After Scott’s death, fight for change divides activists

People gather to protest the shooting of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer during a Black Lives Matter Charleston demonstration against police violence on April 8 at North Charleston City Hall.

When a video made Walter Scott’s name known to the world, advocacy groups in North Charleston saw a chance to make theirs known, too.

The footage of a white police officer fatally shooting Scott, a black man, drew nationally known activists. They joined protests and spoke out against alleged police abuses. It was building up to be the culmination of a national discussion inspired by police-involved deaths in Missouri and New York.

Members of Black Lives Matter Charleston, a group born out of their rally cry, found themselves in front of cameras from NBC News and CNN. Jay Johnson, a national leader unaffiliated with the local group, called Scott’s death a turning point in how black men are seen by law officers.

To Johnson, his group was fast supplanting traditional civil rights groups of the 1950s and ’60s.

“Black Lives Matter is no longer a cry. ... You are witnessing the birth of the 21st century NAACP,” he said. “The pivotal moment in that movement happened right here in Charleston.”

But tactics employed by the younger activists, the public faces of the protests after Scott’s death, have marginalized them in talks with city leaders unwilling to consider their “unreasonable” demands. The role of negotiating a fix to the strained relations between young black people and the police instead fell back on the long-established organizations that the new activists seemed destined to replace.

Instead of galvanizing their efforts, the shooting in some ways splintered activists into factions with different strategies for reaching their goals. The younger grassroots sect saw protesting and civil disobedience as the route to change; the older ones saw it as a time to lay down their posters and megaphones and sit with city and police leaders to mete out a solution.

It’s a quiet feud not unlike the ones during the last century’s civil rights movement. Malcolm X, a Muslim minister, was accused of inciting riots then, and Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist preacher, stressed nonviolence and sat down with politicians.

In North Charleston, about 200 people attended a protest outside City Hall the day after the video showed the world how Scott died. Many of them were news media. But the number of participants at rallies dwindled until they fizzled out a week after the video came to light.

To James Johnson, leader of the local chapter of one traditional group, the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, the cause fell back into the hands of “the elders” like him.

“When you don’t have a structure, you’re going to sooner or later dissolve, and it’s going to go back to the people who are organized,” Johnson said. “They did a great job of expressing their feelings, but when the anger goes, what happens next?”

Black Lives Matter started as a Twitter hashtag that caught fire after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Florida shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It became a chant of the protesters nationwide who took to the streets then and after a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., fatally shot Michael Brown. It decried on its website the “virulent” racism that led to killings of young black people by police and vigilantes.

The local group, Black Lives Matter Charleston, formed in the days after a grand jury failed to indict the New York City police officer who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold. Muhiyidin d’Baha, 29, assumed the role as one of its three core members, all of whom work or volunteer for community nonprofits. Of the three, d’Baha is the only black person.

The group’s first protest consisted of 300 people marching downtown in December — an effort to make the community aware of the use of deadly force by police nationwide. They stood ready if a controversial killing hit closer to home.

“We had the ability to respond if and when it happened,” d’Baha said.

Members held poetry readings, as well as sessions on how to film police officers and assert their civil rights during a traffic stop.

Thomas Dixon, co-founder of The Coalition: People United To Take Back Our Community, sat down with them during their early days. Dixon, 62, saw it as a way to brainstorm with the younger people who could benefit from changes in police policies before presenting ideas to city officials. They talked about seven suggestions, including a citizens board to review allegations of police abuse.

But Dixon said the group lost its focus on the police and talked instead about education programs and economics. Those goals were noble, he said, but they distracted participants from the issue that brought them together in the first place.

He called its members “socially conscious and engaging” but lacking the wisdom of more experienced activists. Dixon lost touch with the group.

The membership rolls fell from 70 at its peak to about 10 before eight gunshots on a Saturday thrust them back into the limelight.

“The reason we gathered just got lost in the mix,” Dixon said. “I really do believe that if we got back to it sooner, we could have sat down with police and had a different outcome that Saturday.”

Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager pulled over Scott’s Mercedes-Benz on April 4. Scott ran. Slager shot Scott, he said, because the man had grabbed his Taser during a struggle. The video showed him shooting the fleeing man in the back.

The emotions that drove Black Lives Matter Charleston to protest were never more apparent than at a news conference the day after the footage was made public and Slager was jailed on a murder charge.

D’Baha used a megaphone to lead chants in City Council chambers and shout questions at Police Chief Eddie Driggers and Mayor Keith Summey, who promised to open a discussion about police policies.

“The overall tactic ... is to negotiate,” d’Baha said later. “You can expect to hear us making noise and calling out leaders.”

