If you like the idea of public floggings, you'll love Nehemiah Action

Profiles in Discouraging

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Approximately 2,000 people from 30 congregations gathered for the Nehemiah Action Assembly this year - DUSTIN WATERS FILE PHOTO
  • Dustin Waters file photo
  • Approximately 2,000 people from 30 congregations gathered for the Nehemiah Action Assembly this year
In 2007 the city of North Charleston received a dubious honor: it was named the 7th most dangerous city in the U.S. And the news couldn't have come at a worse time.

North Charleston was on the cusp of a renaissance. With the rapid revitalization of Park Circle and the opening of the Tanger Outlets and the Coliseum and Performing Arts Center, the north area was finally beginning to turn it around after the closing of the navy base in 1996. Something had to be done. 

While there's no doubt that Mayor Keith Summey and his crew tried to bring down the crime rate, whatever they were doing wasn't enough. The next year, 2008, North Charleston was still one of the Top 10 most dangerous cities in America. Not long after, the North Charleston Police Department began ramping up efforts to combat crime in the most trouble-plagued areas of town. A key component: an increase in investigatory stops, in particular in African-American neighborhoods. The plan worked.

Then Police Chief Jon Zumalt noted that the city had experienced "a more than 30 percent drop in violent crime over three years," according to a 2010 Post and Courier report. By 2013, the city had fallen to 126 on the most dangerous list. However, many in the African-American community criticized the new policy, proclaiming that it was based on a policy of racial profiling and unwarranted stops — after all, blacks were pulled over far more than whites when it came to stops in which no citation was written and no arrest had been made. According to a document from the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a nonprofit activist group comprised of members of 30 different church congregations, the S.C. Department of Public Safety reports that 67 percent (85,079) of all stops were for African-Americans, who, as a group, make up a little less than half of North Charlestonians. At 41.6 percent of the population, whites only made up for 32.9 percent of all stops (42,924).

But despite this obvious imbalance, few outside the African-American community cared that drivers in Chicora-Cherokee, Union Heights, Charleston Farms, Liberty Hill, and other black-dominated neighborhoods were being pulled over more often than their white counterparts. Why? These neighborhoods are some of the most crime-plagued areas in North Charleston — and still are — so, following this line of reasoning, the city should focus its attention there.

That attitude changed after the April 2015 killing of Walter Scott by NCPD Officer Michael T. Slager following a run-of-the-mill traffic stop. Shortly after that tragic incident, amid accusations that Slager and other officers had been subjected to a daily quota requiring them to pull over three cars for minor violations per shift, the public seemingly turned against North Charleston's investigatory stop policy, and if they didn't turn against it, they at least began to acknowledge that the department's get-tough approach may have led, in part, to Scott's death.

At the same time, the City of North Charleston more or less admitted something was amiss, as the number of no-arrest, no-citation traffic stops per month dropped from 2,000 in March 2015 to 500 in January, according to CAJM. Mayor Summey has also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a three-year examination of the police department to determine what its failings are and how to correct them. You can take that as an admission of guilt or not. Either way, it doesn't matter. The city's much-maligned approach to fighting crime has more or less come to an end.

But for the men and women of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, that wasn't enough. It still didn't solve the problem of racial profiling.

At their recently held Nehemiah Action at Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, CAJM called upon local leaders to address this very issue. Mayor Summey and Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg were invited, as were their respective police chiefs, Eddie Driggers and Greg Mullen. Of the four, only Tecklenburg attended, a move that was heavily criticized by CAJM. But for most anyone who is familiar with the Nehemiah Action events of previous years, it's easy to understand why Summey, Driggers, and Mullen failed to turn in an RSVP.

On paper, the Nehemiah Action is a great idea. Take this year's event for example.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg faced questions presented by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry during the 2016 Nehemiah Action Assembly - DUSTIN WATERS
  • Dustin Waters
  • Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg faced questions presented by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry during the 2016 Nehemiah Action Assembly
During the talk, several local leaders, including Tecklenburg and members of the Charleston County School Board, took the stage to answer questions from CAJM members about investigatory stops and school disciplinary policies which have led to a disproportionate number of African-American students being arrested. I'll be the first to argue that our elected officials should be held accountable for their actions. More importantly, the public should have a forum to address them. While our leaders' strengths come from the offices they hold, the people's strengths come from their numbers, and it takes great numbers for the public to force a sure-minded official to rethink, much less change, their position, no matter how bad that position is.

But CAJM takes that great idea, makes it dig its own grave, hits it over the head with a shovel, pisses all over it — and leaves the urine-soaked corpse in the open air for the coyotes and buzzards to feast on. What would Jesus do? Not that.

Instead of hosting a town hall or forum where the public can ask their leaders questions about the most vital topics of the day and hear their responses, the Nehemiah Action format refuses to give its guests a chance to respond with little more than a yes or no answer. To make matters worse, the CAJM members tasked with asking questions can speak and sermonize as long as they like, a condition that not only puts all the power in their hands but is an affront to our democratic notions.

