by Paul Bowers
Members of the activist organization Black Lives Matter Charleston say they came under surveillance in the weeks following the April 4 shooting of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer.
Black Lives Matter formed in December 2014 in the wake of the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Shortly after the Scott shooting, it was one of the first local organizations to call for a citizens' review board to oversee the actions of the North Charleston Police Department.
Black Lives Matter Charleston organizer Muhiyidin d'Baha says the group had to introduce a no-cameras policy at its meetings after the Scott shooting when newcomers started showing up and snapping pictures.
"We were aware that there were new people coming into the meetings that were asking a bunch of questions," d'Baha says. "We were aware that there were people coming into our initial meetings right after Walter Scott that were just taking pictures."
Recently released emails from North Charleston city employees show that the actions of protest groups including Black Lives Matter Charleston were being monitored by the S.C. Law Enforcement Division (SLED) and the American Red Cross, both of which sent emails to city staff informing them about upcoming organizational meetings and the arrival of Ferguson, Mo., residents at a hotel in Summerville. D'Baha says he does not know if the newcomers at the meetings were working for a law enforcement agency, but the effect of their presence was palpable.
"These things were definitely happening and definitely scared people away with the knowing or not knowing of who was behind these cameras and what their intention was," d'Baha says. "There was a lot of fear, and there's still a lot of fear, among the people that need to rise up right now."
North Charleston Police Department spokesman Spencer Pryor says the department did not send officers to monitor Black Lives Matter Charleston meetings or to attend the meetings in plainclothes. When asked if NCPD monitored the actions of protest groups on social media, Pryor wrote in an email interview, "Social media sites are often monitored by law enforcement agencies." Pryor notes that this is not an uncommon practice, since it is used by potential employers and others.
Brandon Fish, a member of Black Lives Matter Charleston, says he was often aware of police presence at both public and private meetings of the organization. "We knew they were following us around. It was just a question of who in our group was working for the police department," Fish says.
Late on the night of April 12, Fish says the organization welcomed some Ferguson residents who had traveled by bus to participate in protests in North Charleston. The group convened at a friend's barbershop on Remount Road, near the site of the Scott shooting, to share a meal and conversation. Around 10:40 p.m., he says, they noticed a Chevrolet Impala idling in the parking lot and walked over to see who was inside.
According to Fish, they found a North Charleston Police Department officer sitting in the car. "We asked him what he was doing, and he said he was working traffic," Fish says.
Currently, d'Baha says Black Lives Matter Charleston has several initiatives in the works:
• Your Time Is Up, a voter registration and education campaign that will be "pushing out information" about North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey
• Black Minds Matter, a series of "liberation schools" that seek to "dismantle white supremacist attitudes in the minds of black youth"
• Black Business Matters, a social-media push to advertise for black-owned businesses in the area
• Project We Are Watching You, a campaign to capture video footage of interactions between police officers and civilians
Black Lives Matter Charleston is also a co-sponsor of Days of Grace, a political conference and rally planned for Sept. 5-6 in Wragg Square and organized by the International Longshoremen's Association. D'Baha says his group wants to continue the momentum from events like the unity chain that formed on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge following the Emanuel AME church shooting.
"We need to take this unity off of the bridge and find some really substantial action to actually move the indicators of economic injustice, quality education, criminal justice reform, and moving these things forward together," d'Baha says. "We are hoping that Charleston can enjoy a grace period where we actually move these things forward."