From Charleston to Orlando: Reflections on Massacre in a Time of Backlash

We gathered in a small, cramped living room on Line Street, the kind of tiny apartment I had come to love in my nine years of living in Charleston — sloping bathroom floor, kitchen pieced together with mismatched counter tops. Up a ringing metal staircase, we climbed one by one to talk about what to do next. It was the morning after the Emanuel AME massacre. We were stunned and skittish, like squirrels in oncoming headlights. We had darted from our beds to the vigil in front of the Morris Brown AME Church. It was too crowded inside so we milled around in front of the church with a hundred other sweaty and confused people for an impromptu outside vigil, watching as a white pastor told us “This is not about race. This is an injury to the body of Christ.” We reeled and spoke in trembles. We gathered people we knew and convened at Line St. to plan.

We knew that what was happening, about to happen, was a second catastrophe, that the media, certain faith leaders, the city, and many more who hold power, would all make plays for the story of What Happened That Night — who were the heroes? Who were the protagonists? Who was the antagonist? Why did it happen? What was at stake? What did it all mean?

We were an unlikely crew — Black college students, white food and bev workers, Arab, API, and Latinx, unemployed and newly graduated, many of us musicians, artists, almost all of us queer, some of us freshly out of our first time in jail. Many of us were members of Southerners On New Ground, others had surfaced through Black Brunch Charleston. We had been organizing together for months — since Walter Scott’s murder, we had stood arm in arm in intersections, learned how to use bullhorns, shouted in unison in plantation-themed restaurants and shut down a major commuter bridge, from which you can see Emanuel’s white steeple rising up above Marion Square, the park in the shape of a confederate flag with the statue of John C. Calhoun towering over it.

We planned a March for Black Lives. We would lift our fists in the air with an old prayer uttered in new words, “Black Lives Matter”. We knew that people needed a space to mourn, but that it had to be on our own terms, that mourning inside of a container is a defeat.

We knew what the media would never say — that this was totally predictable. That it wasn’t just one scrawny evil white boy who was the antagonist — but every right wing group that worked to privatize schools, every South Carolina senator and representative who fought for policies that further entrenched poverty and violence in Black communities. That this was a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, to the narratives of empowerment and the visions of freedom lifted and fought for by a new generation of Black organizers.

On Saturday June 20th, we converged at Wragg Square, under oak trees who had seen slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Right’s movement, and the slow retreat of Black residents from the gentrified peninsula. One of the Black healers poured libations as we called our ancestors to cover us. The police had threatened to barricade us if we marched down King St.. We had to stay on the sidewalks, they said, it was the law. That local law was put in place after the hospital workers’ strike led by Mary Moultrie in 1969. A city that tells its own people they must have a permit to mourn, that they must stay on the sidewalks — don’t spill out, don’t become unruly — a city like that has no respect for the spiritual and cultural traditions of its people.

Five hundred of us marched past Emanuel AME, leaving flowers in front of the church. As we skirted the police line and turned onto King St., the megaphones raised Assata Shakur’s words, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom!” Power coursed through us as we broke from the container we were given. The ancestors marched with us. We stopped in front of the Confederate Museum. We held the intersection as the voices of queer Black people reverberated from the balcony off of the Charleston Place hotel. Waltrina Middleton, the cousin of Depayne Middleton-Doctor, sang Strange Fruit. The words heavy hung in the quiet summer air, the city wrapping around us like an arm around a shoulder, a hand around a neck.

The next day, over 2,000 people would attend a very different event led, fittingly, by the Mount Pleasant police chief and a political imposter named Jay Jones who claimed to be the national ‘president’ of Black Lives Matter. He kicked the event off by shouting, “It’s not Black Lives that Matter anymore, its all lives matter,” to the cheers of a growing crowd. They walked over the same bridge we had shut down a month before and held hands across it, lifting a message of denial, “Charleston Strong”. White women took selfies with “Free Hugs” posters. In downtown Charleston, kumquats ripened on their branches, leaning out over the sidewalks, and the streets flooded with saltwater every time it rained, sometimes even when it didn’t. White men drove around in white pickup trucks waving gigantic confederate flags.

