If you’re reading this column, there’s a good chance that you’re either in Charleston or a native of the city, so the following shouldn’t be news to you: On April 4 Walter L. Scott, a 50-year-old black man, was shot in the back by North Charleston Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager.
Slager initially stated that he and Mr. Scott got into a scuffle and that the officer “feared for his life,” as Mr. Scott had gotten control of the patrolman’s Taser. And that was the story he and his lawyer stuck with until April 6 when a video of the incident, shot by a then-unidentified bystander, was released and quickly went viral. Slager’s lawyer has since dropped his client and the officer charged with murder.
This was all news to me as I spent the first weekend of April in a remote part of Tennessee, where cell phone coverage is nonexistent — but to quote the Civil Rights heroine Fannie Lou Hamer, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
This is a sentiment that I’m sure I share with many individuals, regardless of race. But unless you’re a black man in America, there’s no way you could fully grasp the fervor in which this statement, and Scott’s death, weighs upon my brain. It’s like me telling one of my pregnant coworkers that I can personally identify with everything their bodies are going through. While I certainly can sympathize, there can be no true understanding of their struggles.
Not only is my heart heavy with the loss of yet another black man by the hands of those sworn to protect me, but I have the arduous task of working at an alternative middle school comprised mostly of black kids who already have an extreme distrust for most authority figures, especially the police. The murder of Mr. Scott has done nothing to improve those relations, and as an educator, I’m doing all I can to be up-front with them about what’s going on.
Many of my students think that this is an open-and-shut case. There is video evidence that directly disputes Slager’s account of the situation, after all. And video evidence, plus a murder charge, equals a conviction right? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
I’ve told them that on New Year’s Day 2009, there was video showing Oscar Grant III handcuffed and lying facedown on the ground when he was fatally shot by Bay Area Rapid Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle. Mehserle was charged with second-degree murder but only convicted of involuntary manslaughter. In the end, he only served about a year and a half in prison.
I’ve also talked to them about how, in July 2014, New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo was recorded choking a black man by the name of Eric Garner to death. Mind you, the NYPD had a strict “no chokeholds” policy on its books, not to mention the fact that Mr. Pantaleo had been sued multiple times for misconduct prior to this event. Regardless, a grand jury cleared the officer of any wrongdoing.
Then to really bring it home, I showed them the video of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland who was fired at after police arrived to investigate a 911 call of a juvenile playing with what was believed to be a fake pistol (it was). The officers involved were put on restricted duty during the investigation of the case. Timothy Loehmann, the man who shot and killed Tamir, has yet to be formally charged with anything. Tamir is the same age as a lot of the kids I work with, and his case, more than the others, truly illustrates that we still have a long way to go.
Yes, Mayor Keith Summey and Chief Eddie Driggers have shown a united front by firing Mr. Slager, meeting with the family of the deceased, and promising transparency throughout this process, but seriously, would you expect them to do anything other than that? Neither one of them want what happened in Ferguson, Mo., to happen here in North Charleston, and I don’t blame them. Regardless, that doesn’t mean they should be awarded a medal for doing their job.
And yes, it’s promising that Mr. Slager was charged with murder, but as I explained to my students, charges do not equal a conviction. We know little about what prompted Mr. Scott to flee for his life and what went down before Feidin Santana turned on his camera. That unknown can become a huge turning point in this investigation and could, in reality, offer the opportunity for Mr. Slager to be set free. We’ve been down this road before when justice was not served for the slaughtered — Mike Brown anyone? — so forgive me for appearing jaded.
But you know what really bothers me? I’m sickened by the thought that before this video was released, a lot of people were ready to vilify Walter Scott based solely on the inaccurate testimony of a man bent on self-preservation. Seriously, look at the early comments left on the Walter Scott shooting stories prior to the release of Mr. Santana’s video. Even though no one knew what actually took place, many Charlestonians were eager to jump on the “Walter Scott was evil” bandwagon. Three days later, those same people were suddenly happy to see Mr. Slager behind bars. Funny how that works.
While I am sick and tired of seeing these things taking place, I vow to stay alert, watching the Slager case as it develops so that I can answer my students’ questions. I will also tell them that we should use our energy to send our blessings to the Scott family instead of directing hate towards Mr. Slager. However, I must also be prepared for the possibility that this case might not end the way my students and I think it should.
So if Mr. Slager ends up going free, and you have an idea of how I can tell my black students that their lives really do matter, please hit me up. I’ll need all the help I can get.