By Manny Otiko
A South Carolina church shooting that left nine people dead has been branded a “hate crime.” CNN reported a white man in his early 20s walked into a Charleston, S.C. church and massacred worshippers conducting Bible study Wednesday evening. The gunman spent an hour in the church before opening fire and reloading several times. It is unknown how many people were inside of the church at the time of the shooting. Raw Story reported a survivor said the terrorist explained his motives.
“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country—and you have to go,” the gunman said.
As of Thursday morning, the suspect was still at large. Eight victims died at the scene, while another person died at a local hospital. The victims were six women and three men. This morning police released an image of the shooter captured on a security camera. The gunman was described as a young, white man with blond hair who was wearing a grey sweatshirt and dark pants. He was also said to be driving a black four-door sedan with distinctive license plates.
Local authorities say the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was deliberately targeted.
“The only reason someone would walk into a church and shoot people that were praying is hate,” said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.
“I do believe that this is a hate crime,” said local police chief Gregory Mullen.
He also said, “This is a tragedy that no community should have to experience. It is senseless. It is unfathomable that someone would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives.”
The Emanuel AME Church is one of the oldest Black churches in the South. One of the church’s founders was Denmark Vesey, who was executed for attempting to organize a slave rebellion. The church was also a point on the Underground Railroad and the King Center in Atlanta, Ga. tweeted a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching at the church.
African American churches have long been targets of domestic terrorist acts. Several churches were burned to the ground to intimidate Black residents in the past. And during the civil rights movement, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. was bombed by white supremacists resulting in the deaths of four girls.
In interviews on CNN, local residents were outraged a gunman would open fire in a place of worship. They responded by turning to prayer. Early Thursday morning, residents stood in circles, hands clasped and heads bowed, as they prayed.
“Like everybody out here, we’re sick to our stomachs that this could happen in a church,” Rep. Dave Mack, a friend of the church’s pastor, said according to CNN.
The church’s pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator, is reported to be among the dead. The shooting has drawn reactions of several state and national politicians.
“This senseless tragedy at a place of worship—where we come together to laugh, love and rejoice in God’s name—is absolutely despicable and can never be understood,” said South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. “Tonight we stand together in prayer for Pastor Pinckney and his congregation at Emanuel AME , and for the families who are enduring unimaginable pain at the loss of their loved ones. We will come together as a city and as a state to lift up those who need us most right now. I hope for their sake, and for the people of Charleston, that the perpetrators of this terrible crime are swiftly brought to justice.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley also called for prayers for the victims. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is campaigning to be the Republican candidate for president, canceled a town hall meeting that had been scheduled in Charleston.
Charleston police have asked anyone with information on the shooting to contact 843-743-7200.