At the end of a bloody week when the killings of police, and by police, shocked the nation, Charleston-area residents came together in different ways to seek peace, and solutions.
At Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston about 200 people gathered Sunday evening to pray, speak their minds, and at times question local officials who attended, including Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon. Across the Cooper River in Mount Pleasant a crowd that grew to about 250 gathered in Waterfront Memorial Park for a unity rally and a walk to the top of the Ravenel Bridge.
The church event was first planned following the killings by police of Alton Sterling, Tuesday in Louisiana, and Philando Castile, Wednesday in Minnesota, and was originally titled “How to get black men off the endangered species list.” Following the Dallas sniper attack Thursday that killed 5 police officers and injured 7 more, the church refocused the event as a community forum titled “Part of the solution.”
“Things changed, with Dallas,” said Pastor Nelson B. Rivers III, who compared the racially motivated slaying of white police officers with the racially motivated slaying of black churchgoers in Charleston last summer at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“What was said by the gunman was exactly what was said at Emanuel,” said Rivers. “But for being white, they (the police officers) would not be killed.”
Prayers were said for those officers, and for Sterling and Castile. The mostly older and predominantly black crowd included civil rights activists who urged political action, at the ballot box.
“Anything you care about, there’s someone making a law or policy about that,” said Rivers, who is also the National Action Network’s vice president for religious affairs and external relations.
Cannon, Charleston County’s top law enforcement official, told the churchgoing crowd that black and white communities both face problems involving crime and the deaths of young men, though those problems take different forms. He was later criticized by some audience members for apparently comparing overdose and suicide deaths to deaths at the hands of police officers.
Cannon said he thinks the fundamental problem that needs to be addressed is a lack of religion in society today.
“You take religion out of people’s lives and ... whether you are black or white, if you talk about anything else you are missing the point,” he said.
A woman at the church, who did not give her name and was one of the few white attendees, waited in line for a turn at the microphone and then tearfully asked the crowd for guidance.
“What I want is to help, but I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Please, tell me what I can do.”
The response from several in the audience: “Pray.”
When Moses Garrett, and older black man, took a turn to speak, he said he was shocked that after everything that happened this past week, there was a group of Confederate flag supporters in Columbia Sunday seeking to have the flag returned to the Statehouse.
“I thought we were past that,” he said.
Local attorney and former police officer Jerod Frazier gave the crowd a quick primer on civil rights and what to do when stopped by the police. Several political candidates in the audience, at Rivers’ invitation, passed around petitions, and audience members were exhorted to vote in every election they can.
Rivers said it was clear the spate of killings shook people across the country, citing comments by former GOP Rep. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who has been mentioned as a possible running mate with Donald Trump. Gingrich said, “If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America.”
“If Newt Gingrich got that awakening, there’s no telling what could happen around here in Charleston,” said Rivers.
Across the river in Mount Pleasant, what began as one couple’s idea for an event posted on Facebook became a large gathering that attracted hundreds, following news reports and social media postings.
“It was amazing, because it was just an idea that formed into an almost spiritual, humbling time,” said Michael Coulter, who organized the event with girlfriend Krista Ely.
“I felt very proud to be in Charleston, just like I did around this time last year,” said Coulter, who is biracial, referring to the city’s calm and unified response to the Emanuel AME Church shooting.
Ely, who is white, said racial harmony is an issue particularly “near and dear to my heart” because of Coulter. Both are Charleston residents and real estate agents.
“I’m still very overwhelmed by the love and peace that was there, and the folks who were there who had conversations that may never have (otherwise) happened,” she said. “I encouraged everyone to get outside their comfort zone and talk to people they wouldn’t normally talk to, and I saw that happening all over the place.”
Ely said the event concluded with the crowd walking up the pedestrian path to the top of the bridge, holding up lights from their cellphones or flashlights, observing a minute of silence led by town Police Chief Carl Ritchie, and hugging.
“People were hugging all over the place,” Ely said.
Reach David Slade at (843) 937-5552 or twitter.com/DSladeNews.