‘They’re killing all the black folks. You never hear they’re killing anyone else’
At the roadside memorial in Charleston to Walter Scott, protesters hope his case will become a turning point for civil rights
Mary Brisbane knelt down to pray in the dappled shade by the roadside memorial marking Walter Scott’s death. Deflated white balloons and small bunches of bright flowers hung from the railings of the fence that separates the road from an unremarkable grassy knoll. None of the mourners who arrived in slow procession throughout Friday morning walked beyond that line. On the other side, just metres away, is the site where 50-year-old Scott fell, shot five times from behind by a white North Charleston police officer, Michael Slager. Scott, a black man, was unarmed.
Like many of those grieving in the southern state of South Carolina, Brisbane had never met Walter Scott, but felt compelled to come to the memorial to pay her respects.
“I said a prayer for his soul,” said Brisbane. “Hopefully this killing will stop and we can get justice and people’s lives won’t go in vain. They’re killing the black folks; you never hear that they’re killing anyone else.”
The 48-year-old child carer had yet to march on one of the many protests around North Charleston in Scott’s name, but she clutched a recently acquired T-shirt with the words “Black Lives Matter” in red. “I’m planning to go now.”
Scott’s death at the hands of a police officer last weekend is the latest in a high-profile string of killings of unarmed black men in the United States which have galvanised a protest movement and reminded many in the country that state violence against African-Americans is not a thing of the past.
But while Scott’s death has much in common with the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and others, it is distinguished by the shocking footage showing a man running away, a police officer caught seemingly blatantly lying about the circumstances and a murder charge laid within days. In South Carolina, a Confederate state built on slavery and where racial inequality and segregation are still rife, many hope that this case will become a turning point.
“What we have seen in these videos is something the police say never happens,” said DeRay Mckesson a St Louis, Missouri, resident who has become one of the most insistent voices in the new police reform movement that has gripped the US since the death of unarmed black teenager Brown last August. He travelled to North Charleston to join local protesters.
“So we saw media complicity in police lies, we saw planted evidence, we saw racial profiling. We saw it all in one instance. It just highlights how systemic this issue is. This story has been played out in American history and blackness over and over again.”
Scott, a father of four, was pulled over by officer Slager at around 9.30am last Saturday over a minor traffic infringement. Dashboard video footage filmed from inside Slager’s patrol car shows that Scott handed his licence to the officer before opening the door of his Mercedes Benz seconds later and fleeing. Speculation has abounded about Scott’s reason for running — he owed thousands of dollars in child support payments and there may have been a warrant out for his arrest.
Slager’s account of what happened next was swallowed by media reporting in the days after the incident. He claimed that after the chase Scott had attempted to overpower him and to “take his Taser”. Slager said he “then felt threatened and reached for his department-issued firearm and fired his weapon”. Police maintained that officers who arrived on the scene attempted to perform CPR.
However, an eyewitness video that emerged on Tuesday told a damningly different story. While the two appear to have tussled, Scott was around 5m away and running away from Slager when the officer fired eight times until Scott lay face down in the ground. Slager walked calmly over to the body, placed Scott in handcuffs, jogged back to retrieve an object from the floor and dropped it next to the body. Some have alleged the object was the Taser.
For Lonnie Randolph Jnr, president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Scott’s fate can be attributed to five words: “We’ve never left the past.”
He compares Scott’s ultimate fate to that of George Stinney, the 14-year-old executed in South Carolina in 1944 during the Jim Crow era. The teenager was arrested, tried, convicted and executed within 81 days in a small town north of Charleston for the murder of two white girls. It was long argued that his confession had been forced and last year a judge eventually overturned the conviction. But it is a case that still haunts the state.
“It’s a manifestation of that attitude. A white man shot him in the back because he thought, ‘I’m not going to let him get away and the law will protect me’ because the laws have protected him in the past. They are similar in that a disrespect for human life is pervasive,” said Randolph.
He points to the fact that the South Carolina Department of Corrections incarcerates more than 13,000 black men, or 65pc of the prison population, while African Americans make up only 28pc of the state’s population. He remarks that just one of the state’s seven congressmen is black. And he argues that, as the country last week remembered the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, marking the end of the civil war, South Carolina remains one of only two states to still fly the Confederate flag over its State House.
“We still carry that baggage from 1865 today,” said Randolph. “That flag of division, the flag of hate, the flag of white supremacy is flying on our State House grounds.”
The sun began to set over North Charleston City Hall on Friday as a group of around 100 protesters stood by the front door holding a candle-lit vigil for Scott. “How many of you here have been stopped by the police?” shouted a protester on a loudspeaker. Almost every black person there put their hands up.
“Raise your hands if you think you were profiled,” he continues. Every hand stayed up.
Since Scott’s death the North Charleston police department has come under intense scrutiny, with reports revealing more allegations of abuse and extreme force against North Charleston’s black residents, who make up almost 50pc of the town’s population but less than 20pc of its police force. Protesters are calling for a federal investigation into the force’s recent history.
Kerry Taylor, a history lecturer at the Citadel, Charleston’s prestigious military college, is sympathetic to Randolph’s view of the historic forces at play in the state. But he argues that local dynamics and gentrification play their role in explaining at least some of the disparities and discrimination in Charleston County.
“We really are moving in the direction of two Charlestons,” said Taylor. “There’s one Charleston, where the population of middle class and upper middle class is swelling, taking advantage of new jobs. What that’s done though is create pressure on the black community and the working class in Charleston, pushing them to the periphery.”
Between 1980 and 2010 the black population of the affluent, historic area in Charleston (from which the first shots in the civil war were fired in January 1861) has more than halved, forcing many blacks into poorer areas like North Charleston and even further afield. That, argues Taylor, has eroded the basis of black political power in the region after a relative golden age in the post-civil rights era.
Scott’s open-casket wake took place at the historic peninsula end of Charleston. Outside the Fielding Home for Funerals in the warm afternoon sun, a steady stream of people dressed in their Sunday best filed in to view Scott’s body. Fraternity houses, part of the city’s prestigious private college, lined the road.
“He looked like he was sleeping,” said Brittany Williams after leaving the viewing. Scott’s casket, she said, was adorned with a sticker of his beloved Dallas Cowboys football team.
Eight miles up the road, Slager is being held in isolation at the county jail. The precise dates of his trial have not yet been set. The entire country — and this polarised community — will be waiting to see whether justice is served.