‘Charleston is the home, the mother of racism’: Walter Scott and the AME church shooting
The white suspects are being held in an isolation wing of the same same jail: a four-storey fortified facility that sits next to a swampy river bend on the outskirts of Charleston, surrounded by razor wire and patrolled by police dogs.
The prisoner in cell 1140B at Charleston County detention center is Michael Slager, 33, the North Charleston police officer who was charged with murder 10 weeks ago, after video footage surfaced showing him shooting a black man, Walter Scott, in the back as he fled, unarmed.
On Thursday, Slager was joined in the Administrative Segregation Unit by Dylann Roof, less than 48 hours after the 21-year-old allegedly walked into a historically black church in the city, prayed with worshipers and then opened fire. He reloaded up to five times. By the end of his shooting spree nine congregants, all of them black, were dead. Their ages ranged from 26 to 87.
At the jail on Friday, after an emotionally charged bond hearing at which family victims stood up to express their grief but offer forgiveness, Mitch Lucas, the jail’s administrator, was frank in explaining why two of his newest and most notorious inmates were held in such close proximity.
“It’s so they don’t get killed before we get them to court,” he told reporters.
While Slager and Roof stand accused of very different crimes, both are charged with gunning down black victims in shootings that intensified a national debate about race in America.
The geographical proximity of the two tragedies, if nothing else, invites comparisons. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, where Roof killed his victims after reportedly telling friends he wanted to spark “a race war”, is less than 12 miles from the unremarkable grassy knoll where Slager was filmed shooting Scott five times in the back.
Technically, they were in separate cities – North Charleston, where Scott was killed, is its own jurisdiction. But it was the same, sprawling conurbation.
“The community has still not healed from what happened to Walter Scott,” said Tamika Myers, who works for a group that comforts victims of gun violence. “This is devastating.”
But Myers said she was uncomfortable about linking the two tragedies.
“There is a big racial issue here, and people need to open their eyes to that,” she said. “But these were two different deaths.”
‘It looked like he was trying to kill a deer or something’
In many ways, of course, Slager’s shooting of Scott is not comparable with the bloody massacre that unfolded at the Emanuel church on Wednesday.
Roof exhibited hallmarks of a white supremacist, posting an image of himself on Facebook in a jacket emblazoned with the flag of apartheid-era South Africa. After spending an hour with a Bible study group in the basement of the Emanuel church on Wednesday, he suddenly pulled a handgun from a fanny pack and opened fire.
When his victims pleaded with him to stop, Roof is said to have told them: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. You have to go.”
Before he left the church, according to a court warrant, Roof uttered “racially inflammatory” remarks to one of the survivors.
The incident in which Scott died, in stark contrast, spiralled from a routine traffic stop. There has been no suggestion of overt racist intent.
On 4 April, Slager spotted Scott driving with a broken tail light and pulled him over. When Scott fled the scene, the officer gave chase and a scuffle ensued. The 50-year-old wriggled free and was running away when he was shot in the back.
When eyewitness video of the incident emerged, it immediately prompted sharp questions about the value of black lives in America and the levels of state violence committed against African American men. Slager was caught on video removing his firearm, pausing, taking aim and then discharging his weapon eight times.
“When I saw it, I fell to my feet and my heart was broken,” Walter Scott’s father, also named Walter, told a TV reporter at the time. “It looked like he was trying to kill a deer or something, running through the woods.”
Charleston residents are divided over whether there are parallels between the two shootings. Some argue the consecutive tragedies are just a terrible coincidence.
“I don’t see the correlation, other than that innocent people have died and it gives our city the sense we will never be the same,” said William Dudley Gregorie, a soft-spoken city councilman and trustee of the Emanuel church, where he has worshipped all his life.
‘Charleston is the home of racism’
Others in the city contend there are obvious parallels that cannot be ignored, and say they speak to wider truths about racial inequality in America. Both shootings shocked the nation, and were immediately interpreted – in the court of public opinion, at least – through the prism of race.
McKayla Roberts, 21, was one of a handful of locals who appeared at the Emanuel church in the aftermath of the shooting in the same Black Lives Matter T-shirts they had wore to protests over Scott’s death three months ago.
Related: Charleston shooting echoes a painful history of attacks on black churches
“‘Black lives matter’ means more than police shouldn’t be killing us,” she said. “It means people shouldn’t be killing people, period.”
She was cautious not to to ascribe motives to either the shooting of Scott or the massacre at the Emanuel church, but said she was not surprised tragedies with such obvious racial dimensions should befall her city.
“Charleston is the home, the mother of racism,” she said. “Remember this is where they brought us Africans first.”
Charleston’s history, and much of its wealth, was born from the slave trade – some 70% of African slaves brought to America were shipped to Charleston’s port.
