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Commentary: Mayor Tecklenburg’s comments on Charleston protesters not helpful

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Ade Ofunniyin

Ade Ofunniyin 

We are deeply disappointed that Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg used the word “thugs” to refer to people who looted and caused property damage in downtown after the protests over George Floyd’s death, echoing the reckless epithet used by President Trump days earlier. While understanding the mayor’s anger and frustration at the damage to the shopping district, we must also remind him that there are larger issues at play in this country.

People of color have experienced decades of anger and frustration as a result of systemic racism in education, health care, employment, housing, voters’ rights, criminal justice and their general quality of life. The police violence that led to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor is only the tip of the iceberg of violence against blacks. Their deaths reflect a long history of racial violence against countless other black lives in this country, beginning with the enslavement of African peoples.

We have heard it said too many times in our lifetimes, by elected officials responding to social unrest, that we must maintain law and order and accept the use of more force. This response has always resulted in more blacks being incarcerated or murdered by police and is no longer acceptable. In this context, the word “thug” has great potency in its use against those seeking social changes that would rectify the lasting impacts of slavery.

It should also be remembered that those African Americans who engaged in civil disobedience, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, were characterized as “thugs.” Others opposed to inequality and injustice, such as Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Medgar Evers and Stokely Carmichael have been also marginalized, criminalized or killed. Remembering their legacy, the Gullah Society hopes that these new protesters will succeed in their quest for justice.

We have always acknowledged the enormous responsibility that John Tecklenburg assumed when he became Charleston’s mayor. We, along with so many others, hoped and believed he would be the person to bring the changes to Charleston that the city has needed for so long. Our hope was inflated when he enthusiastically supported the Gullah Society’s work to reinter the human remains of the 36 individuals uncovered at the Gaillard Center’s site in May 2019. For these reasons, his remarks are especially hurtful. If anyone should understand the legacy of slavery and black disenfranchisement on American society and culture, it should be the mayor, who led the 2018 effort to have the city formally apologize for its role in “regulating, supporting and fostering slavery and the resulting atrocities inflicted by the institution of slavery and further, committing to continue to pursue initiatives that honor the contributions of those who were enslaved and that assist in ameliorating remaining vestiges of slavery.”

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Yet, in the time it took for us to compose this response, positive change has happened. We were enormously gratified to witness the mayor’s Wednesday announcement of the pending removal of the John C. Calhoun statue from Marion Square. The removal of this symbol of slavery and racism is a long time in coming, but represents another concrete step toward rectifying the ills of the past. The mayor’s remarks at this event were consonant with his previous comments on issues of racial justice.

We believe there can be no peaceful protest without peaceful discourse, without an engaging process that earnestly allows for the voices of the disenfranchised to be heard. Black folks in particular feel deep heartache at the loss of their brothers and sisters and abandonment by a culture, a city and a country they helped to build.

The world has joined the movement to stop killing black people, and we now have unprecedented opportunities for bringing truth, justice and lasting peace to our community. Like you, Mayor Tecklenburg, we love our city and cry for the pain that she and her citizens have had to endure.

It is time we begin real conversations about healing and reconciliation and take substantive actions to degrade the ideology of white supremacy that has shaped our society and address the existential concerns of African descendants living in Charleston. The removal of the Calhoun statue will give significant momentum to these efforts.

Ade Ofunniyin is director of The Gullah Society, whose members Joanna Gilmore, La’Sheia Oubre’, Raquel Fleskes and Theodore Schurr contributed.

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