Grassroots organizing shapes North Charleston's response to police killing of Walter Scott

A protest at North Charleston City Hall on April 8, 2015 following the murder indictment of police officer Michael Slager for the shooting death of Walter Scott, an unarmed African American. The city's decentralized network of grassroots political activists is a key reason events unfolded so differently there than after police killings of unarmed black men in communities in the North and Midwest. (Photo by Kerry Taylor.)

By Kerry Taylor

The city of North Charleston, South Carolina, has received strong praise for its handling of police officer Michael T. Slager's fatal shooting of 50-year-old African American Walter Scott during an April 4 traffic stop. According to various media commentaries, the city's quick response saved North Charleston from the outbreaks of vandalism and clashes with law enforcement that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, following the August 2014 death of black teenager Michael Brown. Like Scott, Brown was unarmed and shot repeatedly by a white police officer.

Within three days of Scott's death, the North Charleston police department fired Slager and turned the investigation over to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). Charleston County Chief Prosecutor Scarlett Wilson charged Slager with murder; if convicted he will serve 30 years to life in prison. Mayor Keith Summey lauded his city's (and his own) handling of the Scott case. "We admitted there was a screw-up on our part," Summey said. "We're moving forward from there." Speaking at a memorial service in North Charleston, National Action Network founder, the Rev. Al Sharpton joined the praise team when he observed that "in the Deep South, a mayor and police chief did what we couldn't get mayors in the North and the Midwest to do." The celebratory backslaps continued throughout the month after orderly and disorderly protests rocked Baltimore in response to the death of another black suspect, Freddie Gray, while in police custody. "Hopefully the city of Baltimore can come together and pull itself together the way North Charleston was able to do," remarked SiriusXM radio host Joe Madison during an April 27 "town hall" broadcast from North Charleston.

More discerning observers have argued that Summey and police officials were forced to act by the release of a damning bystander video that showed Slager firing eight shots at Scott's back as he fled the scene of the traffic stop. The attempted cover-up, which began with Slager's misleading dispatches from the crime scene and continued with disparaging characterizations of Walter Scott, was thwarted. Moreover, any decisiveness on Summey's part was informed by his fears of civil unrest along the lines of what had taken place in Ferguson, given the North Charleston's police department's alarming record of human rights abuses. In that light, North Charleston's response should be understood not in contrast to Ferguson but in the context of Ferguson and a national upsurge of protest against racist policing.

At the local level, North Charleston's response was shaped by the emergence of a decentralized network of political activists who have been organizing around progressive causes, including labor rights and economic justice, LGBTQ equality, and racial disparities in policing. This network of activists sprang into action just hours after Scott's killing to offer a counter-narrative to the official version of events. They provided victims of police violence an outlet to express their pain and anger by organizing demonstrations, speak outs, and cultural events across the region. And they have carried out a range of protest activities aimed at securing reform. Their collective efforts at movement building, while diffuse and sometimes contradictory, represent an overlooked aspect of the Walter Scott story that has local political significance and strong national resonances.

Charleston-area activists, including representatives of the North Charleston branch of the NAACP and the National Action Network, as well as members of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422, were notified of Scott's killing within hours of its occurrence. Scott's younger brother is a longshoreman, and the Scott family has lifelong ties to ILA leaders. The following day, a small group of activists joined family members for a vigil and press conference at the site of Scott's death and challenged the police department's version of events. In remarks that were published in the Charleston daily newspaper, the Post and Courier, Pastor Thomas Dixon questioned the use of force for a routine traffic stop and demanded transparency in the police investigation. Family members spoke of Scott's fine character to counter early reports that he was killed during a struggle over the officer's Taser and that he was delinquent in paying child support. Word also spread among those in attendance of the existence of the incriminating video.

The activists' rapid response was informed by their years of experience in dealing with similar incidents. The NAACP branches of North Charleston and Charleston have the longest histories in this regard, but in recent years they have been joined by Pastor Dixon and National Action Network representative James Johnson. Working together, if sometimes uneasily, Johnson, Dixon, and NAACP leaders have been tireless in their efforts to combat racial disparities in policing and police abuse. They have also decried the high incidence of violent crime that plagues the region's low-income communities and have encouraged residents to work with police investigators as one crime-fighting strategy.

