The $88 million settlement announced Thursday with survivors and the families of nine people fatally shot in 2015 at a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, is a “big ‘F-you’ to White supremacists,” an attorney for the victims’ families said.
White supremacists have used the number “88” as a hate symbol for decades, but on Thursday, that number was reflected in the millions of dollars that the Justice Department will pay over FBI lapses that allowed Dylann Roof, an avowed White supremacist, to buy the semi-automatic pistol used in the massacre.
“Today, we get to give a big ‘F-you’ to the White supremacists and racists in this country by saying that we are taking this tragedy that they tried to tear our country apart with and build Black communities and generational wealth,” said Bakari Sellers, an attorney who helped broker the agreement and a CNN political commentator.
The number “88” has been used as a reference to “Heil Hitler” because “H” is the 8th letter in the alphabet, said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
White supremacists use it as a part of their usernames online, to sign off on messages posted online, and some shout it to each other, he added.
“Plenty of people get tattoos, jewelry, insignia patches,” Pitcavage said. “It’s become one of the most common modern White supremacy symbols.”
In 2015, Roof took 88 bullets with him into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where he killed nine people. He has since been convicted of federal murder and hate crimes charges and was sentenced to death in 2017. He has appealed his conviction.
At his 2016 trial, Assistant US Attorney Jay Richardson said Roof had designed his own logo that included his initials, a swastika and the number 88.
“He created the symbol to reflect who he was, what he thought and what he had done,” Richardson said at the time.
A connection to the number “88” had previously surfaced in 2008, when two men were accused of plotting to assassinate President Barack Obama. It was alleged then that they were planning to kill 88 Black people, including schoolchildren, and wanted to behead 14.
And decades earlier, David Lane, a member of a White supremacist group known as “The Order” who was convicted of the 1984 murder of Jewish radio host Alan Berg at his home in Denver, wrote a list of statements titled “88 Precepts” on what he called “natural law,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
There have been some attempts in the past to reclaim hate symbols, including Pepe, a cartoon frog that was labeled a hate symbol by the ADL in 2016. But Pitcavage said people don’t have a considerable attachment to numbers like they might have toward symbols.
The settlement of $88 million – $25 million split among survivors and $63 million split among the families for those killed – was not intentionally chosen, Sellers told CNN. But its symbolic importance quickly became evident for the legal team representing the families and survivors.
“We’re gonna have to own this. It’s going to be intentional and purposeful that we’re going to have to use their racism and bigotry and their symbolism,” Sellers recalled telling another attorney in the case when they learned about the settlement amount.
The victims in the massacre, Sellers said, were killed because they were Black and now, the settlement can help a community deeply affected by violent racism take ownership of their own future and build wealth.