Washington — Loved ones impacted by two of Charleston’s most high-profile, racially charged episodes of gun violence appeared at separate events in the nation’s capitol Thursday, one with the president and another with lawmakers.
Jennifer Pinckney, widow of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, stepped to microphones Thursday evening with her two young daughters to address a crowd of gun-control activists assembled on the National Mall.
“Clementa Pinckney, where are you?” she began. “Because of what happened that evening, a father, a husband ... is not by our side.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., emceed a “speak out” that Pinckney attended on the steps of the Capitol to support gun-control legislation. Many who spoke at the event called for closing the so-called “Charleston loophole,” which allowed accused Emanuel AME killer Dylann Roof to purchase the gun he used to kill Pinckney’s husband, Emanuel’s pastor, and eight other worshippers last June.
Dozens of House Democrats flanked Clyburn. Nearly 50 members of the Charleston community, many of them wearing commemorative T-shirts and pins honoring the nine killed during Emanuel AME’s Bible study, joined those who amassed.
“What if you got a phone call right now?” Pinckney asked the crowd.
She sought to hit a nerve in each person gathered, explaining what it feels like to find out a loved one has been killed. Pinckney hid in her husband’s office with their younger daughter as the gunman fired 77 times.
“You never realize the hurt and the pain a family goes through until it happens to you,” she said. “Work has got to be done.”
Members of Congress invited constituents to the podium who knew victims of gun violence or were working to reduce deadly episodes. Polly Sheppard and Felicia Sanders, who also survived the Emanuel AME Church shooting, pressed for changes to gun laws.
“I’m pleading with Congress, close this loophole,” Sanders said as Sheppard looked on. Sanders’ only son, Tywanza, died in the shooting as she and her 11-year-old granddaughter played dead.
The survivors spoke shortly after a smaller gathering of people impacted by gun violence took place earlier Thursday. President Barack Obama appeared at a town hall with police officers and families affected by recent deaths in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas, among others. Sanders and Sheppard joined that audience, too.
In the front row sat a stoic Karen Sharpe, mother of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager. Her son is charged with murder in the shooting death of Walter Scott, 50, a black motorist who fled from a traffic stop last year. He and Slager fought before the policeman shot Scott five times as he ran away.
Sharpe sat silently in the front row with Teri George, whose 25-year-old son is a police officer in Baltimore.
When George rose to speak, Sharpe stood at her side just feet from the president and amid police as well as those who had lost loved ones to police killings around the country.
George described her son as an honest, respectful police officer. Yet, after Freddie Gray’s death last year, someone threw a brick through her son’s car window, lodging glass in his eye.
“It seemed like nobody was there to protect him,” George said.
She asked Obama how she should feel when her son puts on his police uniform to head out into the community he is charged to protect.
“You should feel proud,” Obama said.
The president condemned violence that broke out and called for improved relationships between police and communities before tensions explode.
“There are no excuses for the kinds of violent activities that we see in response to anything,” Obama said. “It’s tearing down the very communities that actually need to be built up.”
ABC’s “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir moderated the conversation about race, justice, policing and equality called “The President and The People: A National Conversation.”
Obama, however, also described times when people have locked their car doors when he passed and the time a woman got off an elevator when he got on. The country can’t ignore ingrained stereotypes about black men, he added.
“There’s a greater presumption of dangerousness,” Obama said. And when police patrol their communities, “that presumption can lead to really dangerous interactions.”
Reach Jennifer Hawes at (843) 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes. Reach Emma Dumain at (843) 834-0419 or follow her on Twitter at @emma_dumain.