One year later: Reflecting on community progress since the Emanuel 9 shooting

dsc_0258Mass shooting here. Protest turned violent there. Innocent bystanders killed.

In a church. In a school. In a club, a movie theater, a neighborhood street.

Nine, 20, 50 people.

Mothers, fathers, daughters and sons.

Lives lost.

Flowers are laid, memorials erected. Family photos, baby pictures and sentiments of lives cut short are scattered across the sidewalks and walls that have witnessed horror in the truest form.

But eventually, the sting of tragedy subsides.

The tears dry, the flowers wilt and people begin moving again, rather unchanged.

It’s all too routine.

Over the last three years there have been over 1,000 mass shootings and acts of violence. Some of these acts have divided the nation while others have brought people together, but the reality remains the same: not much has changed, and the violence roars on.

In June of 2015, Charleston was in the national headlines as news of the Emanuel 9 shooting at Emanuel AME Church broke.

However, Charleston was revered nationally for the city’s unity and outward expressions of compassion in the days and weeks following this tragedy rather than its divisiveness. Since then, over a year has passed and the question must be asked:

How has Charleston recovered, learned and progressed from this experience?

“I think dialogue is happening in our community and I think that when we talk to each other, it’s always in our best interest, because we begin to understand just how much we have in common,” Rev. Dr. William Swinton of Ebenezer AME Church said.

Swinton and Ebenezer AME are closely tied to Emanuel AME, and have been involved in the recovery from the Emanuel 9 shooting from day one, continuing to be involved in progressing forward from that event.

“When we talk, we realize that we’re all humans, and that we’re all worthy of respect,” he continued. “What we say and what we hope our community will be is important to all of us. So are we totally healed from [the Emanuel 9 shooting]? No. But I would say we’ve come a long way, and I’m still seeing very positive responses from the larger community as well as people in our own church.”

But it’s not just about Charleston, and it’s not just about Emanuel 9. The hate-motivated violence of the past few years is a national and international epidemic.

However, change starts small, and taking notes on Charleston’s reaction to such tragedy could be a start on the path to change.

“I’ve been fortunate that my parents taught me how to conduct myself as an officer, but also helped increase my understanding and awareness on how to deal with other cultures and individuals when I deal with them,” Mount Pleasant Police Lt. Craig Harris said. “It’s a very simple tool — we’re all humans, we make mistakes, don’t let the badge and this uniform make you feel that you’re higher than anyone else.

“Your words and actions are pretty much all you have when you’re out there in the community. I live by those values that were passed to me from my parents,” he continued. “I’m not in this job for the money, but the value of life. Being a role model isn’t about having a million dollars or being able to jump higher or run faster, it’s trying to help steer someone in the right path and to help them excel.    

And it’s not all just about one moment, one action committed by a person, according to Harris. Violence or misconduct of any sort has an origin, and there’s a history behind every breaking headline that often falls to the wayside in favor of an emotionally explosive video, and this lack of understanding is part of senseless violence.

“When you’re talking about ‘all the things going on right now’, you also have to look at the things that surround all of the issues,” Harris said. “A lot of things that are going on are related to other issues — your education is somewhat defected, a lot of people are still pretty much bouncing back from the economy, and especially in our area, you still have people bouncing back from 20 years ago when the base closed down.

“So when you look at all these things going on, it’s a lot bigger than what the media has portrayed it to be,” he said. “Sometimes it can be so much about the gratification of a video versus the whole big picture, and a lot of things that we see runs on emotions, but we still have to understand those emotions and help the people feeling those emotions.”

And for Harris, creating a more positive and compassionate future doesn’t necessarily happen in grand, sweeping gestures or big policy decisions. It’s about putting forth the effort every day in small acts, and building a relationship with the community he serves.

“It’s being accountable for our officers actions and be accountable for our community. We have to do the same thing in our community. If you see a negative trend in your community, act against it. That’s what we do in Mt. Pleasant, we jump on it right away. When you jump on the small things, that closes the gap, and builds trust with people,” Harris said. “So if it does increase to the next level, you already have that commitment with the community, and keeping them involved with your strategy and the way you’re dealing with it.”

But when tragedy strikes, the people a community looks to for guidance extends beyond men and women in uniform.

“I continue to be proud of the leaders in this region for not using [Emanuel 9 and other acts of violence] as a divide for our differences, but we have used it to gather together in prayer and uplift each other,” Mt. Pleasant Mayor Linda Page said. ”I just continue to be amazed at the leaders we have here and their values.”

Values. Arguably one of the things at the core of what one could call the epidemic of violence that has swept the nation over the past summer. Value of life, each other and the community around us.

“They’re values that I think we’re raised with here in Charleston. It’s what you learn coming up in Sunday School,” said Page, who has been the Mt. Pleasant mayor since 2013. “I think it’s that people who were raised in this region are raised to respect each other, and I think those are the values you see in the leadership here.”

In terms of how Charleston can continue to improve internally and also serve as somewhat of a model for national progression forward from the violence of the past several years, the answer lies in thoughtfulness.

“Pause and reflect on what happened. Reflect on the tragedy, and be mindful with your first steps and your leadership style,” Page said. “I think that’s what we had here [after the Emanuel 9]. It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction, it wasn’t hastily decided what the path forward would be. I believe our leaders approached it mindfully and differently to hopefully not cause the divisiveness that we’ve seen in other areas.”

But the true measure of progress is not held in the response of current leaders, Swinton said. Progression is determined by the youth, whose hands will eventually grow and craft the community.

“Learn. Be open to studying and reading and understanding other cultures and races,” Swinton said. “I think it’s important that we understand what we share in common, and that we are all human. The outward appearance has its place, but that’s not really who we are. These are just bodies we live in, but the inner person is where what is to be really felt and experienced and understood.”

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