Most of Charleston’s 5 million annual guests are usually looking for a glimmer of the past. The charming sight of a horse trotting around a public square with the likeness of a man who defended a “positive good” standing inside of it. While some try to avoid being slapped in the face by the symbolism, many residents dutifully execute their roles as hosts in this exclusionary utopia.
“Charleston just doesn’t want to face the issue, we want to be polite and pretend it’s not a problem,” says Unitarian Church in Charleston member Suzanne Hardie about a City Council meeting on July 20 in which black council members shared stories of being unfairly targeted by law enforcement.
Politeness translates into willful ignorance for many watching the horse-drawn carriages go by. They’re the ones who have to live in a city that can feel like it’s left them behind — both a consequence of the past and an inconvenience of the present.
Before moving into a public housing development on Allway Street in May 2015, Angla Washington struggled with years of homelessness and drug addiction. After spending four years on a Charleston Housing Authority waiting list, she says she now lives in a unit infested with cockroaches. (The Housing Authority claimed to have finally “resolved the issue” on Monday.) Her rent of $438 per month, before it was recently adjusted to $0 after she lost her job as a hotel dishwasher last month, was too high for a supposedly accessible housing option.
Washington, 51, doesn’t drive. Her voucher for Section 8 housing has expired, as she has no way to get around the city to check out the few landlords that accept the vouchers.
Still, she thanks her lucky stars for the tourists. The fact that the city cares about their convenience has helped her survive.
“Mayor Riley made sure to have tourist buses that go through all areas of downtown Charleston,” Washington says. “One of these buses happens to come by the projects, so I could catch the bus free to work.”
For residents like Washington, there’s nothing idyllic about the past or the present.
Her testimony moved Hardie and others to push the issue of housing to the top of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry’s agenda. On Nov. 13, close to 60 percent of members at the annual Community Problems Assembly voted to devote 2018 to the issue of adequate and affordable housing. A week before that, Charleston voters approved a $20 million affordable housing bond.
The justice ministry, an apt name for a religious organization that has also become a sort of auxiliary city organ, is arguably the biggest organized activist group in the area. The 28 member organizations include white and black Charlestonians from synagogues, mosques, churches, and even secular organizations like the College of Charleston. This past April, the group’s annual Nehemiah Action Q&A session with city leaders drew over 2,000 people.
The news that CAJM has chosen to move on from racial discrimination in policing — its marquee issue for the past two years — is likely to move public discourse in a different direction through 2018.
“That was actually unusual to do the same issue for two years,” says CAJM volunteer Mavis Huger.
But the fight against racial discrimination at the hands of law enforcement, which has picked up steam as smartphones and social media make it easier to capture and disseminate injustices as they happen, is far from over. In a 2016 study conducted by Harvard economics professor Roland G. Fryer Jr., he found New York City police officers to be 17 percent more likely to use their hands on blacks than on whites when conducting stop-and-frisk operations.
According to CAJM, blacks in the Charleston area are targeted at rates of up to three times as much as whites. These seemingly unjust stops can lead to unnecessary stress and tension for those segments of the community. On Nov. 2, members of CAJM left a Public Safety Committee meeting held at City Hall feeling dispirited. Black council members and guests all pressed for a firm more experienced in racial bias to lead a police department audit, while most of the white council members, including Mayor Tecklenburg, leaned against it.
“Coming out of the Nehemiah Action last spring when all of our black leaders were present and none of our white leaders were present, there was real clarity about which voices were being listened to and which voices were being engaged in this issue,” says CAJM member Stephanie Alexander, a rabbi at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim.
On Monday, the Public Service Committee voted unanimously to search for a new firm to audit the Charleston Police Department. This is a tentative win for CAJM and other activist groups that have called for a more experienced auditor since Novak Consulting was hired for the job in February.
Still, the community has other problems. The lack of affordable housing kept coming up at CAJM listening sessions held throughout the fall. At coffee shops, in houses, and in places of worship, people like Washington shared housing horror stories that left listeners shaken.
“We’re still committed to (racial discrimination in policing),” says CAJM co-president and City Paper columnist Rev. Jeremy Rutledge. “We’re not going to call public officials to appear [at the Nehemiah Action] again, but we’re going to keep going to City Council meetings, keep pressing, and keep doing the work.”
Rutledge moved to Charleston in the fall of 2012 to work at the Circular Congregational Church. At the same time, CAJM was hosting its first informal listening sessions. Rutledge, who is white, noticed a clear disparity between blacks and whites upon his arrival.
“I remember when I first walked through downtown there where white people in carriages taking tours — this romanticized antebellum place — then I walked through an area of public housing and, for a minute, everybody was black,” Rutledge says.
Years of noticeable frustration with the options for low-income and minority renters have made affordable housing a topic of interest.
“The segregation is not legal,” Rutledge says. “But it still is.”
CAJM has undergone its share of criticism based on its conduct and tactics. City officials are initially asked to give “yes” or “no” answers at the Nehemiah Action. Some officials complain of being drowned out by jeers or not listened to. Members maintain that yes or no answers provide much-deserved clarity to struggling communities.
“People have been amazed by how evasive some of our public officials are,” Rutledge says. “Every time we bring up a subject of suffering, the subject gets changed to whether or not we’re rude.”
In the meantime, CAJM’s three full-time employees and army of volunteers will keep tabs on previous years’ issues through task forces and steering committees. So far, they have been able to salvage preschool spots for at-risk children after continuing talks with the Charleston County School District, and according to Charleston Police Department data provided by the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, public contacts with African Americans in which no citations or arrests were made have dropped from 1,307 in April-May 2016 to 959 in April-May 2017, thanks in part to CAJM’s relentlessness.
Washington hopes CAJM can bring some of that fighting spirit to her personal housing plight. She says that her building was power-washed thanks to a connection she made at her church, who promptly called Washington’s building management to ask about maintenance.
“When you’re poor, you gotta jump through a whole bunch of hoops just to get a little something,” she says.
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