I’m writing from Highway 24 in Northeastern North Carolina, heading from a couple family and friend visits to the coast for a few days at the beach. We left Oshkosh about a week ago and the trip started with texts from my wife’s mom, who was worrying about the multiple shark attacks that had occurred in the general area to which we’re now heading. Little did I know that we would soon be experiencing fear related to a much more lethal predator in a very direct way before we even made it to the Atlantic.
We’d come to the Raleigh-Durham area from Charleston, South Carolina, where I attended an academic conference held at the College of Charleston, in the heart of this old city. My presentation, on research I’ve been doing about Hmong people and the Fox River, was on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 17, a day that will be remembered by no one for my talk but by many for the horror that took place nearby later that evening.
After I walked the roughly 1.5 miles back to our hotel to hit the pool with my wife and two daughters for a bit, we all caught a hotel shuttle to return to the conference for an outdoor dinner party with local food and microbrews, live music, and a festive atmosphere, despite the unseasonal heat. It was great to catch up with some old friends from grad school at UW-Madison and to walk around the very old and picturesque campus as we awaited our return shuttle a little after 8pm, about the same time an unfamiliar face entered the Emanuel A.M.E. Church a couple blocks away.
“Mother Emanuel” in Charleston, SC
“Mother Emanuel” in Charleston, SC
We were now officially on vacation and let the kids stay up later than normal, all enjoying a cold drink on the patio of the hotel when we heard the sirens wail at about 9pm. The kids asked about them, of course, and we said maybe there was a fire. After we got back to our room, I responded to an email from a fellow conference goer about trying to meet up in the morning to discuss our research, since she’d studied Hmong people’s travel habits in Minnesota. I then put my laptop away for the night.
I learned the reason for those sirens the next morning when I went back for a confirmation about our meeting, which I found in a message from 9:48pm the previous night that contained the following statement: “I hope you are safe? Active shooter in the area with possibly 8 fatalities!!!”
This was without a doubt the most bizarre and disturbing email I’ve ever received. I quickly figured out what she was referring to: nine people murdered in a historical black church downtown, near the College of Charleston, by a white kid with a bowl cut who was at the bible study for an hour before methodically massacring these people because of their brown skin. And this hateful murderer had not yet been caught.
I looked over at my beautiful brown-skinned children and shuddered.
I figured the last day of the conference would be canceled, but it didn’t seem to be, which I thought was strange (and in hindsight I think it should have been, at least until the shooter was found, and particularly to protect the black people in attendance).
I had intended to go a friend’s presentation at 8:30 but now wasn’t sure what to do. After thinking it through I decided to go anyway, but first woke my wife to tell her what had happened. She was stunned, but said if I was going to go, I couldn’t walk, so I finagled another shuttle ride. The nice young driver expressed his surprise that this had happened in such a nice area, to which I responded that he shouldn’t be surprised, as American mass shootings generally don’t follow the stereotypes related to gun violence and tend to be perpetrated by white males in “nice” areas and that I’m a sociologist so we should probably just leave those worms in the can and agree on the notion that they better catch that #*%#^*# soon.
It was quiet around the campus but the 8:30 talk was underway, with my friend expressing during her presentation that it was really weird to be discussing the demographics of the decline in deer hunters, trends in gun sales and the like in the wake of this tragedy. People at the conference were understandably on edge, as the cowardly shooter had succeeded in terrorizing an entire region.