Unity is a sacred word in Charleston. It rises and swells like the tide, giving buoyancy to spirits and lifting us beyond the depths of pain in dark waters. It cleans and heals in palms held tight in one another, love traversing circuitries of sweat. It is a bridge that connects us, a narrative of a city, and, sometimes, a code of conduct.
Last week, I felt what unity is and can be at Charleston Area Justice Ministry's annual Nehemiah Action Assembly. In the sanctuary of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, roughly 2,000 people of myriad faiths, races, and ages gathered to address issues that impede harmony in our city. For the second year in a row, CAJM chose to focus on racial bias in policing and call for an independent audit of the Charleston Police Department, which conducts the most public contact stops in the state, an issue that disproportionately affects Black residents: they are twice as likely to be stopped.
Six councilmen — North Charleston Councilman Mike Brown and Charleston City Councilmen William Dudley Gregorie, James Lewis, Robert Mitchell, Rodney Williams, and Keith Waring — attended the assembly. Not a single white city official from either North Charleston or Charleston showed up. Not the white mayors. Not the white council members. Not the white police chiefs.
Perhaps their failure to attend was due to scheduling conflicts. After all, the opening session of the West Ashley Revitalization Commission was also on April 24 (though I'd be interested in knowing when exactly the date for the WARC kick-off was decided upon, given that invitations for the Nehemiah Action Assembly were sent on January 4, giving officials a full three months to arrange their schedules accordingly). And Charleston County School Board members managed to show up for the Nehemiah Assembly after their own meeting that evening. Still, this doesn't explain the racial disparity in attendance.
Granted, the Nehemiah Action is uncomfortable: elected officials must answer a series of questions (which they are provided the week before) either "yes" or "no," after which they are given 30 seconds to further explain. If they answer "no," they will be pressed to clarify why. Many officials decline to attend because they view this format — one that allows for zero waffling — as akin to bullying. But this tense format is purposeful as it serves as a means of accountability — and the discomfort of this process in no way compares to the palpable heartbreak of the experiences of racial profiling shared by Black residents.
Mavis Huger spoke of being pulled over on Savannah Highway after leaving church. When the officer saw that she was female, he radioed in to call off backup ... for a broken tail light. She was then stopped again 500 feet up the road.
Dwayne German spoke of his 19-year-old son, Denzel Curnell, who died during an encounter with police in 2014 from a gunshot wound to the head; his death was ruled a suicide despite profoundly unsettling circumstances and gaps in evidence. Curnell was stopped at gunpoint by an officer simply because he was wearing a hoodie on a summer evening.
I have no such experiences to share, and I suspect the same goes for the white officials who failed to attend. And I think this speaks volumes about the state of unity in our city, particularly its misunderstanding and misuse by these white officials. Too often, we use unity as a means of disguising how our lives differ because of race, as an impediment to change, as a pat on the back for "good" behavior. We ignore obvious tensions, preferring instead the illusion of harmony. I am reminded of the Reverend King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which he declared the "Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom. . . the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.'" Justice is a necessary precursor to real unity, and the inability of white officials to put aside their own egos and discomfort in order to work towards mitigating injustices in our city undermines the unity narrative they co-opt, one they invoke as a means of undermining the concerns of non-white residents, one they use to silence dissent by implying that in pointing out the realities of racism in our city, people are somehow wrong, disruptive, divisive.
But I saw the real divide in their failure to show up and be accountable to their constituents. And that's not Charleston Strong, it's Charleston Wrong. Shame on them. There is no love or unity in such hypocrisy. Joyce Curnell — who was arrested while medically vulnerable and died in custody at Al Cannon Detention Center because jailers deprived her of water — deserved better. Walter Scott derserved better. Denzel Curnell deserved better. We all deserve better.
Jessie Parks is a lifelong South Carolinian and founding member of a writers cabal comprised of "unfuckable femanazis that migrated from Ohio." Predictably, she really likes cats.