David Goldman / AP

Walter Scott shooting spotlights Charleston's complicated racial landscape

In city renowned for hospitality to tourists, activists hope video forces policy changes to benefit minorities

CHARLESTON, S.C. – Eugene Jenkins stood quietly to the side of a small crowd Thursday outside the Charleston branch of the NAACP as the midday heat rose. The 72-year-old Charleston native held a homemade protest sign to display during a news conference called by the civil rights group.

Jenkins said he couldn’t remember ever seeing much activity in the NAACP office. But that was before Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was filmed being shot to death while running from North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who was fired from his job and charged with murder.

Reporters ringed the podium three deep outside the NAACP office, spilling into the quiet intersection of Columbus and Hanover streets. East Side, as this part of the city is known, was once overrun with drug gangs and violent crime. Today, the neighborhood and its Crayola box of shotgun houses in want of rehabilitation are attracting a growing number of younger residents and college students looking for cheap housing. It’s a narrative well-worn in other parts of the peninsula city where historically black neighborhoods have grown whiter as land values steadily climb and minorities move to outlying areas, such as North Charleston.

The crowd of locals on the corner was composed, much in the same way North Charleston has remained in the wake of the public release of the footage earlier this week.

“I really believe the peaceful temperament of our community right now, the reason we have it, is because of that transparency that was forced in North Charleston,” said community organizer Pastor Thomas Dixon as he waited for the press conference to begin.

That forced transparency has pushed the cities of Charleston and North Charleston onto a national stage, and in doing so, has highlighted a complicated and long-suffering relationship between the black community and law enforcement.

“The lingering question in this case is what would have happened if there was no video,” said Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, not long after she took the podium. In the back of the crowd, Jenkins pushed his sign skywards over the heads of reporters, as high as his arms would reach.

Scrawled in block letters on the cardboard was his own explanation of what is going on: “Blacks [feel] betrayed.”

“There’s a big, wide gap when it comes to how we as black people are being treated here in Charleston,” Jenkins said. Black businesses in Charleston are gone, he said, and black families have been pushed out of the city by rising rents, leading to considerable tension.

Nearly three out of every four residents of Charleston is white, while almost half of the residents of North Charleston are black.

“There’s a juggernaut going on that you cannot stop once it starts rolling,” Jenkins said. “We know that we are eliminated out of [Charleston]. Only a certain percentage of us might be here, like domestic workers, maybe some who have technical training. But the majority of black folks down here only get laborer jobs, yet they can’t pay for housing with that minimum amount of money.”

Minorities have not only been pushed out by economic factors, he added, but they are also being pushed around by law enforcement. “They’re always being profiled,” Jenkins said.

'There’s a big, wide gap when it comes to how we as black people are being treated here in Charleston.'

Eugene Jenkins

72-year-old Charleston resident

It was the repetitive profiling and searches of young black men driving flashy cars that prompted Pastor Dixon to start a regional civil rights organization called the Coalition.

“Prior to the shooting, the relationship between the community and law enforcement of North Charleston was extremely strained,” said Dixon, adding that the rift has widened in recent years.

“It’s more a product of a disregard for life that has developed into a culture when it comes to policing. It’s not only here, it’s nationwide,” Dixon said.

Dixon believes that culture led to this most recent incident, in which Slager fired his gun at Scott eight times as he fled, handcuffed his hands behind his back after he fell face down, and moved evidence at the scene.

There have been more than 200 documented cases of police firing at suspects in South Carolina in the last five years, but none have led to convictions.

“That leads to a mindset of, ‘I don’t have to worry about pulling this trigger. I’m going to get away with it no matter what I say,’” Dixon said.

From the moment the story that Scott was shot during the traffic stop broke locally Saturday, but before the video’s emergence, many in the community felt the officer was in the wrong, according to Greg Woods, a reporter with WCIV-TV in Charleston. “There were so many gun shots that they knew whatever he did didn’t deserve that many shots,” Woods said. “From jump, there was skepticism about what took place.”

According to one official with South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, known as SLED, that skepticism was also emerging in the official investigation into Slager’s account of what happened during that traffic stop. SLED is called in to investigate any police shooting in the state, and the probe into Scott’s death is still ongoing, the agency’s community outreach coordinator, Maj. Clifton Weir, told Al Jazeera.

Weir said Scott’s multiple gunshot wounds in his back, for example, immediately contradicted the officer’s account. And while the investigation process would have held Slager accountable, he said, the video brought about a murder charge “faster than normal.”

The power of the video has renewed calls by some lawmakers for all police officers in the state to wear body cams. The Charleston NAACP also wants South Carolina U.S. Attorney William Nettles to review Scott’s case and scrutinize the profiling policies of regional law enforcement.

Dwayne German hopes Scott’s murder will convince the Department of Justice to review the death of his 19 year-old son Denzel Curnell, who was shot last June while in police custody. Police ruled his cause of death a suicide — a claim German said is horrendous. “He was shot in the right temple but he’s left handed,” German said.

“No one’s watching the watchmen,” German said. “Had it not been for [the video], the Scott family would be in the same predicament that I’m in.”

In a city renowned for hospitality to tourists, activists see the video as leverage to force lawmakers to make meaningful policy changes to benefit residents.

“It is how people who live here feel,” said Leonard Riley, Jr., a community activist and member of the local branch of the International Longshoreman’s Association union. “There’s an undercurrent in Charleston that hasn’t been addressed properly.”

“Unfortunately, this young man is going to be history in a few days,” Riley said. “I’m looking for the opportunity to create change. If there’s emotion, I want to throw the emotion out and look at how we can make progress based on the failure of what we have in place now.”

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