AND JOHN BENSON
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — This industrial hub and port city in the deep South has become a center of protests and the deepening national discussion on how to fight police brutality and killings.
After being stopped by the cops April 4, allegedly for a broken taillight, Walter Scott, who had a bench warrant for unpaid child support, tried to run away. North Charleston cop Michael Slager chased him and they scuffled. The unarmed Scott broke free and resumed running. Slager shot Scott eight times in the back, then tried to cover it up.
Police and city officials were faced with immediate protest and a call for an independent investigation from Scott’s family, leaders of the International Longshoremen’s Association and community groups, in the context of spreading protests against police violence and rising labor resistance nationwide.
Then a cellphone video of the shooting taken by Feidin Santana, a barber on his way to work, was made public April 7. The video not only showed Slager shooting Scott in the back, but also dropping an object that looked like a stun gun near the body.
Santana said he feared cop retaliation, but decided to give the video to the Scott family, who released it.
Under the spotlight of national and international outrage and media attention, state police arrested Slager April 7 on murder charges and held him without bond. The next day the city fired him.
The day Slager was fired, Rodney Scott, Walter’s brother and a longshoreman, told the New York Daily News, “That was totally cold-hearted murder as far as I’m concerned.”
Protests, vigils and meetings continue almost daily. More than 1,000 people attended Walter Scott’s funeral April 11, opened to the public by the family.
Later that day 75 people rallied and marched to North Charleston City Hall in a protest organized by the NAACP, National Action Network and Black Lives Matter.
A debate is taking place at many of the actions on the need for discipline and to refrain from provocative acts. This keeps the focus on cop violence, as marchers take the moral high ground, and reduces the likelihood of police interference.
“This march has to be peaceful and nonviolent,” Michelle Felder, one of the organizers of the march to City Hall, told participants. “I know you young people are angry, and you should be, but we don’t want any trouble.”
Dwayne German, 56, a maintenance worker at The Citadel military college here, spoke at the rally about the death of his stepson, 19-year-old Denzel Curnell, in June 2014. Police officer Jamal Medlin claimed Curnell shot himself during a stop-and-frisk, and a state investigation ruled the death a suicide.
German rejects that. “If I didn’t speak out I would dishonor his memory,” he told the Militant.
T.J. Thomas, the brother of Nicholas Thomas, a Smyrna, Georgia, auto tire shop worker killed on the job by cops March 24, also spoke.
Cumulative impact of protestsSeveral hundred people, including North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers, attended an overflow service at the Charity Missionary Baptist Church April 12. Nelson Rivers, the church’s pastor and vice president of the National Action Network, invited NAN President Rev. Al Sharpton to speak. Sharpton, who called for body cameras for the cops and an independent police review board, heaped praise on Summey, saying it was remarkable that the first mayor to “do the right thing” was a white man in the deep South.
But Summey wasn’t responsible for Slager’s arrest. That was the result of the rise of broad protests against police brutality over the last year and their cumulative impact. They shine a spotlight on cases that once were swept under the rug and — when evidence like the video of the killing of Scott surfaces — force some punitive action by officials. And workers are gaining confidence their protests will get publicity and support.
Later that day 150 protesters gathered for a vigil at the field where Scott died. A memorial has sprung up there as dozens of people stop by to drop off flowers, cards and other remembrances. The mayor and police chief attended.
Residents in the majority Caucasian working-class neighborhood near where Scott was killed told the Militant that being stopped by cops for missing taillights or other minor infractions is common. “On Rivers Drive and Montague Avenue, you will get pulled over, more so if you’re Black,” Gladys Singleton, a seamstress, said, adding that at least five Black men have been killed by cops in recent years.
Longshoremen help lead protestsThe International Longshoremen’s Association in Charleston has a long history of struggle against the maritime bosses. When union members marched against the use of nonunion labor on the docks in 2000, hundreds of Charleston cops attacked them, then brought frame-up charges against union leaders. “We’re real familiar with police aggression,” ILA Local 1422 leader Leonard Riley said in a phone interview April 13.
Local 1422 was instrumental in helping organize the public response to Scott’s killing, including an April 7 press conference and a protest at City Hall the next day.
“We’re not overly impressed by the arrest and charges,” Riley said. “We’re more concerned now that they carry out a real prosecution.”
“Local 1422 will continue to stand up and speak out against injustice in any form, whether it is racial profiling, racial discrimination or as in this case racial homicide,” local President Kenneth Riley said in an April 9 statement on the ILA international website.
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