Dixon's public profile and that of the group he leads, the Coalition (People United to Take Back Our Community), has risen since the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Dixon, a Navy veteran and ex-offender, organized a protest on the steps of the U.S. Custom House in Charleston that drew a diverse lot of students, neighborhood activists, and white progressives. Since then he has been a fixture at demonstrations for improved public transportation and education, Medicaid expansion, and organized labor. His unflagging energy and contagious enthusiasm led to his election last year as president of the Charleston chapter of the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE), which supports workers' struggles and was an outgrowth of the drive to unionize J.P. Stevens textile plants in the 1970s. Dixon's dual leadership of the Coalition and CAFE has strengthened ties between his base of mostly African-American neighborhood activists and CAFE's core of labor activists and white progressives.

A police shooting eight months before Walter Scott's death represented a second key moment in the formation of Charleston's community of resistance. On June 20, 2014, 19-year-old African American Denzell "Jaba" Curnell was shot during a scuffle with an off-duty Charleston police officer. Curnell's death was ruled a suicide and SLED closed its investigation of the case, but many voiced their skepticism of the official version of events due to missing minutes on a security camera recording and eyewitness testimonies that contradicted the officer's report. Charleston Branch NAACP President Dot Scott railed at the city for its poor handling of the Curnell case, as other activists jockeyed, sometimes awkwardly, for camera time.

Meanwhile, African-American students and young workers, those most affected by racially discriminatory policing, grew increasingly vocal and visible in condemning police violence. Leaders of Charleston Raise Up, which since the fall of 2013 has been organizing local fast food workers for a $15 minimum wage and union representation, began demanding "Justice for Jaba" along with their demands for better pay and respect from their employers. In the summer of 2014, they carried Curnell's story to their national convention in Chicago and a subsequent gathering of labor and civil rights activists in Goldsboro, North Carolina. There they conferred with other activists who shared their concerns regarding brutal and racist police practices.

Youth participation in the local movement surged in the final weeks of 2014 on the heels of the grand jury decisions not to charge police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner of New York City. On Dec. 13, about 200 protesters came together under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter Charleston for a spirited two-mile march from the city's historically African-American East Side through its white-as-rice historic district. The mood of the gathering was at various times somber, angry, musical, and carnival. With young people assuming most of the lead roles, march participants reflected a diversity that is generally lacking in Charleston's public culture.

In the weeks after the march, Black Lives Matter held several well-attended organizational meetings at the Longshoremen's hall, which is located on an industrial though increasingly trendy stretch along the Cooper River where enslaved and free African Americans have loaded and unloaded ships for more than three centuries. This was the kind of organizing moment for which the members of ILA Local 1422, an all-black union with a tradition of labor militancy, constructed their union hall 15 years ago. Every day, three to five times a day, several hundred dockworkers line up according to skill and seniority to await assignment to an incoming or outgoing ship. The hiring process is the hall's primary function, and the union fought long and hard for control of that process. But the union also included in their building plans ample meeting space to nurture Charleston's democratic movements. That choice represented both a payback to a community that had stood with the union during a protracted struggle for its survival in 2000-2001 as well as an investment in Charleston's future.

For Black Lives Matter Charleston, meeting at the union hall provided broad exposure to the groups and initiatives that travel in ILA 1422's orbit. Green Party supporters, South Carolina Progressive Network members, longshoremen, and peace and labor activists joined Black Lives Matter in its early days. Its informal structure, open meetings, and welcoming culture posed few barriers to entry. Like Occupy Charleston before it, Black Lives Matter also proved to be appealing to politically disaffected young people--professionals, artists, and especially students. Small clusters of highly committed students from the College of Charleston, the Medical University of South Carolina, Trident Tech, and the Charleston School of Law were spurred to action at levels rarely seen in Charleston since the 1960s. The participation of high school students from Academic Magnet and the Charleston County School for the Arts was also notable. Unlike Occupy Charleston, Black Lives Matter developed around a base of African Americans from a wide range of backgrounds.

