Dylann Roof, the unrepentant racist who killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is – no question – a monster. He prayed with people before reciting racist cants and annihilating people. After his heinous acts, it was discovered that he was a rabid racist who had wrapped himself in the Confederate flag. Does he deserve the death penalty? No.
The death penalty is the kindest thing that could happen to Dylann Roof, and he does not deserve our kindness. The death penalty provides some of us with immediate satisfaction, a sense of revenge. And it lets him off the hook. Imagine, instead, that this slug is sentenced to life in prison and forced to live with the consequences of his action. Imagine that he is incarcerated with people who look just like the folks he killed. Imagine that, daily, he has to negotiate the racial realties of our nation’s prison system, a system that disproportionately incarcerates African- American men.
Imagine that he is vilified as a symbol of our nation’s ingrained racism. Imagine that he, perhaps, has a “come to a Jesus” moment where he renounces the racism that caused him to act. Or, imagine that he simmers in his evil and reminds others how heinous he is. The death penalty is inhumane no matter how it is applied. African Americans are more likely to be sentenced to death than others are, and that is part, but not all, of the point. The rest of the point is that “an eye for an eye” leaves us all blind. The good people of Mother Emanuel AME Church were overflowing in their forgiveness of Roof. Do these forgiving, God-fearing people now oppose the commandment that says, “thou shall not kill”?
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, nearly 3000 people sit on death row. While African Americans are just 13 percent of the population, we are 43 percent of the death row inmates. Most people don’t believe that the death penalty deters crime, and many believe that enforcing the death penalty is a waste of taxpayer money. Most prefer alternatives – life sentences without parole, and perhaps with restitution. Dylann Roof can turn into a Confederate martyr if he is killed. Instead, imagine him as a decrepit old man living his life out in prison, constantly faced with his crimes, constantly reminded of his heinous acts. His life, not his death, will constantly remind us of the hate that hate produced. Because, make no mistake, Dylann Roof is not an isolated phenomenon. He is the product of the Confederate flag, the product of the Ku Klux Klan, the product of the ugly, repugnant, vicious hate that produces a flawed and crippled white supremacy.
We don’t kill white supremacist hate by killing Dylann Roof. We don’t eliminate the ugly sentiments that propelled this extremely sick young man into a church with a gun by taking his life. Instead, it seems to me, the sole purpose of his life might be to serve as a symbol of hate, to remind us that there will be no peace without justice. Justice does not mean extracting a death penalty that is, inherently, unfair to African Americans. Justice means abolishing the death penalty that is still upheld in 31 states.
The friends and relatives of the Emanuel AME Church murdered were exceptional in their rapid expressions of forgiveness for Dylann Roof. They understood the brokenness that caused him to kill and, even as they mourned their loss, they offered their forgiveness as evidence of their faith. Can we do anything less? I say that Dylann Roof ought to be put up under somebody’s jail, allowed only a Bible and minimal bland food. I say that he needs to be deprived of every pleasure his victims have been deprived of. I say he needs to be surrounded by black folks just like the ones he killed. I’m not wishing him violence or harassment, just reflection. Killing Roof won’t kill white supremacy. Keeping him miserably alive may, in fact, deter others from imitating him.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. Her latest book “Are We Better Off? Race Obama and Public Policy is available for purchase at juliannemalveaux.com or amazon.com