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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Six weeks after a police officer shot and killed Walter L. Scott, an unarmed black man, protesters are demanding changes in the city’s police department. Although officials initially acted quickly to arrest the officer, progress on some residents’ demands — including greater civilian oversight of law enforcement — has slowed to a slog worthy of the low-country wetlands.
On April 7, the day video footage emerged of North Charleston police officer Michael T. Slager shooting Scott in the back as he tried to run away after a routine traffic stop, the South Carolina state legislature was in recess. Twin bills in the House and Senate mandating body-worn cameras for every law enforcement officer in the state had been stalled for months in subcommittees, with few sponsors. The bills were introduced shortly after President Barack Obama requested $263 million to help fund body camera purchases and training nationwide, and they seemed destined to fizzle out quietly in the heavily Republican Palmetto State.
The video changed everything. Slager was arrested on a murder charge the same day The Charleston Post and Courier published the video on its website, and the next day North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey announced that the city would order enough body cameras to outfit every officer on the street. And when lawmakers returned to the statehouse April 14, the push for a statewide body camera mandate rapidly gained momentum.
Last week the House voted unanimously to pass a body camera bill, with amendments awaiting approval by the state Senate. State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Democratic lawmaker from Charleston County, has been quick to seize the political momentum at protest events in North Charleston, including a recent rally marking one month since Scott’s death.
“A year and a half ago, when I first started this idea, this mission fell on deaf ears,” he said. “I can only hope and pray that these great men, these great women, that they hold us accountable in the state of South Carolina.”
He added, “You now have the attention of the governor and everybody else in the General Assembly. You also have the attention of the world.”
But for better or worse, the world isn’t watching North Charleston anymore. Only local media covered the one-month rally, which included about 30 community members. And since the arrest of Slager and the purchase of the body cameras, little else has changed in North Charleston as a result of protest actions.
‘This community is very trusting and very patient. Don’t take that patience for granted.’
Int’l Longshoremen’s Assoc. local chapter
In North Charleston, where African-Americans make up 47 percent of the population but only 19 percent of the police force, race has long been a factor in civilian complaints against the police department. In the upcoming November mayoral election, Summey’s two opponents, both of whom are African-American, have said they would work to bring more black officers onto the force. Juvenile arrest data recently released by the interfaith Charleston Area Justice Ministry showed that 87 percent of juveniles arrested in North Charleston in 2014 were African-American.
The first protests after Scott’s death were organized by the Charleston chapter of Black Lives Matter, an activist group that formed in December 2014 after a rash of police-involved deaths of African-Americans, including Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In the week after the Scott shooting, the group started asking North Charleston officials to create a citizen oversight committee to review the actions of the police department, including its internal investigations of citizens’ complaints against officers. Similar oversight committees have existed in municipalities such as New York for decades.
The group’s proposal gained new relevance when the North Charleston Police Department released Slager’s records, revealing that he was accused of using a Taser on a nonsuspect while investigating a 2013 burglary. The alleged victim, Mario Givens, filed a complaint with the department, but the department exonerated Slager within a month without giving an explanation in its report. Shortly after Slager’s arrest, Givens announced that he would file a lawsuit against the North Charleston Police Department, saying in a press conference that he never heard back from the police department after filing his complaint.
Black Lives Matter’s Charleston chapter made its demands known early and often, sometimes with a megaphone in front of City Hall. Its members asked the North Charleston City Council to call a public meeting to discuss the possibility of a civilian oversight committee, and Summey countered by offering to meet with them behind closed doors. The group refused, insisting that any conversations must be held in public.
Some city leaders have expressed resistance to the idea of an unelected board overseeing the police department, particularly if that board is granted subpoena powers. City Councilman Bobby Jameson said any proposal for a citizen oversight committee would likely have to come from Summey, who has held his office since 1994. “Since this is such a volatile situation, I don’t think any City Council member would do it,” Jameson said. “We’d probably do it through the mayor as a unity, not as an individual council member.”
Until that happens, the protesters aren’t going away. At the one-month rally, a coalition of neighborhood organizations, religious leaders, labor organizers and longtime activist groups voiced their support for a common agenda. Their demands included equal access to education and other opportunities for all North Charleston residents, transparency in city government, an end to racial profiling and police brutality and “independent, community-based oversight and accountability over the police department.”
Muhiyidin d’Baha, an organizer with the Charleston Black Lives Matter chapter, said his group will continue to protest. “All along, our strategy was to negotiate, demonstrate and resist. That hasn’t gone anywhere,” he said. “We have the same strategy. It’s just that now we have more political and social capital behind it.”
Aside from a small group of protesters who recently shut down traffic on a major bridge in neighboring Charleston, the response to the Walter Scott shooting has been much quieter than the mass marches and riots after recent police shootings of black men in other U.S. cities. But Kenneth Riley, the president of the local International Longshoremen’s Association chapter, mentioned at the one-month rally that the tone could shift.
“This community is very trusting and very patient. Don’t take that patience for granted,” he said. “Look around this country at what is happening and what hasn’t happened in Charleston. Don’t take the patience for granted.”