, a city that was terrorized by a white kid who took away nine black lives who mattered very much to this community, is going through the motions of daily life rather emptily while Roof is on trial. We’re half afraid to look at the news, trepidatious about reliving June 18, 2015, and full of quiet emotion while thinking of and praying for the families. There’s been a lot of talk about the desire to hug survivors Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard, of wanting to hug the whole of Mother Emanuel. As people share such thoughts, I believe that they, too, could use a hug, and I’m glad that the public gallery of the courtroom is restrictively small. The most recent trial days were long and tedious, and they ranged from a droll roll of scientific details to a sudden, horrific avalanche of horror and emotion. The survivors and the victim’s families were largely able to choose how much they wanted to see and hear via gentle forewarnings from the court. It would be difficult to expand such warnings to every concerned citizen, and most concerned citizens don’t have a visceral need to bear witness to the prosecution’s extremely organized attempt to assemble the full mosaic of Roof’s motives, planning, action, and impact.
This isn’t to say that the people of Charleston don’t need to know how the Roof case is going. Not only do they deserve to know, but it is absolutely necessary to the constant march of the Holy City’s history, which has often served as a microcosm of America’s greater issues — namely as the epicenter of African enslavement. The economy, affordable housing, access to health care, equal access to education, none of these will really be solved until the American people and those who lead their systems complete a full course of cognitive behavioral therapy to understand and overcome this country’s problems with race. So who, other than the survivors and their families, is left to bear witness and tell the hows and whys that complete this story? The journalists, that’s who. The very same whom Donald Trump maligns as “phony,” “slime,” and “lying, disgusting people” as he focuses the bulk of his attention on his press mentions.
So far, I’ve spent the greater part of this trial with local and national reporters who know the importance of getting this story straight. The reporters in the room understand the weight of showing the nuance and perspectives that ripple out to wash over anyone with feelings about the murders. Over the last two weeks this group — while yes, doing our jobs — sat through the opening statements, the testimony of survivor Felicia Sanders, a series of chaotic and tense videos from the body cameras of first responders, and extremely graphic images of the crime scene and the dead. The media pool is made up of women and men of different races, and all were affected by these more difficult parts of the trial. At one point after lunch one day, I looked around the room to find pain and emotional trauma on the faces of each person in the room. Some of us had to take personal moments in attempts to collect ourselves. Some of us have lost a lot of sleep. But we keep showing up to write, report, broadcast, livestream, and connect with those who want to know why this happened. Those who want to know how a 21-year-old, emotionally immature child came to such murderous racial conclusions. A kid whose rather half-assed internet research, which he ended when he apparently “knew everything” about “racial awareness,” gave him the leeway, I guess, to not have to watch the news — to be above the news — even when Ferguson, Mo. was erupting in unrest. These are the entitled rants of a coddled, intelligent, twisted, and extremely lazy child and they are infuriating, but it’s necessary for us to be here. It’s necessary that, even though Charleston hasn’t entered the required therapy to come to terms with the totality of its racial history, a range of diverse reporters and writers and storytellers be here to portray the far-reaching impact of Roof’s path, and what signs may point to others.
With his careless, endangering antics, President-elect Trump is proving that he has no interest in real or potential American problems, and he clearly has no interest in creating a relationship with the truth or its tellers other than to shame and control them. I found this to be a terrifying thought not so long ago, but now I realize that I don’t have time for that kind of worrying. There’s too much truth to tell. While I sometimes question my decision to sit in that federal courtroom, I am thankful to be surrounded by journalists who realize the same thing. We are honesty’s tools, which can be quite a miserable role at times. So when you need a hug or need to give a hug as this trial goes on, find a friend who understands. But if you really want to hug a journalist, I think they’d appreciate it too.