The recent news of the terrorist attack on the historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, has left many of us reeling. The thought that in 2015, that anyone could be subjected to the sort of domestic terrorism popularized by the Klu Klux Klan is truly sickening. As many of my friends and colleagues have joined me in expressing their grief and outrage at this event, one question has continued to come up, time and time again – what can we do to change our nation? How can we alter the hearts and minds of society, so that we no longer produce Dylann Roofs?
Many of the members of Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform are supporters of gun control, but we at PfCJR do not believe that this is the only solution. Whenever a mass shooting occurs, others call for improvements in our care of the mentally ill. While we are proponents for increased resources to treat our mentally ill patients, we do not feel that this addresses the clear racism that is involved in this case.
Dylann Roof said something that was both chilling and very revealing as he reloaded in the church that night, attempting to justify what it was he was doing – he said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Here he was, a young man who had been welcomed into a place of worship and had now decided to kill 9 innocent people – he attempted to kill more – and he justified his actions partially based on the assumed criminality of those present. Some may not be swayed by just that statement, second hand, but on a website registered to Dylann Roof, he writes a manifesto that explains his thinking on the world, particularly as it pertains to race. By far the largest section is devoted to Blacks. What is truly remarkable is that he attributes his “racial awakening” to the Trayvon Martin case.
Not only did he immediately conclude that Zimmerman must have been in the right, but he further searched the internet for more information on “Black on White crime,” and this led him to the Council of Conservative Citizens. This group is recognized by the Anti-Defamation League as a hate group, and its website showed an impressionable Dylann Roof sensationalized stories that they had hand-picked to attempt to prove that Black people are a significant threat to the lives of White people and White women in particular. This, ultimately, drove Dylann from a posture of looking down upon Black people to deciding that the Black race is a violent threat to White society that needs to be eliminated. In his terrorist plot, he decided to let the world know that Black people needed to be killed in the hopes that others would join his revolution.
And that brings us back to where Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform was founded. The assumed criminality of individuals, often based on race, even when logic and objective evidence would say otherwise, has already led to far too much death and violence that we have all witnessed. In this incident, one hateful, sinister young man, spurred on by communities of White Supremacists, are spreading the misinformation that Black people are criminal-minded by their very nature. And how can you blame them? The rates at which the USA incarcerates Black and Brown human beings are staggering nationwide. These numbers and the media coverage of the interaction between non-whites and the police create the caricature of Black and Brown people as inordinately criminal– this despite the fact that many of them find their way to jail for things that would be better treated by a physician – substance abuse and untreated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as examples. Further, studies have shown that while substance abuse rates are remarkably similar across races, arrests for drug use are significantly higher for our minority population.
This is why the Criminal Justice Reform movement is being called “The New Civil Rights Movement.” Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform supports the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol grounds, but we also know that, as a country, we must go beyond symbolism if we are going to alter the minds of those who are determined to hate.
We at PfCJR are focused on ways that we can use our expertise as physicians to create lasting criminal justice reform around our core issues. That said, we firmly believe in the concept of “Health in All Policies.” We can and must get involved in discussions around any issue that is large enough that it touches the health of our communities, even if it does so indirectly. We must all fight to change the narrative that nurtures men like Dylann Roof. We must change the path that this country is on. We need criminal justice reform, and the time is now. Will you join us?