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Juju Chang interviews Felicia Sanders during the Women In The World Summit on April 6, 2017 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Life after hate

Shooting survivor Felicia Sanders: ‘Forgiveness is not for that person — forgiveness is for you’

April 7, 2017

“I was not going to give Dylann Roof the opportunity to send me to hell right with him.”

Felicia Sanders brought the Women in the World crowd to their feet with her incredible story of surviving the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston in June 2015 — and her road to forgiving the shooter.

Speaking on Thursday at the Women in the World Summit, Sanders recounted the harrowing day when Roof sat down with their church bible study and eventually opened fire in the historically black church. Hiding under a table with her then 11-year-old granddaughter, Sanders watched her son challenge Roof, asking him why he was doing this. The shooter’s response was that he had to, because we “[black people] are raping white women and taking over the world.”

Tragically, Sanders’ son Tywanza and aunt Susie were among the nine people killed.

“My son gave up his life to save me,” she said. “I didn’t want him to do that but he did.”

This Monday, the state trial begins against Roof, who is expected to plead guilty to murder and second degree murder charges; he was already sentenced to death in federal court.

During one moving moment, Sanders shared her perspective on absolving perpetrators of such heinous crimes. “Forgiveness is not for that [other] person,” she said. “Forgiveness is for you.”

Roof’s attack was a precursor to a dramatic uptick in hate crimes across the country. Sanders and other panelists, activist Brendan Cox, Southern Poverty Law Center’s Heidi Beirich, and MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid, discussed tactics for countering violent extremism with moderator Juju Chang of Nightline.

According to Reid, the recent presidential election brought what had been fringe ideologies into the mainstream. “The alt-right are fulfilling what David Duke tried to do in the 1980s,” she said. “They tried to intellectualize racism and put it in a suit. They reframed it as a global fight.” Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, has repeatedly voiced his support for Donald Trump, saying at one point, “I’m overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues that I’ve championed for years.”

The rise of white supremacy and populist groups isn’t relegated to America. Last year British MP Jo Cox, who campaigned forcefully against Brexit, was assassinated by far-right terrorist Thomas Mair. Her widower, Brendan Cox, refused to legitimize Mair and his ilk by referring to them as “populists” or the “silent majority.”

“They are misogynists, racist, homophobes, and in most countries they are deeply unpopular, so we should call them what they are. The vast majority of people in our countries do not subscribe to these views, but they’re not silent and they’re not the majority.”

According to Reid, it’s hard to quantify exactly how large the alt-right movement actually is. Supporters largely interact online, making it difficult to track. Yet its boosters, the panel argued, have emerged in countries all around the world.

“This is an international movement that doesn’t have boundaries,” according to Heidi Beirich, Director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

No doubt though, the digital movement has spawned real life violence. According to the SPLC, there have been 1,800 hate crime incidents reported since Donald Trump’s election. Studies suggest there are more 200,000 hate crimes every year, but most go unreported because of fear of retaliation or mistrust of law enforcement.

 It’s on individuals, Cox argued, to counter this violence. “We need to form a much bigger movement around tolerance, diversity, togetherness,” he said. Cox never considered himself an activist, but after his wife’s death, he’s felt compelled to campaign and speak out. “I’m trying to give voice to the actual silent majority…. We are asking communities to come together and share food with their neighbors. We find too few opportunities to talk about the things we have in common.”

Sanders agrees. “The only thing that separates us is not knowing one another,” she said. “We may have different skin color but we all bleed red.”

Additional reporting by Marion Bradford and Gina Kim.


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