The CAJM speakers can also ask the same question again and again and again, a tactic, I suppose, that is designed to hypnotize the official into changing their minds or pressure them into having a sincere change of heart. After all, no one has ever stood before a room of angry people and flip-flopped on a position out of anything other than genuine reflection, a sudden realization that they were absolutely wrong and that it took 2,000 grumbling voices to make them see the error of their ways. With that said, there's no doubt that Nehemiah Action is less a town hall and more of a sideshow in which the holy men and women of CAJM do their part to address our city's woes by publicly guiding the masses in a collective airing of grievances that would make Frank Costanza clutch his fist and shout, "Serenity now," before his head explodes like a tennis ball filled with match heads.

All of which is why folks like Summey, Driggers, and Mullen refused to show up to the recent Nehemiah Action event at Mt. Moriah. They are well aware that this isn't a dialogue. It isn't a debate. It's a public flogging, and it does nobody any good, especially the men and women in the audience. 

See, beyond the decidedly undemocratic nature of this event, Nehemiah Action is at heart a form of kabuki theater. The leaders of CAJM know full well that many of their demands can't be met, at least not in the way that they pose them. Sometimes the constraints are temporal, other times they're budgetary, and occasionally they're just against the law. 

Take for example this question posed to Mayor Tecklenburg: "Will you, by June 1, 2016, contract an external, independent police auditor from the OIR Group for a one-time audit of the Charleston Police Department around bias-based policing, specifically stops, questioning, frisks, and searches, with the audit to begin July 1, 2016."

The thing is, Teck can't legally agree to this. The city has to send out an RFP (a request for proposals), they have to wait for those proposals to be submitted, they have to consider them, vote on them, etc., etc., etc. Mayor Tickling the Ivories can't simply award the OIR Group a government contract paid with public funds. If the folks at CAJM don't know this, they are rubes. If they do and still ask such a question, they are charlatans whose only goal is to increase their standings as social justice warriors and/or populist firebrands.

Equally as telling, the questions that were specifically asked of Tecklenburg and which would have been asked of Summey, more or less, establish CAJM as a quasi-government agency that appoints task force members and helps crafts city ordinances. I don't know about you, but I didn't elect CAJM's board, and I seriously have my doubts that you did. (Editor's note: If you did, then get in touch with me, because Diebold is even more nefarious then we previously thought.)

As for the CCSD board members, they were asked whether or not they would visit a school district in Jacksonville, Fla. to observe how the district handles student discipline using restorative practices. I could go into more detail about the concept — and it's a good one — but let's just simplify it and say that instead of calling the cops and arresting students every time they get into a fight with each other or, I don't know, refuse to get up from their desks, educators make the decision not to call for the school resource officer. Why? These students are kids, not criminals, and kids do some stupid shit — I know I sure as hell did.

Now, it doesn't matter that visiting the Jacksonville district would be insightful — like I said, it would be — but that kind of trip costs money, and right now, that's something CCSD doesn't have. While these board members get stipends, they only have so much money to spend. And when it comes to out-of-state travel, this isn't a decision that one person makes on their own; the board has to vote on it. In other words, these school board members can't rightfully say yes to CAJM's question. At best, they can say they'll try. Then again, I'm not a minister, so my understanding of how government bodies work is just a wee bit shaky.

At this point, it's worth pointing out that state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman has already called on school districts to change the ways in which they use school resource officers as disciplinarians. In fact, the state Generally Assembly is looking at two bills dealing with the matter, although those may not go anywhere.

When it comes down to it, Nehemiah Action is not the tool that it was designed to be. It doesn't serve the public by helping them engage with their elected officials. It only disenfranchises them. By putting our leaders in a position where they can only answer "yes" or "no" to questions that they sometimes rightfully can't answer "yes" to or "no" to, the folks at CAJM succeed in pointing out the apparent ineffectiveness and fecklessness of our leaders. The end result: Nehamiah's ultimate accomplishment is to further illustrate that the system is fucking broken — and what sort of lesson is that?

Today, the belief that the system is broken is at an all-time high. We wouldn't have either the Trump or Bernie campaigns if huge swaths of the American voting public didn't feel as if our elected officials continue to refuse to hear their concerns or address any of the problems that our great nation currently faces. It doesn't matter if we're talking about gun control, immigration, LGBT rights, abortion, global warming, Elon Musk's army of sentient AIs, the American public repeatedly falls victim to politicians who promise sweeping reforms and yet never produce. Meanwhile, the grownups in Washington, Columbia, and elsewhere continue to engage in the dirty, thankless work of governance where change generally only comes in tiny, incremental steps.

