Charleston shooter likely inspired by white supremacy movement

The deadly shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, has rocked the nation. Gwen Ifill speaks with Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) and Heidi Beirich of Southern Poverty Law Center about the tragedy and how it reflects current race relations in America.

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    We now return to the struggle for understanding in Charleston, as the city mourns nine people killed in a historic black church last night.

    For more on today's developments, we turn to South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, whose district includes parts of Charleston, and Heidi Beirich, who directs the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project in Montgomery, Alabama.

    Thank you both for joining us.

    Congressman Clyburn, how is Charleston coping with this?

    REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D), South Carolina: Well, Charleston is coping very well.

    I think that the law enforcement people here, the mayor have both struck the right tone. I think that the quick apprehension of the suspect in this case is serving this overall process very well.

    But the facts still remains that people are wanting some answers to the question of why. Why did this happen? Was he acting alone? How did this church, the most historic African-American church in Charleston, in South Carolina, for that matter, in the entire South, why did he pick this church?

    Is he a part of something else beyond him? I think, when we get the answers to these questions, this community will know better how to respond.


    You, yourself, I believe, are a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Congressman, and you knew Reverend Pinckney.

    How would you describe the personal scope of this loss?


    Well, I think that the church service we had at noon today was probably — I think Bishop Bryant said as well, that it was probably the most diverse group he said that he's seen in a long, long time.

    I was a part of all these events right here in Charleston during the 1969 hospital strike back during the 70s, and even the 60s, when we were involved in civil rights activities. But never have I seen a sanctuary in any church as representative of the entire community that I — that I see today.

    And so I think this community is galvanizing. It is coalescing. It is coming together in a way that I think will serve great purposes going forward.


    Heidi Beirich, we heard both the Justice Department and the mayor of Charleston today describe this as a hate crime. We could use a few definitions here. What makes it that? What would make it that?

  • HEIDI BEIRICH, Southern Poverty Law Center:

    Well, there are two pieces of evidence related to the shooter that probably make this a hate crime, one, the comments that have been attributed to him about how: "You people are taking over our country. You're raping our women."

    Those are racist statements which could indicate motive. The other thing that we found throughout the day today is, this person has been — put on Facebook pages and other places with pictures wearing racist patches, glorifying, for example, the apartheid government in Rhodesia. He also had a license plate that said Confederate States of America.

    The fact that he had these insignia, the fact that he said these things indicates that his motives might be racial.


    Ms. Beirich, are houses of worship typical targets for these kinds of crimes? We can think all the way back to Birmingham at the 16th Street Baptist Church. We can think about the church burnings in the South. And I wonder if that's a theme or if there is a through-line in all of these.


    We have seen for decades that houses of worship, particularly historically black churches, have been targeted by white supremacists for violence.

    This has been happening for quite a long time. The Law Center, in fact, sued a Klan group in the '90s for attacking a black church also in South Carolina. And I think the fact that this church was so significant historically may have actually made it more of an object for violence, unfortunately.


    We are shocked when we hear things like this. The assumption, Heidi Beirich, is that this no longer happens. Is the — or at least doesn't happen in a regular way. Are we mistaken in that?


    That would be a mistaken belief.

    The fact of the matter is that lone wolf terrorist attacks by people who have white supremacist or extreme anti-government beliefs actually happened about every five weeks for the last five years. They haven't all actually taken place, but there have been attempts. This kind of violence is really out of control, this kind of domestic terrorism.

    And if we just think for a little bit, you will remember the shooting at the Sikh temple by a skinhead in 2012, the shooting a year ago by a white supremacist at a Jewish community facility in Kansas. These kinds of things are happening with frightening regularity.


    So, Congressman Clyburn, what should we, as a people, or maybe even government or not government, do about these things? What happens next?


    Well, let me say this about the lone wolf kind of thing.

    This young man may have been acting alone, but what were his motivations? Who or what led to him developing these kind of feelings? He's got these distinct tattoos. He's posting things on Facebook. He's got this Confederate States of America insignia on the front of his automobile.

    These are not lone wolf activities. These are organized activities emanating from somewhere. Now, just because he acted alone in this doesn't mean that he is not getting his motivation from some other kind of organized effort taking place.

    And that's why I think we need to get to the bottom of this. Now, it's one thing to wake up and pick up a book or look at TV and want to go out and emulate something. But it's something else again to develop a whole philosophy, a whole theory, a whole approach to life by tuning in to these coordinated efforts being put forth out there by hate groups all over the country.

    So, just because you're acting alone doesn't mean that you're not motivated by something broader and higher than you are.


    Well, we will watch this unfold.

    Representative Jim Clyburn and Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, thank you both very much.

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