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Catholics react to anti-Black massacre in Jacksonville

Bishop Erik T. Pohlmeier of St. Augustine called the shooting "senseless" and called for unity while condemning racism.

The scene outside of a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, where a young White Supremacist killed three African Americans on Saturday before taking his own life. (Bob Self/Florida Times-Union)

Bishop Erik T. Pohlmeier of St. Augustine has spoken out on Saturday’s deadly shooting in Jacksonville, Florida, in which a 21-year-old White male, Ryan Palmeter, opened fire on African Americans in a general store after leaving behind an anti-Black manifesto. Four individuals were killed, including the shooter by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Bishop Pohlmeier called the massacre a “senseless act of violence” and excoriated the actions of the shooter while pleading for unity.

“He targeted innocent lives solely because of their race. This reprehensible act reminds us of the deep-seated wounds that still afflict our society—wounds rooted in prejudice and racism,” he wrote in a statement released Sunday morning, the liturgical feast of St. Monica.

“I call upon each of you to pray for the victims and their families during this painful time. Let our prayers serve as a source of comfort and healing. Additionally, let us pray for the conversion of hearts that harbor prejudice, that they may be transformed by the grace of God and embrace a spirit of love and reconciliation.”

Before the mass shooting—at least the 13th so far this year in Florida—Palmeter, a resident of the affluent Oakleaf Plantation neighborhood, is believed to have been spotted near Edward Waters University, a local HBCU, before being approached by security and fleeing the scene. One source reported that he fired on multiple vehicles at the school, though no one was injured.

The shooter then traveled less than a mile down the road from EWU to a Dollar General store on Kings Road, where he began shooting at shoppers.

Michelle Carr, 52; Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr., 19; and Jarrald De'Shaun Gallion, 29, were killed by Palmeter, who was reportedly apprehended by Jacksonville law enforcement before taking his own life.

Both EWU and the general store are located on the edges of the city’s Mid-Westside neighborhood, which is virtually all-Black.

“This shooting was racially motivated, and he hated Black people,” said Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters in a press conference following the shooting.

“The hate that motivated the shooter's killing spree adds an additional layer of heartbreak.”

Waters said Palmeter was involved in a domestic dispute as recently as 2016, and was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility under Florida's Baker Act in 2017. However, he had no criminal record. 

It is not known if the shooter legally obtained the guns used in the shooting, a handgun and an AR-15-style rifle marked with swastikas, but a recently passed Florida law allowed anyone 21 or older with a clean record to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a firebrand Republican who has come under fire for various far-right political maneuvers—including his defense of lax gun laws in the state—spoke with reporters Saturday, calling Palmeter a “scumbag.”

“He was targeting people based on their race. That is totally unacceptable. This guy killed himself rather than face the music and accept responsibility for his actions, and so he took the coward’s way out.”

Critics of the conservative movement in Florida and around the country have also spoken out on the shooting, calling to account those leaders who have opposed gun control and anti-racism.

“Republicans absolutely want mass shootings because the party’s cash cow is white grievance politics,” wrote Zuri Davis, a Black Catholic resident in the Jacksonville area, on social media.

“They only say something when cops, the gatekeepers of white supremacy, are shot. A couple of Black and brown deaths? Just part of the plan to prevent replacement.”

Bishop Pohlmeier has also been joined by other U.S. Catholic prelates in condemning the racist shooting, including Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, M.Sp.S. of San Antonio.

“More gun killings. Our leaders are blind to all these guns shootings,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Racism has been perpetuated which triggers in people’s minds to kill. Guns are part of it. This is a fact can not be denied.”

The Catholic-raised Tennessee State Rep. Justin Jones, a young politician expelled from the legislature this spring for participating in a gun control protest at the capitol after a mass school shooting in Nashville, emphasized that Republican condolences are now empty talk.

“I want to say to the people of America, do not accept thoughts and prayers from one of these politicians in Florida who have passed this proliferation of guns in their community,” he said in a CNN interview on Saturday. 

“That is unacceptable. We need to hold them accountable.”

Speaking during Saturday’s press conference, Special Agent Sherri Onks of the Jacksonville FBI office announced that the massacre is being investigated under federal civil rights code as a hate crime.

“Hate crimes are always and will always remain a top priority for the FBI because they are not only an attack on a victim. They’re also meant to threaten and intimidate an entire community," she said.

“The FBI will bring every resource we have to bear to bring justice to the families of those innocent lives we lost today.”

The tragedy in Florida is believed to be the nation's deadliest anti-Black since the 2022 Buffalo supermarket massacre, wherein a teenage White shooter killed ten African Americans and left a manifesto citing the racist writings of a professor at the University of Notre Dame.

In Florida, as in New York, the local Catholic prelate is calling not only for condemnation of racist acts of violence, but for community cohesion in the face of abject loss.

“In times like these, it is crucial for us to come together as a community, to support one another and to stand against hatred in all its forms. Let us remember that violence and bigotry have no place in our hearts or our society,” said Pohlmeier.

“We must actively work to promote understanding, respect and unity among all people. May we find strength in our faith, hope in God's mercy and a renewed commitment to fostering a just and inclusive society.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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