Black Lives Matter Charleston's leadership has been decentralized, but Muhiyidin d'Baha, a musician with graduate training in the social sciences, quickly emerged as the face of the movement. As a public speaker, d'Baha has charisma. He conveys the fear and the fury of those who have been victimized by police harassment and violence. He does not shy away from confrontation. In private he's soft spoken and as a good organizer asks lots of questions. D'Baha and the handful of associates with whom he is close have also been aggressive in drawing new people into Black Lives Matter and encouraging them to contribute according to their skills and interests. In doing so they have embodied elements of what historian and educational reformer Charles Payne has referred to as the "organizing tradition," which focuses on building the capacity of oppressed people to lead their own struggles for justice. Payne distinguishes organizing from the act of "mobilizing" for large-scale, short-term spectacles that are often centered around a single charismatic personality. The organizing tradition is a democratic alternative to the hierarchical and authoritarian strains that run deep in many aspects of American culture, including the black church.

At the time of Walter Scott's death then, the pieces were in place for a robust fightback. When the video of the shooting went viral on April 7, local activists kicked into overdrive. Protests, vigils, speak outs, and press conferences in Charleston and North Charleston were nearly continuous. During an April 8 protest about 200 people attended a speak out and protest at the North Charleston City Hall to demand police reforms, such as the formation of an independent citizens review board with subpoena powers. The reporters and camera crews who had swarmed into the area over the previous few days were there in full force as well. Their presence, especially that of high-profile media figures like CNN's Anderson Cooper, created tension within the movement as activists split their focus between communicating with supporters and delivering sound bites to the press.

As the rally broke up, a small group of protesters led by d'Baha briefly disrupted traffic on a nearby street; later that afternoon they interrupted a city press conference. D'Baha shouted questions at the mayor and the police chief and led chants through a bullhorn. That protest and a street blockade the following week troubled some activists who mis-used the rhetoric of Kingian nonviolence to discipline Black Lives Matter. National Action Network representative Johnson expressed his displeasure with their combative tactics and warned them to mind their tone. "I told them they would not be sitting down at the table (with officials) with that kind of language and that kind of demonstration and disrupting traffic," Johnson told a reporter. "Their purpose would not be met. I think they realized they had to stop."*

That message may or may not have been received. At a historically white Charleston restaurant a few days later, a dozen radical students and activists interrupted Sunday brunch to serve an off-the-menu message of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. A few customers expressed support, but most listened in guilty, angry, or perplexed silence as protesters chanted and sang for several minutes before exiting. Several of the same protesters, a few of whom are affiliated with the queer liberation group Southerners on New Ground, shut down traffic for 20 minutes on a major Charleston bridge on May 6. They demanded an end to "state violence against the black community of greater Charleston" and greater public input into the Scott investigation.

While Black Lives Matter Charleston's core leaders did not organize the brunch or bridge protests, they offered expressions of solidarity and encouraged attendance at a vigil outside the detention center where four bridge protesters were held before posting bail. Black Lives Matter has embraced the idea that a diversity of tactics can be a  movement strength. The struggle will continue on many fronts, requiring multiple lines of attack from organizations with varied structures and strategies. While Black Lives Matter is the most inclusive and democratic of the local police protest groups, its lack of structure may hinder it from moving from the politics of moral suasion to the politics of reform. In this regard, leaders of the NAACP, National Action Network, and the Coalition may be better positioned to negotiate with the city of North Charleston, though their bargaining strength will be weak unless they harness the threat of further disruptions instigated by Black Lives Matter and its associates.

Recognizing that their differences can be confusing and discouraging to supporters, Charleston activists have recently attempted to improve their level of coordination and to sharpen their efforts around a concrete program of reform. Even with perfect cooperation, it will be an uphill battle. Summey is up for reelection in the fall but faces weak and divided opposition. Moreover, his political capital and that of other area political leaders has been fortified by emerging economic and demographic trends.

These include the rapid expansion of health care services and the knowledge economy, as well as an increase in global trade that has led to an influx of white professionals and wealth into the region. The trends show few signs of abating. As a result, Charlestonians with money and resources will continue to defeat the poor and their allies in battles for access to jobs and housing and over control of public schools, transportation, neighborhoods, and land. New flash points will arise. Looking forward to this long period of struggle, the new activists who have emerged in the wake of the deaths of Denzell Curnell and Walter Scott and the relationships they have forged might be the movement's most enduring legacy.

See more of Kerry Taylor's photos of organizing in North Charleston before and after the Scott shooting here:


Kerry Taylor teaches U.S. history at The Citadel. He is a board member of the Institute for Southern Studies and member of the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE).