The Murder of Walter Scott

Against the Current, No. 176, May/June 2015

Malik Miah

NORTH CHARLESTON, SOUTH Carolina became the latest example of an unarmed Black man murdered by a white police officer. It happened on April 4, and the “normal” scenario of blaming the victim of his own death played out in the local media for several days.

The cop, Michael Slager, told the typical lie that he “feared” for his life after an alleged scuffle with Walter Scott, age 50. Scott was running away from his car that was stopped for a broken brake light when he was shot multiple times in the back. Slager then placed an object, evidently his own Taser gun, beside Scott’s body.

What happened next, however, was totally unexpected. An eyewitness came forward: Feidin Santana, a 23-year-old local barber who immigrated from the Dominican Republic, took out his mobile phone and videotaped the cop running down and shooting Scott, failing to give him CPR and planting the Taser by the body.

Scott, like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York, was treated as less than human. The video went viral online and on local and national newscasts. Then the mayor and police chief city decided to fire Officer Slager and arrest him for murder. He will now face a trial.

You may think this is normal for South Carolina police shootings. It isn’t. “[D]ata shows that the response to Slager’s case is a rare exception. Between 2010 and 2014, according to Columbia, South Carolina’s The State newspaper, at least 209 suspects were shot at by police in South Carolina, including 79 people who died. In only three of the 209 cases were officers investigated for misuse of force, and none have been convicted.

Among the suspects killed, 34 were black and 41 were white (in four cases the suspect’s race is unclear), and about half of all suspects shot were black, according to the data gathered by the State.” (April 8, Mother Jones)

African Americans are less than 13% of the U.S. population. Yet they are nearly 50% of those killed by the police. North Charleston has a population of 104,000, some 47% Black. The police force is 80% white.

An Immigrant’s Bravery

Santana, a U.S. permanent resident, hesitated before showing the video because he was concerned for his own safety. In an interview with MSNBC he said he considered erasing the video. Santana explained that at first he feared for retribution by the cops if he revealed the video. But after he saw the news that the man was dead and the cops’ spin, he took his phone to the family. Then it was shown to the police.

His fears reflect a common view of many if not a majority of Blacks about the police who claim to serve and protect the community. They see cops as an invading or occupying force. Parents teach their children at a young age how to avoid trouble when facing the police.

Few whites have this fear of cops; but most do fear unarmed Black men and boys. (Poll after poll shows this racial divide between African Americans and whites.)

There is no official account of cop shootings compiled by the federal government. The gun industry and lobby are opposed to any statistics on gun ownership or shootings. Yet a 2012 summary of local and state data shows that an average of one person is killed by cops, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes every 28 hours.

In almost in every case the investigation is internal and done by the police department with the cooperation of local prosecutors. There are no independent review boards with the power to indict or fire and arrest the killer cops.

The cops suffer little. They are placed on paid leave. The corporate media propagate the police story as fact, even portraying the victims as guilty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The murder charge against the North Charleston cop is the exception, only highlighting the reality of disproportionate police violence directed at African Americans. The editors of the New York Times (April 9) noted this discrepancy in the criminal justice system:

“The case underscores two problems that have become increasingly clear since the civic discord that erupted last year after the police killed black citizens in New York, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo. The first, most pressing problem is that poorly trained and poorly supervised officers often use deadly force unnecessarily, particularly against minority citizens. The second is that the police get away with unjustly maiming or killing people by lying about the circumstances that prompted them to use force.”

Black Lives Matter Movement

That’s exactly what the “Black Lives Matter” movement has argued since the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The cops are the judge, jury and executioner of unarmed Black men.

This new movement does not get the big media coverage it deserves, since liberal critics urge its leaders to focus on electoral politics. This is an old argument, rooted in derailing social movements for change. In fact, every major social change in law or policies was directly a byproduct of strikes and mass protests.

The new activists recognize that social media are key to its circulating the message and building a grassroots movement for fundamental change. The movement continues to expand despite the fact that cops in Ferguson, Staten Island and numerous other cities are allowed to continue their violence free from prosecution.

Less well known is the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement, as earlier African American movements did for the battles of the oppressed and discriminated, is influencing other communities to use the same language.

After the assassination of the three young Muslims in North Carolina, the families called it a hate crime and proclaimed “Muslim Lives Matter.” Muslims, like African Americans, know that whites and white Christians are treated differently by the law, by the FBI and Homeland Security.

The beginnings of a movement always start under the radar until it explodes. The reaction by the powers that be in North Charleston reflects this awareness. They are fully aware of the national and international dimensions of what happened in their town.

South Carolina’s long racist and slave history, its display of the Confederate flag on the state Capitol, and blatant discrimination toward African Americans, led many whites there to worry about a possible Black backlash if the cop was not arrested. Naturally, when no video proof is available that concern does not exist.

The example of Santana is proof that Blacks and others know that a central weapon against police violence is the public response. The use of videos, public protests and mass action is what gets some justice.

Going Forward

At an April 9 meeting in Oakland, California Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, and Cornell West, author of Race Matters, spoke of how the murder in South Carolina was not a surprise.

She added, referring to the fact that the cop was arrested, “Justice for one is not justice for all…. If this guy really goes down that means something is really happening. But they would need to continue that change and look at my dad’s case again.”

“You live in a society where Black lives have such a low priority that people think that you can just shoot them like a dog, go home and drink tea,” West said. “White supremacy is alive in the U.S., and we have to hit it head-on.” (“Killing was no surprise activists say,” April 10, San Francisco Chronicle)

The Justice Department’s report on Ferguson is read by some as a condemnation of police violence. I see it more as a way to cover up what really happened in Ferguson with a nod to concerns of the Black community. This is a weaker report than the many government reports — notably the Kerner Commission with its blunt discussion of “two Americas, one black and one white” — produced after the rebellions of the 1960s.

In attorney general Holder’s summary of the report, his main point is that the evidence did not support indicting police officer Wilson for killing Michael Brown. The Justice Department accepts the Wilson and police position that it was “self defense.” Second is how Ferguson used minor traffic arrests to raise money from targeted Blacks.

Third is that African Americans faced disproportionate force. Holder called it “poor policing.” Holder does acknowledge conscious and unconscious racial bias of the police, another nod to the grievances expressed by the protesters. But the real issue here is systemic institutional racism.

The historical origin of racism and national oppression is the capitalist system that promotes divisions along class and racial lines. The root cause of anti-Black and racial discrimination must be recognized and understood, and then acted upon.

The presence of a Black president, Black attorney general and other African Americans in high profile positions, while holding symbolic significance, as West noted, cannot be blinders to what must be done to overcome centuries of racial injustice.

May/June 2015, ATC 176