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President Obama on Charleston Shooting: "I've Had to Make Statements Like This Too Many Times"

Ahead of his trip to Los Angeles, President Obama appeared in the Brady Briefing Room to address the mass murder that occurred in Charleston, South Carolina Wednesday night.
potus charleston

On Thursday morning, developments occurred quickly in the story of the mass murder at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The identity of the shooter, who killed nine black church attendees at a Bible study Wednesday night, has been confirmed as 21 year-old Dylann Storm Roof, who was arrested on minor charges in February, and again in April of this year.


In addition to Roof's mugshot, this photo from Roof's Facebook page was widely circulated:

roof facebook

From the beginning, authorities said they were treating the attack on the historically significant black church as a hate crime, an obvious conclusion that was later bolstered by reports that Roof told his victims "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go."

The unmistakable racism of the crime, while lost on some, illustrates the toxicity of the "compromise" that allows the Confederate flag to fly on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse even to this day. In 2000, the flag was moved from the top of the capitol dome to a prominent 30 foot high perch near a monument. While she expressed tearful sorrow at the killings Thursday, Governor Nikki Haley (R-SC) defended the flag as recently as a few months ago:

"What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag."

"... we really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian-American female governor, when we appointed the first African-American U.S. senator, that sent a huge message."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) chalked the killings up to everything but race today, and in 2000, offered this defense of the Confederate flag:

''There is a guy out there named Bubba,'' said Mr. Graham. ''He grew up when public schools got integrated. He goes to work every day. There are women and African-Americans in the workplace and he's fine with that, but he thinks the whole world is against him and has rights he doesn't have. He thinks the flag is the last thing he has going for him and he's not going to take it down. I don't want to step on Bubba's feelings. There are no groups sticking up for the Bubbas of the world.''

Bubba's feelings are apparently not impressed.

The killings also figure to revive the as-yet-futile debate over gun control. especially given that Dylann Roof was reportedly given a gun as a birthday gift this year, a type of transaction that pro-gun activists have specifically sought to protect from background checks and other safety regulations.

Shortly after the revelation of his identity, authorities announced that Roof had been apprehended in Shelby, North Carolina. News of the arrest broke just minutes before President Obama was scheduled to deliver a statement on the killings. Set to leave at 12:10 pm for a trip to Los Angeles, the President was to give his statement at 11:45 am, but developments on the ground delayed that appearance, as Obama made phone calls to Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to express sympathy and offer assistance.

At 12:20, the President took to the podium in the Brady Briefing Room to address the tragedy:

"Good afternoon, everybody. This morning I spoke with and Vice President Biden spoke with Mayor Joe Riley and other members of Charleston to express our deep sorrow over the senseless murders that took place last night. Michelle and I know several members of Emanuel AME church. we knew their pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who along with eight others gathered in prayer and fellowship and was murdered last night.

To say our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families and their community doesn't say enough to convey the heartache and the sadness and the anger that we feel. Any death of this sort is a tragedy. Any shooting involving multiple victims is a tragedy. There is something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace. In a place of worship.

Mother Emanuel is more than a church. This is a place of worship that was founded by African-Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery. When there were laws banning all black church gatherings, they conducted church services in secret. When there was a nonviolent movement to bring our country in closer line with our highest ideals, some of our brightest leaders spoke and led marches from this church's steps. This is a sacred place in the history of Charleston, and in the history of America.

The FBI is now on the scene with local police and more of the bureau's best are on their way to join them. The attorney general has announced plans to open a hate crime investigation. We understand that the suspect is in custody, and I'll let the best of law enforcement do its work to make sure that justice is served. Until the investigation is complete, I'm necessarily constrained in terms of talking about the details of the case.

But I don't need constrained about the emotions that tragedies like this make. I've had to make statements like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times. We don't have all the facts, but we know that once again innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hand on a gun. Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let's be clear, at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.

I say that recognizing the politics in this town or close a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it's going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.

The fact that this took place in a black church obviously raises questions about a dark part of our history. This is not the first time black churches have been attacked. And we know the hatred of the cross, races and faith poses a risk to our democracy and ideals. I'm confident the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.

That certainly was Doctor King's hope just over 50 years ago, after four little girls were killed in a bombing at a black church in Birmingham, Alabama. He said they lived meaningful lives and died nobly. They say to each of us, Dr. King said, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely with who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.

Reverend Pinckney and his congregation understood that spirit. Their Christian faith compelled them to reach out, not just to members of their congregation, or to members of their own communities, but to all in need. They opened their doors to strangers who might enter a church in search of healing or redemption. Emanuel Church and its congregation have risen before from flames, from an earthquake and other dark times to give hopes to other generations of Charlestonians, and with our prayers and our love and the buoyancy of hope, it will rise again now as a place of peace. Thank you."