The Emanuel is the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore: in 1822, one of its founders, Denmark Vesey, was the ringleader of a planned slave revolt, one of at least two to emerge from the church. Martin Luther King was one of several civil rights leaders to visit the church in the 1960s.
The church massacre has brought historic racial tension to the fore again, rejuvenating a campaign to have the Confederate flag permanently removed from its position flying on the grounds of the state house. Leaders argue its very presence is a bitter reminder of South Carolina’s torrid history and say they will propose a bill, named after a victim of the massacre, in the state legislature for the flag’s removal.
Experts maintain that South Carolina has been unable to effectively deal with white supremacy and extremism, with Roof himself a prime example of its pervasiveness in certain sectors of society here.
“South Carolina has been a hotbed of pro-Confederate sympathy, running right up to the current date,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups. “This is just a state with a lot of racial problems and a lot of historical baggage.”
“At times, it’s been placed with the highest per capita rate of hate groups,” Beirich said, adding it is now home at to least 19 active hate groups.
One leader of Charleston’s local Black Lives Matter protest movement, Shakem Ahket, 35, said he believed there was “some connection” between racial tension sparked by Scott’s shooting and Roof’s decision to carry out his massacre in the town.
He pointed out how the pastor of the Emanuel church – a state senator named Clementa Pinckney, who was the most high profile of the nine victims – was a leading voice for justice following Scott’s death.
“I believe he was targeted,” said Ahket, saying the pastor’s response to Scott’s killing, and the history of the church, had to be more than a coincidence. “This would be the perfect place for a white supremacist to kind of send a message that they are in total opposition to any kind of black liberation.”
Pinckney campaigned for body cameras to be made mandatory for police and hosted town hall discussions about Scott’s death in the weeks following the shooting.
Pinckney’s cousin, Sylvia Johnson, has said that when Roof arrived at the church he specifically asked to meet the pastor, raising the possibility that the attack on Pinckney was somehow premeditated.
Roof has so far not explained his motives but on Saturday a website containing a manifesto apparently written by Roof came to light. That manifesto states: “I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet.
“Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
The author also claims to have been “truly awakened” by the case of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was killed by George Zimmerman in Florida three years ago.
After his arrest on Thursday in North Carolina, 250 miles away from Charleston, Roof reportedly confessed to the killings. His conversations with detectives have not been publicly released. Prior to his arrest, police said there was nothing to suggest he worked in coordination with any wider white supremacist network.
“Why that young man chose this church instead of our church across the way when we have meetings in the evening?” asked Cress Darwin, a white pastor at the nearby Second Presbyterian church. “Was it because they were black and this is such a visible and historic church? I don’t know. But I do know that if it was done to separate us further, it won’t work.”
Race in America
Many of the mourners who emerged on Charleston’s streets this week for a succession of vigils talked about how the church massacre has brought them together.
Scott’s death back in April itself brought legislative action, with a new law now mandating all police officers in South Carolina must wear body cameras .
“The body camera bill had no chance, there was no way in the world it was ever going to pass, then Walter Scott got killed and the paradigm shifted, and then all of a sudden what couldn’t be done became a done deal,” pastor Nelson B Rivers, from the National Action Network civil rights group, told a large vigil on Friday.
Yet on a much broader level there are few signs that the racial tensions that have risen to the fore over the past year have done much to heal the country’s historical divisions.
Scott’s death was just the latest in a long line of deaths of black men at the hands of police that have prompted a national conversation some say is unprecedented. The shooting of Michael Brown in August last year prompted rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, and protests that later spread across the country.
There was the police shooting of Tamir Rice , a 12-year-old gunned down by police as he played with a replica gun in Cleveland; and the death of Eric Garner , who died after being placed in a chokehold in Staten Island, New York. Both were caught on camera.
In the same month Slager shot Scott, Freddie Gray , a 25-year-old African American, died after being arrested in Baltimore. His death later led to rioting in the city. At the height of those disturbances Baltimore’s congressman, Elijah Cummings, walked into the epicentre to tell reporters they were witnessing “the civil rights cause for this generation”.
“America needs to wake up – big time,” he said.
In contrast, Barack Obama, America’s first black president, has struggled to speak about the country’s racial conflicts in a way that resonates on the ground. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that a majority of Americans believe race relations have become worse, not better, during Obama’s six years in the White House.
In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, on Thursday, Obama said it “obviously raises questions about a dark part of our history”.
“The good news,” he then added, “is I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship, indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.”
Comedian Jon Stewart, however, articulated in starker terms the frustration felt by many in America.
“I have nothing other than just sadness that once again we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other, and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal but we pretend doesn’t exist,” he said. “I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jackshit.”
He added: “Yeah. That’s us.”
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