A good friend of mine, a well-respected black Christian leader, called it a lynching. But with a gun, and not a rope. I agree.
I’m talking about the shooting of Walter Scott, a black man in North Charleston, S.C., who was shot and killed by white police officer Michael Slager. Black citizen Walter Scott — who was pulled over for a malfunctioning brake light — was shot several times in the back as he fled Slager after a brief tussle. Scott was unarmed, running away, and at least 17 feet away from Slager when Slager opened fire and shot him in the back. After killing him, Slager dropped his Taser next to Scott’s body, which the prosecutors allege was an effort to make the case that he acted in self-defense.
The whole nation saw an unarmed black man running away from a white police officer who shot him in the back five times after firing eight shots at him.
How do we know all of these details that set this case apart from too many other similar cases? The shooting and its immediate aftermath were captured by a passing citizen, Feidin Santana, on his smartphone, in a graphic video that shocked the nation. The video clearly documents what happened — contrary to the words of Slager, who tried to justify what he did by claiming his own fear of being in danger — a common defense in officer-involved shootings.
But this time, even many people who reflexively defend police officers when these killings happen, cited the video as damning evidence against the officer and called for his prosecution. Police officers are rarely charged in officer-involved shootings, but Charleston County charged the white man with the murder of a black man and, based almost entirely on the video evidence, it was widely believed that the prosecution had a very strong case. The whole nation saw an unarmed black man running away from a white police officer who shot him in the back five times after firing eight shots at him. The video completely contradicted the white officer Slager’s account of what happened; it caught him killing the black man. So they had to have a trial.
Why do I keep racializing this — you might ask — repeatedly reminding us the police killer was white and the man killed was black? Does anybody in America really believe that if Walter Scott had been a white man, that this white cop would have killed another white man running away unarmed? We must speak to this. Our churches must speak to this.
The jury had 11 white members and one black member. On Monday, the judge declared a mistrial in the case after jurors could not agree unanimously on a verdict. The decision came three days after jurors signaled that they were within one vote of returning a guilty verdict against Slager, who could have been convicted of murder or voluntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Walter L. Scott.
Judge Clifton Newman didn’t say whether the jury deadlock came down to one white man, but we now know it did. The jury’s foreman, the panel’s only black member, said in a note that the group was mostly in agreement that Slager should be convicted: “It’s just one juror that has the issues.” The foreman also said: “That juror needs to leave. He is having issues.” These are the “issues” that have kept white jurors from prosecuting crimes against black men throughout our history — from lynching to police killings. And one has to wonder whether the political change we are going through in this country gives white people more permission to express those “issues.”
This case clearly shows how difficult it still is, and how it might become even more difficult, to get a mostly white jury to unanimously agree to convict a police officer for shooting a person of color.
Of course, a mistrial is not the same as an acquittal, and the prosecution says it fully intends to try Slager again. Chris Stewart, a lawyer for the Scott family, called the mistrial “a missed opportunity for justice” and pledged that “the fight isn’t over, that was Round 1” — reminding people that Slager also faces federal charges. Again, Stewart said, “We all saw what he did. We all saw what happened.”
This case clearly shows how difficult it still is, and how it might become even more difficult, to get a mostly white jury to unanimously agree to convict a police officer for shooting a person of color. Even the Charlotte County prosecutor, Charlotte Wilson, “acknowledged from the beginning of the trial that she thought Mr. Scott had contributed to his own death by running away,” according to the New York Times. Wilson said, “If Walter Scott had stayed in that car, he wouldn’t have been shot.” She also said, “He paid the extreme consequence for his conduct. He lost his life for his foolishness.” The Times suggested:
Ms. Wilson’s concession, which she made during her opening statement, was something of an effort to immunize the prosecution from a theory that the defense advanced throughout the trial: that Mr. Scott had acted in ways that made Mr. Slager fear for his life. In his closing argument, Mr. Savage [the police officer’s lawyer] said Mr. Scott had left the officer with little choice after he ‘made decisions to attack a police officer.’
Apparently, the Charleston prosecution felt the need to shame the victim as part of its explicit strategy to appeal to an overwhelmingly white Southern jury, which says a lot about how people of color are still viewed and valued by many in 2016, as well as the extent to which white America still uncritically engages law enforcement — when it is applied to people of color. Some things don’t seem to change and, after the election, they may now change even less.
Wilson now says, “We will try Michael Slager again,” and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley issued a statement saying the same.
But Howard Friedman, a civil rights lawyer and former president of the National Police Accountability Project said it well: “The fact that out of 12 people you would find one person so prejudiced in favor of police is saddening, not shocking, because I know that kind of prejudice in favor of police is out there.”
After all the protests in Ferguson, Missouri State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, said the outcome in Charleston had left her “hopeless.” She explained, “When you have the video that shows that Walter Scott is running away and still you have a mistrial?” We shall see what happens.
Until we see police officers held accountable for what they do to black men and women — even when what they do is on tape — it will be hard to find the hope in the hopelessness.
Until we see police officers held accountable for what they do to black men and women — even when what they do is on tape — it will be hard to find the hope in the hopelessness. Perhaps our resistance as Christians, especially white Christians, to America’s history of white law enforcement not obeying the law with respect to our black citizens may be the only hope we have for a while. And that resistance means standing up and speaking out if we are truly disciples of Christ and “ministers of reconciliation” that we say we believe in.
The black church leader I referenced at the outset of this piece is Joshua Dubois and he just tweeted this: “Public silence from church leaders on #WalterScott is like whistling past a lynching.” At a national retreat for church leaders this week, I heard other African Americans say “Most heartbreaking for me is the silence of my white allies,” during and after the election. That silence cannot go on, especially from white Christians.
It’s not enough simply to be against racism; to be sad and even mad about statements that white politicians make, or events that occur like the mistrial in Charleston, or all the hateful verbal and physical assaults against people of color that have been on the rise since the election. Whites are not allies unless they speak up and out, clearly and directly, to the words and incidents which are ongoing and will likely now increase. If whites are silent and just keep watching, we are neither allies nor even responsible Christians. It is time to speak, stand, act, risk, and even sacrifice. Whites need to fight racism alongside their brothers and sisters, but especially speak in our white world—around our family dinner tables, in our schools and churches, in our media, and in our politics. White allies need to speak and act against racism in our white worlds. There can be no more whistling past the lynchings.