The Republican Party is an example of a group that promises big moves but never makes them. For decades the GOP has courted Southern evangelicals by vowing to overturn Roe v. Wade — something any sensible person knows is an impossibility — and they've failed so spectacularly that these very same holy rollers have lost their faith to such a degree that they're willing to abandon their principles and vote for a noxious, prideful, gluttonous, crude, and cowardly man like Donald Trump because, get this, he promises to get shit done. The worst part: They believe him. And as such, they set themselves up for another go-round on the disenfranchisement tilt-a-whirl.

Make no mistake, once the ride is over, they'll be queasy, whether the GOP nomination is "stolen" from Trump in July or The Donald loses to Hillary in November or the New York City blowhard actually pulls off the seemingly impossible and ends up not only overseeing a Congress that refuses to bend to his wishes, but a system that was designed to prevent would-be despots from exercising power in the first place. Election Day may be a celebration for the victors and their supporters, but the next day is an emasculation. Snip, snip, hand me a barf bag.

If you want sudden and complete change, democracy isn't for you. Fascism or totalitarianism or authoritarianism, on the other hand, those might be up your alley, that is if you aren't drowning in the gutter as a subject or a serf or slave or some untouchable cast-off who competes with rats in the never-ending battle for their next meal and a dry place to sleep.

The truth is, the system isn't broken. It's just hobbled by bureaucracy and regulations and discussions and amendments and parliamentary maneuvering and votes and blah, blah, blah. While I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that this is exactly how the Founding Fathers intended it — I don't have the late Antonin Scalia's ability to leap into the minds of Madison and Jefferson like a Supreme Court Sam Beckett — the system has worked just fine for over 200 years. OK, not always and not for everybody, but the core OS is strong and the subsequent versions have only made the platform more robust.

But no one wants to hear this. Like the folks at Nehemiah Action or the one-time supporters of Ron Paul's revolution, the Fair Tax, or any number of right-wing pipe dreams, far too many believe that change happens easily and quickly. Instead, these true believers are crippled by idealogical purity. They believe in one mind, one mission, and total victory — in other words, complete horseshit. And it's a mind-set that far too many activists and grassroots ground troops have adopted. In this world there is no room for dialogue. There is no need to ever listen to the other side.

Some politicians use this tactic quite favorably. Take our own Nikki Haley for example. For years, Gov. Haley has refused to meet with the press, to take phone calls from the media about whatever topics of concern are of importance at the time. Instead, she puts out Facebook posts. She's crafted a bubble in which she never has to address criticism, she never has to meet defeat, and she can always proclaim, "It's a great day in South Carolina." And while Haley has made several good decisions as of late, she remains a vane cheerleader who cannot face her critics face to face.

Today's activists and social justice warriors are also fans of this one-way approach to advancing their agendas. Consider the various social justice actions that have taken place across the nation over the past year, in particular the one at the University of Missouri, where a journalism teacher of all people advocated the forceable removal of a student photojournalist from a protest in a public space. While yesterday's activists longed to speak publicly about their cause, today it's common for protestors to refuse to talk to the press — like Nikki Haley or Donald Trump or Sarah Palin, they turn to social media to deliver their messages to their loyal supporters — and the adoption of this autocratic tactic has the potential to damage the very nature of public debate.

To make matters worse, many of today's college students support limiting free speech. According to a recent Knight Foundation study, 41 percent of African Americans and 33 percent of women believe that schools should be able to restrict "political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups," compared to 24 percent of whites and 21 percent of men. When it comes to allowing an open environment in which all viewpoints can be expressed, only 72 percent of women, 70 percent of blacks, and 72 percent of Democrats supported it, while 83 percent of men, 80 percent of whites, and 84 percent of Republicans do.

The media fares even worse. The study found that 32 percent of African Americans and 37 percent of women support banning the press from covering student protests, a view that is shared by only 19 percent of men and 24 percent of whites. Meanwhile, a whopping 53 percent of women and 54 percent of African Americans believe that it's OK to ban press coverage so that protestors can tell their stories exclusively through their own social media accounts. 

Based on all of this, it's obvious that we need to teach everyone a lesson in free speech and its importance in the governance of our country, our states, and our cities. Our public forums should be arenas filled with competing and contradictory ideas and political philosophies, and in this area the most rational argument, not the most emotional or the less offensive, should win the day.

In the end, all of our leaders — whether it's Nikki Haley or Keith Summey — must be willing to be challenged by the press and the public; they must be prepared to defend their positions. The same goes for the activists who are fighting to bring about societal change, no matter how much they believe the powers-that-be have secret plans to send them to the FEMA gulags. Their paranoia may play well with their supporters — and there's no doubt that it does — but to the rest of us, it just makes their arguments and their organization look weak, no matter how righteous their causes may be.

And when it comes to the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, there is no doubt that their cause is just. But if the group ever hopes to do more than publicly scold elected officials and local leaders, they'll remember that sometimes you have to listen to be heard.




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