Racist Shootings “Don’t Happen in a Vacuum”: Bishop Barber on DeSantis, Trump & Those Who Spread Hate
As federal law enforcement opens an investigation into the Jacksonville, Florida, shooting where a white gunman killed three Black people at a Dollar General as a possible hate crime and act of domestic violent extremism, we speak with civil rights leader Bishop William Barber about the increasing number of racist attacks in America fueled by racism. “There is this history of not just who kills, but what kills and what creates the atmosphere,” says Barber, who calls for a political movement of love to force out hateful politicians. Barber specifically condemns the Republican Party and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for attacking cultural issues as a distraction for policy failures. “The racist rhetoric and the culture wars and the hatred toward women, the hatred toward immigrants, the hatred toward the trans community is a form of deflection,” says Barber. “He’s decided that this is his way to office: distraction, division, deflection, focusing on culture wars so that he cannot be labeled as a failed governor.”
AMY GOODMAN: We’re looking now at the rise in racist attacks in the United States and a new campaign to take back the mic from those who seed hate. The latest deadly attack came just over a week ago in Jacksonville, Florida, when a white supremacist gunman shot and killed three Black people at a Dollar General store, then shot himself dead. The gunman used racial slurs, had a swastika-emblazoned assault-style AR-15 rifle, along with a handgun. He attacked the store in a predominantly Black neighborhood after being turned away from the HBCU campus of Edward Waters University, the historically Black college. Law enforcement officials say there’s no question the killings were racially motivated. The three victims were Angela Carr, Jerrald Gallion and AJ Laguerre Jr. This is Sabrina Rozier, grandmother of Gallion’s 4-year-old daughter.
SABRINA ROZIER: All my grandbaby keeps saying is “Where’s my daddy?” And all I can do is grab her, because I don’t have the words right now. … I thought racism was behind us, but evidently it’s not. You was a coward. You went in and shot these innocent people for nothing, that you didn’t even know.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Sabrina Rozier, speaking with CNN.
Federal law enforcement has opened a civil rights investigation into the attack as a possible hate crime and act of domestic violent extremism. This comes as federal data shows hate crimes are on the rise in the United States, that Black people were targeted in half of all the racially motivated hate crimes.
On Saturday, President Biden addressed the Jacksonville attack when he was in Florida to tour storm damage after Hurricane Idalia.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We’re still reeling from the shooting rampage near Edward Waters University, an HBCU, last weekend, a terrorist act driven by racial hatred and animus. Our hearts are with you, those of you who were affected and all your families. A terrorist act, as I said, driven by hatred and animus.
And, ladies and gentlemen, let me say this clearly: Hate will not prevail in America. Hate will not prevail in America. Racism will not prevail in America. Domestic terrorism will not prevail in America. And to make it real clear, silence on this issue, both public and private, from the private sector, silence is complicity. We must not, we will not remain silent.
AMY GOODMAN: President Biden was in Florida to tour the hurricane damage. Governor DeSantis refused to meet him there. He went around with Senator Rick Scott of Florida.
Just last year, a gunman targeting Black people killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, the Tops grocery store. In 2021, a gunman killed eight people, including six Asian American women, in Atlanta. The Jacksonville, Florida, shooter reportedly left a suicide note and other writings that laid out his racist ideology.
Now a diverse group of faith leaders is calling on elected leaders in Florida and nationwide to, quote, “cease and desist from sowing division and hate.” The move comes after Republican Florida governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis spoke at a vigil where he was booed by the crowds, with one person shouting out, “Your policies caused this.” DeSantis and Florida Republicans have imposed racist laws, including rolling back diversity and inclusion policies and attacking African American studies. DeSantis also opposes gun law reform.
The new Take Back the Mic from Haters campaign will also mark this month’s 60th anniversary of the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, often called “Bombingham” at the time, that killed four young Black girls September 15th, 1963.
