Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot eight times in the back while running away from Michael Slager, a white police officer. Slager was arrested and charged with murder. Article after article and news report after news report focus on the act of one white officer urging us all think that justice this time may get served.
Just weeks ago Four Florida police officers were found to be exchanging texts and videos with KKK hoods and talking about “killing n*****s.” One texted, “I had a wet dream that you two found those n*****s in the VW and gave them the death penalty right there on the spot,” one wrote. Another wrote, “We are coming and drinking all your beer and killing n*****s.” These and more were uncovered during a five-month investigation. The result: three officers were fired, one resigned.
As much as it serves justice that these officers were held to some level of responsibility, let us not turn a blind eye to the fact that many officers know of their peers’ bigotry and do nothing about it. The problem is the particular offending officers AND the problem is systemic. It is akin to the unfolding of the sexual abuses discovered within the Catholic Church — there were offending clergy as well a system complicit in keeping these attitudes and behaviors in the shadows, protecting the perpetrators, ensuring further victimization.
Racism in America: Americans’ Complicity, Denial and Naiveté
American psychology, by which I mean the way Americans think about themselves and our collective social dilemmas, is painfully naïve. We are like children looking for the bogeyman or watching a movie where the ‘good guys’ get the ‘bad guys,’ returning all to a sense of safety.
Regarding race, and many other of our deepest and most intractable problems (e.g., addiction, depression, and domestic violence), getting the bad guys, identifying and eliminating a few bad apples, is wholly insufficient. The truth is that we are the system — we are all complicit and we all carry a certain responsibility for America’s original sin: racism.
Don’t get me wrong, there are bad guys, but it is also our psychological naiveté, our cultural blinders, that allows this kind of infection to grow unchecked; it is our collective complicity that is most problematic. Our denial of racism in America is a form of racism in and of itself.
Hundreds of mourners gathered Saturday for the funeral of Walter Scott, the black man whose killing by a white police officer was captured on video, instantly catapulting a once anonymous forklift operator and father of four into the nation’s debate about excessive use of force by the police.
According to The New York Times, the pastor at WORD Ministries Christian Center, where Walter Scott worshiped, minced no words, telling the standing-room-only crowd that Mr. Scott had died because he was black. The pastor, the Rev. George D. Hamilton, stressed that most law enforcement officers serve honorably, but he urged the members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation who attended the funeral to take up the issue of police killings in Washington so that African-Americans “don’t have to be scared every time they get pulled over.”
“There is no doubt in my mind,” Mr. Hamilton said. “I feel Walter’s death was motivated by racial prejudice.”
Walter Scott, 50, died on April 4 after Michael T. Slager, a North Charleston police officer with five years’ experience, pulled him over because of a broken taillight. When the officer went to his patrol car, presumably to run the driver’s name through his computer and process a traffic citation, Mr. Scott left his vehicle and started running, a police dashboard video showed.
Another video, taken seconds later by a bystander, shows a brief encounter between the two men, and then Mr. Scott trying to get away. The officer, 33, fired eight times at Mr. Scott as he fled, hitting him in the back. The bystander’s video showed Mr. Slager later dropping something alongside Mr. Scott’s body, and many viewers have speculated that the object was the officer’s Taser gun. The police initially said Mr. Slager had told investigators that he chased down Mr. Scott on foot and then feared for his safety after the man tried to seize the Taser gun.
Mr. Hamilton said that the killing of Walter Scott was an act of hatred, born of racism.
“This hate could not be because this person knew Walter. The hate was because Walter was African-American,” Mr. Hamilton said. “No one just empties a clip into a man’s back.”
He called Mr. Slager “a disgrace to the North Charleston Police Department” and an embarrassment to other officers.
“We will not indict the entire law enforcement community for the act of an individual racist,” Mr. Hamilton said. “Honest cops live to serve with distinction. We thank God for them. This particular cop was a racist.”
On Tuesday, the same day the bystander’s video became public, Mr. Slager was arrested on a charge of murder; the next day, city officials announced that he had been fired. He was being held at Charleston County’s jail on Saturday without bond.
“I can’t fathom that Michael would ever do anything to hurt anybody purposely,” the officer’s mother, Karen Sharpe, said in an interview Friday. “He enjoyed his job. He liked being a police officer.”
The pastor’s remarks were in sharp contrast to the atmosphere of calm and forgiveness set by Mr. Scott’s family over the past few days. Mr. Scott’s younger brother said his sibling’s death would serve a purpose.
“My brother’s death was the catalyst for change in America,” Rodney Scott said.
Mr. Scott’s parents, Walter and Judy, did not speak to reporters on Saturday, but a lawyer for the family, L. Chris Stewart, said they believed Mr. Scott’s legacy was already secure.
“Their son is going to be remembered for changing the way that we look at each other,” Mr. Stewart said. “Because next time something does happen to an individual, be he African-American, you will now think maybe there is another side to the story, maybe the police report needs to be looked into. And if that’s what Walter Scott died to prove, then I can tell you the family is just fine with that, because his legacy is going to live on.”