I left Charleston a month later, back to my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, grateful for the chance to think, to be with my family, to allow my own pain and rage, which seemed so obtuse coming from this mixed, white-passing Arab with confederate family roots, to crawl out of me and sink into the red clay of the upstate. I had left a small but tight knit group of beloved friends and co-conspirators in the humidity of a Charleston summer that shaped us all forever. Friends who had trusted me and trusted each other, walked out on limbs we weren’t sure could hold us, gathered in wood-floored Charleston living rooms to reflect to each other our longing for liberation, for safety and self-determination. Some days I am overcome with guilt for leaving, even though I had planned on it before the massacre, even though I know my guilt is useless. Even as I write this I feel a numbness that dulls the sharp edge of rage and love I feel for my people — queer people, Lebanese and Arab people, women, small town Southern kids, gender transgressors, all of us who have been exiled or given up on.

This Saturday, I danced bachata and cumbia with my sweetheart, surrounded by dozens of queer people at Southerners On New Ground’s (SONG’s) annual membership event, Gaycation, in the foothills of Tennessee, as Omar Mateen killed or injured over 100 Latinx and Black queer people in a gay bar in Orlando, Florida. June is a month of death and heat now. I see a photo posted on facebook of a white lesbian holding a homemade poster, “We are all Americans,” it says, with a pastel colored rainbow flag. But we are not. If tragedies like these are beginning to feel predictable, the fevered responses are feeling even more so. The mainstream media, opportunistic politicians and other kinds of leaders are doing what they always do in these moments — re-shaping and re-framing the story until it takes a shape that is useful to them, ripping it out of context.

I’m thinking now about the queers and families in Orlando who are gathered in living rooms, around kitchen tables, in corners at bars, some sitting in church pews, trying to figure out what to do, how to salvage truth and birth possibility from this moment. I’m thinking about the thirty-two people who died when someone set fire to the Upstairs Lounge forty-three years ago — how many of their families wouldn’t claim their bodies, wondering if that will happen this time. I’m thinking about what this story will look like in a year, ten years, fifty years, if Trump-ism and right wing power prevails in our society, our world.

It is without a question ridiculous and shameful that Omar Mateen had the ability to get his hands on an assault rifle. Yet when we simplify this story to another cautionary tale on gun control, another missive to be fired, we insult deeply the victims of this event. We obscure the real killers — homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and their deliverers — and in doing so give them power.

It is without question that this was a hate crime. Yet, when we use incidents like this to demand stricter punishment via the criminal justice system for crimes like these, we obscure the real solutions — culture change, policies that create safety, disarmament — and in doing so, put them further out of reach. In our pain and our fear, we must tread carefully; otherwise we feed institutions and ideas that make us unsafe in the first place. Punishment may give us a temporary feeling of satisfaction, but it will never give us what we need so badly in this time — safety, sanctuary, reconciliation, reprieve.

It is without question that this massacre has deep ties to religious fundamentalism. But when the media and people like Donald Trump use this moment to fuel the fires of Islamophobia, their words spell the death of still more people of color, queer and otherwise. We endanger our sisters, brothers, and transgender/gender nonconforming siblings here in the US, in the Middle East and North Africa, and those of us who have been scattered to the four winds of diaspora due to years of western imperialism and violence in our own homelands. We endanger anyone who looks like they could possibly be Muslim. In obscuring the real threat at hand — fundamentalist Christianity and right wing extremists of all types, many of whom are lawmakers who have introduced over 200 anti-LGBTQ bills just this year alone — we endanger our own lives and the lives of countless others.

What will we do with all of this pain? Where will we put it? It will be unleashed in a thousand directions. There is possibility for things to go wrong and become worse: fear more entrenched, denial more pervasive, the cancerous growth of the right more aggressive. And if this is true, there is also possibility for new ways, for decisions and directions that bring us closer to truth, opportunities to strengthen our resolve, to dream bigger because we can see more clearly what is at stake — reflected back to us by the faces of those we have lost. We in the LGBTQ community have the opportunity in this moment to reject assimilation, to refuse to allow our pain and our devastation to fuel US imperialism, to say together, “Not in our name.” We have the opportunity to draw on the security methods from our own communities to figure out how to be safe without the police.

The possibility of transformation, of taking this world into our hands and reshaping it, of allowing our own understandings to be deepened and changed, is available to us now. It is our work to move towards these possibilities with our eyes open and our hands full of petals, with our candles standing vigil and our queer ancestors emboldening our spirits. It is not enough to mourn; it is time to write new stories.

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