For more, we’re joined by Bishop William Barber, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach, founding director of the Center for Public Theology & Public Policy at Yale Divinity School. His new piece for The Guardian is headlined “The racist murders in Jacksonville didn’t happen in a vacuum. Words came first.”
Bishop Barber, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the context in which that young white shooter, leaving behind racist manifestos, first tried to get into a historically Black college, when turned away by a brave security guard, opened fire at a dollar store.
BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Yeah, Amy. Bishop Reid of the AME Church in Florida, the oldest Black denomination, has been working with myself and others to bring together a diverse group of clergy — Jews, Muslims, Christians — to actually have a whole season of resistance, that will continue even after the actions, this coming Thursday having a press conference and to announce what’s going on, calling for 10 days of fasting, confession and repentance, and for politicians to cease and desist or resign, and then calling for the communities to rise up, take back the mic, not let hate have the last word, and to mobilize and register to vote. On the Saturday — next Friday, the Friday will be a massive leaflets drop of these cease-and-desists by students, Black and white and Asian students, in Tallahassee, leaving from the conference of the AME Church. And then, on Saturday the 16th, the one-day anniversary right after the bombing of the four girls in Birmingham, there will be a massive gathering in Jacksonville, diverse people coming together and denouncing all of this hate.
You think about — we’ve got to talk about what, not just who, has killed these people, and who, what is killing across this country. DeSantis and others are spewing hate rhetoric, hate against Black history, hate against trans people, hate against women, hate against immigrants. And the suggestion is that these are the problem. Now, we know that this is this division and distraction. They use hate rhetoric and culture wars to distract from the areas that he’s failed as a governor, which I’d like to talk about in a second.
But this has a history. In the early 1900s, Woodrow Wilson spewed hate, called Birth of a Nation, that glorified the Klan, the history that the nation needed. And in a few years, what did you have? You had Red Summer, where Black men and others were killed and run out of town all over this country in reaction to what was being spewed by the president. In 1963, you had an Alabama governor, George Wallace, say, “Segregation yesterday, today and tomorrow.” He loosed the idea that Black people were the problem, that the fight for integration was the problem. By the end of year, you had people blown up in Birmingham, dogs sicced on children, children blown up in Alabama. And if you continue down this road, in 1960, August 17, 1960, the Florida Legislature, the extremists, the Dixiecrats, were railing against integration. They were pushing all kind of divisive rhetoric. Even the governor, who was a moderate at the time, Collins, but he had said that the Supreme Court had overreached. What happened? You had the ax handle mob in Jacksonville, where a white mob brought ax handles and beat Black men, while the police watched, until Black men started fighting back, and then they joined in.
So there is this history of not just who kills, but what kills and what creates the atmosphere. And spewing hate from the most powerful levels of government gives license. It others people. It puts it in the ethos and suggests that it’s all right to eliminate folks. So, what happens is, this guy goes to a Black HBCU. He’s been hearing all the while that Black history is a problem, it’s a lie, wokeness is a lie. So, if he’s already skewed toward racism, then he begins to hear from the most powerful people this is what you do, it can trigger. We’re not saying DeSantis did the killing, but as Dr. King said at the death of, funeral of the four girls that were killed, he said, “We must not just talk about who, but what — what killed them.”
And lastly, I want to put this on the record. It’s not just DeSantis. Down in Florida, he has gotten Black people, certain Black scholars, to join with him and lie about Black history and call for the elimination of courses. He has gotten Black people to join him, some of them to join him in pushing against affirmative action programs. They are just as guilty, as well, because it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is. Once you spew this stuff and loose it and suggest that people are the problem — they’re not people with problems, but problem people — it can create all kinds of justifications in the ethos for violence and other kinds of death.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bishop Barber, I wanted to ask you — in the same climate of intolerance and hate that is promoted by some of these top Florida leaders, we see a judge rule on a redistricting case, congressional redistricting in North Florida, saying that DeSantis and the other political leaders violated the state’s constitution, ordering them to create a new map. Your response to this news?
BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, you know, I know about that. In North Carolina, we beat back extremists who redistricted, and we met them in court, found out that they had engaged in racism with surgical intention. And what we know with redistricting is it’s another form of diversion and division and lies, because what it says is that somehow people are cheating, somehow people are not doing right. But the extremists, they want to cheat, because they can’t win. They can’t win on policies. So what they want to do is create a situation where they stack, pack and block and bleach Black voters, not just so Black can’t elect Black people, but so Black people and white people and others can’t form fusion coalitions to elect the candidates of their choice.
And why do they do this? Why are they so afraid? Because DeSantis and those with him, they don’t want to talk about the real record. That’s why they redistrict illegally. That’s why they engage in culture wars. They don’t want to talk about Florida. There are 9 million poor and low-wealth people, 44% of the state, and their policies aren’t doing anything about that. They don’t want to talk about the 7 million voters in Florida that are poor and low-wealth. And if just 3% of them would vote that haven’t voted, they could send any of them home. They don’t want to talk about the fact that in Florida over 4 million people make less than a living wage, while the Legislature there and the governor there have been blocking living wages. They don’t want to talk about — that’s 32% of white workers and 57% of Black workers. They don’t want to talk about the fact that you have over 2 million people in Florida — 2.5 million people, who are uninsured, even during the pandemic, and that the life in Florida, the life expectancy, went down in Florida. And one study shows that among Republicans, their life expectancy went down, and it’s directly connected to the ways DeSantis and others like him railed against vaccines and railed against protections during COVID. They don’t want to talk about the fact that 8.4 million workers, 78% of the workforce, do not have access to paid leave. They don’t want to talk about when you end, cuts in Medicaid, 800,000 people who lost access to healthcare.
See, they support all of those policies, so they don’t want to talk about this. So, where do they want to focus? They want to focus on culture wars and division and dissension, and they want to fight for redistricting, racist redistricting, which undermines the ability for votes to count. And that’s why when we criticize them, we can’t just talk about hate. We’ve got to make the connections. One of the things we’ve said to Democrats is: Don’t just talk about the deaths that are caused when somebody uses a gun to kill; connect that to the deaths that come when people are kept in poverty. Poverty is now the fourth-leading cause of death. So, if you are fighting addressing poverty and fighting addressing living wages and fighting addressing healthcare, that is also a form of death and a form of violence. We have to connect the dots. Racist voter suppression creates death, because when you suppress the right to vote and you stack and pack and bleach Black voters, you allow extremists to get elected, who then, once they get elected, they block healthcare, they block living wages, they block addressing poverty. And when you do those things, people die. Bad public policy creates death. Racist rhetoric and division can create a context of death, give people the license to kill. All of it is deadly.
nd we must take back the mic, raise up an army of love and truth and light, that will say, “We’re not having it anymore. We’re going to call you to cease, desist, to repent, to confess. And if you won’t, then we’ve got to mobilize and send some people home,” so that they won’t have the power and the mic to continue to do what they’re doing. They may have the same opinion, but they won’t have the power, and the power of the office and the mic, to continue to spew their divisive rhetoric.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bishop Barber, I wanted to ask you — in this recent hurricane, Idalia, clearly, the country is facing and the world is facing more and more natural disasters, so many of them fueled by climate change. President Biden goes down to Florida, and the governor, DeSantis, doesn’t even bother to meet with him. Your response to the president’s words? Especially he spoke out against the attack, this racist attack, as well as offering assistance to the people of Florida ravaged by Idalia.
BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, you know, DeSantis, though he’s trained and educated even at Yale and got a law degree, he’s rooted in racism and meanness. He has decided that this is his way to office: distraction, division, deflection, focusing on culture wars so that he cannot be labeled as a failed governor. That’s what he really is — not a presidential candidate, he’s a failed governor. Anytime you have this many poor and low-wealth people and low-wage workers and you haven’t addressed those issues, you’re a failed governor.
