Segregation And The Peaceful Arrest Of Dylann Storm Roof

By now, you might have seen videos and photographs of Dylann Storm Roof’s arrest, and read the story about how the police bought him a meal at a fast-food establishment. The arrest is peaceful; there are no dramatic throwdowns to the ground, no knee to the neck or back, no choke-hold, no red-faced, apoplectic policeman screaming orders to ‘get down and stay down!’ or anything else like that. Here is a murderer, and here is his arrest, all by the book. The prisoner is not brutalized; he is taken into custody.

Pointing out the double standards visible in this treatment is easy enough. Mind you, so are the responses to it: Storm Roof did not ‘resist arrest’; he complied with all orders; he was docile. If only all those black folks whose violent arrests we are used to viewing would be similarly compliant and meek–you know, even the ones who haven’t actually committed any crimes–then all would be good. Of course, Storm Roof’s calm also stemmed from his sense of satisfaction at a task completed, a job ‘well done’ with nine targets successfully dispatched. Why struggle when all to be done is over with? Now comes further opportunity–at the time of the trial–wax lyrical about the creed that drove him on to his killings.

But Storm Roof’s mild manners and his docility are not the whole story. The videos and photographs of his arrest are circulated to note his ‘race’ had a great deal to do with it. There is nothing outrageous about that claim. Dylan Storm Roofs looks ‘just like one of us’ to the police who arrested him. He is a young white man, and the police know many young white men. They have broken bread with them, watched and cheered for them at baseball and football games, dropped them off at proms. They know young white men with guns; they know young white men with Confederate flags. They’ve seen them before; they can ‘relate’ to them. Heck, the police in Shelby were–mostly–young white men themselves once.

There would have been no such familiarity with a young black suspect. The police would not have thought he ‘looks just like me’; they would not have found his mannerisms or language wholly, comfortably, recognizable, a reminder of their daily lives. Their most extensive contact with ‘black folk’ is in all likelihood restricted to attending a summer barbecue at a token black colleague’s home, where the white folk retreat to a group and gaze uncomfortably at all the black folk around them; these attendees serve as reminders their black co-worker lives in a world outside the precinct wholly novel to them. Their children have few, if any, black friends so they are unable to see black youngsters expressing their doubts, fears, insecurities, likes, and dislikes in a variety of domestic and educational environments. Black and white don’t mix; black remains fearful and despised.

South Carolina remains a segregated state; where segregation lives on, so does fear and racial prejudice. One is the cause of the other; they co-determine each other. If you wonder what ‘systemic racism’ is and what is its effects are, this is it.

The ‘Lone Killer’ And The Mentally Ill World

The invocation of mental illness and lamentations over ‘the state of the American mental health system’ are an inevitable accompaniment to news stories about lone white gunmen who carry out massacres. (c.f. Charleston massacre.)  With that in mind, the following wise remarks by Helen De Cruz are worth pondering:

People are not just motivated by inner mental states, but also by context. That context is one where violence against a subpopulation of the US is condoned and actively perpetuated by police, and one in which it’s normal to have effective killing machines – things that are meant to kill people by functional design, so no analogies with cars please – lying around in your everyday environment. We are embodied, contextual creatures whose actions are influenced by those things at least as much as our internal mental states.

[N]isbett…demonstrated nicely in several experiments how westerners overemphasize personal, internal mental states to explain actions, at the expense of broader cultural context. That’s how westerners keep on seeing white male shooters as lone, unconnected individuals with mental problems (and all the stigmatizing of people with mental disabilities that follows from that), rather than people who live in a culture that normalizes having killing machines lying around and that accepts violence and racism against Black people on a daily basis. [link added]

One of the worst illusions generated by the language of mental states is that it suggests disembodied minds moving through an external landscape, with a full description of the state conveying enough information to predict and understand the behavior of the agent in question. But as De Cruz points out, we are much more; we are agents in tightly embedded, mutually co-determining relationships with our environments. A state  is a static thing but we are dynamic cognizers; we act upon, and are acted upon, by the world around us.

The world that acted upon Dylan Storm Roof has been adequately described above by De Cruz. A mind  at variance with our assessments of ‘normal’ might be particularly susceptible to the violence it enabled and facilitated. It is not too hard to imagine that a different world, a kinder world, a less racist world, one not overrun by deadly weapons and racist rhetoric and infected by a systemic prejudice against entire subclasses of Roof’s fellow humans might not have produced the same massacre as it did this week. The fragile, insecure sensibility that was Roof’s might not have been as easily pushed to breaking point in a world whose airwaves were not saturated with the messages of hate he had so clearly internalized.

The world that Dylan Storm Roof leaves behind is one in which nine families  have been devastated, their hearts and minds made susceptible to anger and despair; it is also one which lays out a template of action for other killers who might be similarly motivated; and lastly, most dangerously of all perhaps, it is one which could play host to a vengeful mind, determined to seek retribution. This is the new environment, this is the new context through which we–the ‘mentally ill’ included–must move now.

We cannot disown the mentally ill; they are of this world and in this world. They are ours.