by Paul Bowers
The site of the shooting death of Walter Scott was quiet Wednesday morning. A simple memorial had been set up in the vacant lot in North Charleston: a wreath and a cross of flowers, a few votive candles in the place where state law enforcement officials say North Charleston Police Officer Michael T. Slager shot an unarmed black man in the back as he tried to run away following a traffic stop.
Neighbors say the vacant lot was a popular cut-through between residential Craig Road and bustling Rivers Avenue. Most of the homes on the block are vacant, but one resident, Monnie Morris, lives across the street from the scene and says the tenor of police interactions with civilians has changed in recent years. Morris says he has lived on Craig Road for 50 years, since before North Charleston was incorporated as a city, and recently he says a police officer stopped him while he was walking down the street and demanded to see identification.
"That's the way it is right now. Cops are too gung-ho," Morris says. "They just work the area too hard."
Meanwhile, outside North Charleston City Hall, protesters were gathering for an event organized by the activist group Black Lives Matter - Charleston. They held handmade signs that said "Back Turned, Don't Shoot," a variation on the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" slogan that gained popularity following last summer's police-involved shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Some wore shirts that said "I Can't Breathe," a reference to the death of unarmed black man Eric Garner as he was being held on the ground by a New York City police officer. The activists were drawing parallels, but the North Charleston case had one important distinction: Video evidence showed Slager shooting at Scott eight times as he ran away.
Nicole King, a North Charleston resident who called Scott her best friend, says she knew before the video came out that the officer's account — that he had shot Scott as Scott tried to wrest away his police Taser — was not true. The release of the video, which was captured by a bystander who remains anonymous, came as a relief, she says.
"I just thank God for the truth. I thank Him for being an all-time God," King said. Asked if she had any words for the person who took the video, she said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, God bless you."
Muhiyidin d'Baha, an organizer with Black Lives Matter - Charleston, rallied the crowd in front of City Hall, speaking into a megaphone before relocating to a stand of TV news station microphones. He described Scott's shooting death as being more than an isolated incident, speaking about a history of "harassment, profiling, and abuse" at the hands of North Charleston police "that we didn't have a video for."
"We're calling for a DoJ [Department of Justice] review of this whole institution because there have been decades of this," d'Baha said. The DoJ has said to CNN that its Civil Rights Division and the South Carolina U.S. Attorney's Office will work with the FBI to work on an investigation of the incident.
The crowd in front of City Hall included clergy, college students, local politicians, and members of labor organizing groups including the International Longshoremen's Association and Raise Up For $15, a fast-food workers' group. As speakers took turns at the microphones, they demanded more oversight of police actions via a citizens' review board, decried uneven enforcement against minorities, and called for increased African-American voter participation.
There was even a contingency of local high school students, some of whom left school with signed permission slips from their parents. William Pugh, a junior at Academic Magnet High School, was one of the students. He's spoken previously at a school board meeting decrying the scarcity of minority students at the district-wide magnet school in a county that is 29 percent black. According to Pugh, he knows of just one African-American student who was admitted for the coming school year.
Pugh was joined by his mother, Charlisa Pugh, who said she grew up in Alabama in the 1970s and sees little difference in race relations today.
"As a parent, you want to believe that things are getting better," Pugh says. "You want to believe that your boys won't experience what their father experienced, being pulled over in a police car and being treated rudely by a police officer. You want to believe that, but the reality is nothing's really changed."
One speaker at the rally, Rosalyn Prioleau, said her daughter had been handcuffed following a "simple stop" while driving to pick up her child two years ago. She invoked scripture as she called for more people to speak out.
"In the book of Ecclesiastes, it says there is a season and a time for everything under the heavens. This is a season not for us to be quiet. This is a season for us to speak out. We sit around and we talk, our voices are silent, but this is a season — this is our opportunity to speak out and let everybody know what's going on in North Charleston."
Slager was arrested Tuesday on a murder charge and has been denied bail. North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers and Mayor Keith Summey will hold a press conference in City Hall council chambers at 1 p.m. today to discuss the case.