The president was right to call out the racism and call out the rhetoric and say that, either private or publicly, if you’re quiet, then you’re complicit. I would also encourage the president to go one step further, though. And that is to say it’s not just the racist rhetoric. The racist rhetoric and the culture wars and the hatred toward women, the hatred toward immigrants, the hatred toward the trans community is a form of deflection. And then the president run the record and show how the same person who’s spewing all of this division, guess what? He’s not addressing the issue of poverty in your state. He’s not addressing more than 40% of the people working for less than a living wage, even though the people voted for a living wage to happen in Florida. He’s not addressing the more than 2.5 million people that don’t have healthcare. In other words, connect the rhetoric not just to the deaths that are caused by someone like the young man who did what he did and creating the ethos of death, but actually show how they are failing in their roles as governors and legislators, and that’s why they want the division and the deflection and the deception, so that we don’t see how they’re also engaging in forms of policy violence and policy murder, which is hurting the lives of people. And it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine if this same governor was bringing people together, was raising the minimum wage, was ensuring healthcare and those things. Florida would be a very, very different place. He does not want people to look at that, and so he’s posturing himself like the Dixiecrat governors of the old South.
And we need a new South to rise that’s not fooled by that, that brings Black people together, white people together, Brown people, Asians, Latinos, gay, straight — it doesn’t matter who you are — and says, “We’re not having it anymore. We’re taking back the mic. We’re mobilizing.” And we’re going to do it, because the fact of the matter is, Juan, if just 2 to 3% of poor and low-wealth voters in Florida who have not voted chose to vote an agenda, they could send any candidate home, including Ron DeSantis. Poor and low-wealth folk have the power. That’s what Bishop Frank Reid and others are saying. They understand. And why they’re calling for this is that there comes a time, as the Bible says, when the stone that the builders rejected have to rise up and become the cornerstone of a new reality. That’s what we’re going to launch on Thursday and beyond. It must happen, not just in Florida, but across the country. Take back this mic.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bishop Barber, I wanted to ask you — Ron DeSantis is still only a — he’s not the major candidate for the Republican Party. Obviously, Donald Trump still remains the major candidate. And could you comment on Trump’s virtual silence on all of these racist attacks that have been occurring and these hate crimes around the country?
BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, you know, he laid the foundation for it, so he doesn’t have to say anything. His very presence has already laid it down. He does enough at his rally. I mean, he is the provocateur par excellence. You know, he is the one that has really laid the playbook down, and Ron DeSantis is playing it.
But I think Ron DeSantis, in some ways, is more dangerous than Trump because of his background, his education, that he’s been a governor — Trump had never held political office — and that Ron DeSantis is doing all these things as the governor. Right now he’s caught up, you know, in the popularity of Trump among people who are mean and racist. You know, he doesn’t have that kind of play nationally, but he has that kind of play within the party. And he has a lot of play within the country because of the ongoing history of racism and division. And, you know, hatred and meanness sells and works, and othering people turns a lot of people on. That’s why folk that don’t agree with it, we can’t stay home. You can’t have low voter turnout, because that allows extremists to get elected. But DeSantis, I think, in some ways, and these legislatures are more dangerous than Trump, because they actually can enact policy. You see, they are actually passing policy. And that’s what I don’t want people to miss.
I said to some people it’s OK for us to get upset when he attacks Black history. It’s right for us to be bothered with them and move when these folk have been killed. But let’s not think that there wasn’t a big problem before this, and there weren’t problems beyond just the rhetoric. Go back to the policies. DeSantis is a failed governor. He is a man that only got elected the first time by 1.5% of the vote. He didn’t get elected overwhelmingly. And then, the second time, I think maybe about 3 or 4%. He is not even invincible. But as long as he has the mic, as long as he has that Legislature, they can continue to push and promote not only rhetoric, but policy. And both the rhetoric and the policy is deadly. That’s what makes DeSantis and these other extremists in these state houses and legislatures even more formidable, in some way, than Trump, because they actually have legislated.
