Hundreds rallied Wednesday night at Marion Square to demand justice following the recent deaths of two African-American men at the hands of police.
Protests have gripped several U.S. cities in past week, where crowds demonstrated against last week’s fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota.
Wednesday’s demonstration in downtown Charleston also marked the one-year anniversary of Sandra Bland’s death. Bland, a 28-year-old black woman from Illinois, was pulled over by a state trooper in Waller County, Texas, on July 10, 2015, for failing to signal a lane change. Tensions flared and Bland was arrested. She was found dead in her jail cell three days later.
Her death, officially ruled a suicide, was yet another flashpoint in the national Black Lives Matter movement.
After leading a drum circle next to the fountain at the corner of King and Calhoun Streets, activist Muhiyidin d’Baha called on other demonstrators to propose solutions for curbing police violence against black residents.
Burgess Canty, 55, of North Charleston, lamented the underrepresentation of black officers in local police departments.
“Look in our neighborhoods and see who’s running in our neighborhoods, it’s white cops. We don’t relate with them because they don’t relate with us,” he said. “They have a whole different agenda.”
Yolidia Osbey, 23, of Charleston, urged protesters to turn out at the polls this November.
“It doesn’t matter what color you are. We don’t have to curse and yell and be mad,” she said. “If you want to stand in solidarity with people that believe what you believe and look to advance past where we are today, let’s do that. There’s strength in numbers. There’s strength in every single voice.”
d’Baha, meanwhile, echoed his previous calls for a citizens review board with authority to investigate alleged police misconduct in the wake of last year’s fatal shooting of Walter Scott. Scott, a 50-year-old black man, fled from an April 4, 2015, traffic stop and fought with North Charleston officer Michael Slager before the policeman shot him five times as he ran away. Slager said that Scott had grabbed his Taser before a bystander captured Scott’s death on video. Slager has been charged with Scott’s shooting.
The North Charleston Police Department has since proposed forming a Citizens Advisory Commission on Community Relations to help improve police and resident relations, but critics of the plan point out the commission would lack oversight and disciplinary powers.
“We’re up against institutional racism — not lone wolves, not one bad apple — but an actual system that has been built from the roots of white supremacy,” d’Baha said. “That’s what we’re up against. That’s the kind of thing we got to transform.”
Within an hour, the size of Wednesday’s demonstration swelled. Several hundred marched around the park, hoisting signs and chanting protest slogans, such as “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” as several city police officers and chaplains watched from a short distance away. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg was among them.
They briefly stopped marching to protest in front of the statue of John C. Calhoun, a 19th century slaveholder and statesman, and in front of the Embassy Suites, the site of former South Carolina State Arsenal, built in 1829 to quell slave uprisings. Many plan to peacefully assemble at Marion Square again from 7 to 8 p.m. Thursday to commemorate the lives of those killed by police.
At the end of the demonstration, they held hands and sang “Amazing Grace” before Clemson University student Angelica Collins, 20, led them in prayer.
“We need change, God. It’s our actions that are gonna make change, God,” Collins said into a megaphone. “Those people will never be forgotten.”
Reach Deanna Pan at (843) 937-5764.