Now, right now it looks like Trump right now has, you know, this popularity within the body of extremism. But make no mistake: These guys are not just running for office for right now. They are running — they’re hoping Trump goes to jail. They’re hoping they can step in afterwards. And if you listen to the Republicans that are running, there’s not a dime of difference, there’s not a penny of difference, between them and the policies of Trump. The only thing they’re differing is the antics of Trump, in terms of the way he has done some things seemingly illegal. But they have the same policy, the same rhetoric, the same division, the same deception, the same denial of dealing with poverty. It’s the same thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of taking the mic, Bishop Barber, when — after that young white male shooter killed three people, Black people, in Jacksonville, there was this vigil, and Governor Ron DeSantis took the mic. But he was booed roundly by the crowds. One attendee shouted out, “Your policies caused this!” I want to play that clip.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is here. We’re going to ask the governor if he would come down and give remarks —
ATTENDEE: You’re not welcome here! These deaths are on your hands!
GOV. RON DESANTIS: Thank you for doing this. I want to just say to the councilwoman —
GOV. RON DESANTIS: Councilwoman — councilwoman —
GOV. RON DESANTIS: I got you. Don’t worry about it. We’ve already been looking to identify funds to be able to help.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you can hear what was going on at that vigil. So, there you have just the crowd essentially taking the mic. But then you have, in Tennessee, a young man you know well, just celebrated his 28th birthday, the legislator Justin Jones, who was thrown out, along with another Justin, Justin Pearson — one represents Nashville, the other Memphis — of the state Legislature.
BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Yeah, Justin Jones was silenced by —
AMY GOODMAN: And now — right. Then he was thrown out. They spent a lot of money having to redo the election. He’s voted right back in by Nashville. And then, last week, he is silenced by the Legislature. This is the last minute we have, but if you can talk about what’s happening?
BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, a couple things. Justin Jones got elected in the most diverse district in Tennessee. Let’s note that. That’s why he’s such a thing of fear to the extremists. Also, he got silenced when he went to the floor to put a slate of policies, 12 things that he’s calling on legislators to join him in fighting for. He’s not just dealing in the emotionalism; he’s actually dealing in policy.
DeSantis was booed, should have been booed, because the only reason he should have been there was to get on his knees and repent for how he has helped create an atmosphere and an ethos of othering and division that gives license to this kind of violence. We’ve seen it down through history.
But I also want to say to Floridians, even before this happened, he should have been booed. He should have been booed for the way that he has not dealt with poverty. He should have been booed for the way he’s not dealt with living wages. He should have been booed for the way he’s blocked healthcare. He should have been booed for the way he lied and caused people to die, in essence, by saying you don’t need to get vaccines. He has a whole record that needs to be booed. And that’s what I’m arguing for. He needs not just for when he has attacked Black history and in this moment. Sure, this is — what we see here and all that rhetoric has created such a bad atmosphere, but look at his whole record.
And let’s take the mic and raise up and mobilize all over the country, but starting in Florida, people who will not be about partisan politics but will be about principled politics, and say, “If you are going to use the mic to spread division, deception and distraction and create an ethos of death and violence, we’re going to take the mic from you, send you home the best way we can, in love and through our votes. Our votes are going to speak, our voices are going to speak, because what we cannot have in this moment is leaders who use powerful positions to create a kind of a pathological atmosphere and an ethos of violence and destruction. It’s been deadly in the past, and it’s deadly in the present.
AMY GOODMAN: Bishop William Barber, we thank you for being with us, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach, founding director of the Center for Public Theology & Public Policy at Yale Divinity School. We’ll link to your new piece in The Guardian, “The racist murders in Jacksonville didn’t happen in a vacuum. Words came first.”