Over the next two days, d’Baha called on Summey to form a citizens review board with subpoena powers to oversee the police, and he promised to make his voice heard “by whatever means necessary.” Did that mean violence? “Anything’s possible,” he said at the time.

The fledgling group’s time in the spotlight was enviable to some mainstays on the local advocacy scene. Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP, expressed disappointment over the low number of phone calls she got from journalists after Walter Scott’s death. She is not related to him.

Dot Scott, who has long lamented problems between the community and police, said young people had been the “energy to the movement” for decades. It’s no different today, but Walter Scott’s shooting gave the community a chance to shed light on the real problems that led to his fatal confrontation with Slager, she said.

Despite others’ momentum, the NAACP has remained important, she insisted. Her chapter’s membership has risen since the “black lives matter” movement started, though she wouldn’t give statistics. It takes donations from out-of-state contributors on its redesigned website, she added, and reaches youths through the Twitter account it started last week.

“If somebody else can keep this message in the forefront, then so be it,” she said. “But at this point, we’d be protesting what exactly? The killing happened; we can’t undo that. The arrest has been made. Where it goes from here in terms of Slager’s prosecution, of course, that’s undetermined.”

Members of other organizations didn’t like what they saw either. Christopher Cason, who belongs to Dixon’s coalition, appealed to fellow advocates through Facebook last week, encouraging them to “discuss the lack of solidarity” and put aside their differences.

“I’ve had enough of community leaders saying they’re down for the cause but don’t want to work with this one or that one simply because their points make better sense,” he wrote.

As the protests stretched through last weekend, d’Baha warned that the “resistance phase” was looming. The group called for the police chief’s firing.

That’s when James Johnson, the local National Action Network leader, said he raised concerns over d’Baha’s strong words that could alienate fellow residents and turn off city officials.

But after protesters from Ferguson arrived by the busload to join their ranks early last week, the demonstrators clogged streets by walking back and forth in sidewalks. One motorist cursed at them and demanded their arrests.

Johnson, who had called for calm on the day Walter Scott was slain, welcomed “them young fellas” to learn from the people who have “been doing this for a long time.”

“What kind of justice can they get by screaming in the street?” Johnson said. “We need to sit at the table and talk about what’s causing the problem with the police. If you go out there stopping cars, you turn the community against you.”

The young protesters’ tactics subverted their appeal to the city, too.

Summey’s spokesman, Ryan Johnson, said the mayor and d’Baha had talked about setting up a meeting, but it was never scheduled. And the group’s actions after that changed Summey’s mind.

“Due to the actions taken,” Johnson said, “along with the unreasonable and unrealistic demands of Mr. d’Baha and Black Lives Matter Charleston, it is not in the best interest of the city to meet.”

Scott’s loved ones also distanced themselves from the demonstrators and refused to take part in their events. The family’s attorney, Christopher Stewart of Atlanta, said they were instead focused on getting answers about Scott’s death.

“They are fully supportive of the rights of people to protest,” he said. “But they want to ensure that it is done peacefully and without disruption.”

Just as the protests appeared to be ramping up, they ended.

They ended despite the arrival of Malik Shabazz, president of Black Lawyers for Justice and former head of the New Black Panther Party. A guest of Black Lives Matter Charleston, Shabazz called Scott’s death “the last straw” and talked about shooting back at police.

His comments came during what he billed as a “mass demonstration” that was attended by a few dozen people Monday. On Tuesday, quiet prevailed in North Charleston, and Shabazz caught a flight out.

“I heard some people on Facebook say, ‘Get out of Charleston, you racists,’ ” said Bobby Worthy, president of Justice League United, who works with Shabazz. “But we had already left.”

Shabazz is expected to return for a town hall meeting today, when he will gather accounts of racial profiling and decide what to do about it. He said his organization has pending lawsuits against police departments in 13 states.

“The most inflammatory and violent thing is Walter Scott’s murder and what is happening to African-Americans across the country,” he said late last week. “I’m an advocate, and I speak the truth in an uncompromising way. It’s a serious time, and there’s a lot of hurt and pain.”

Black Lives Matter Charleston isn’t going away, said one its members, Brandon Fish, 27. The group’s message is still in line with “elder” activists, who had been concerned only with its tactics, he said.

“We’re all fighting to make things better,” said Fish, who is white. “I think it’s inaccurate to paint us as radical when the only thing we’ve asked for is the ear of our elected officials and the only demonstrations we’ve had have been non-violent.”

Jay Johnson, the national Black Lives Matter leader who calls himself “Grand Master Jay,” came here after Scott’s shooting with plans to assess the local group and decide whether it should become one of the 34 sanctioned chapters nationwide. But he likened it to an emotional and “unruly mob.” Instead of sanctioning it, he urged its members to work with traditional organizations like the NAACP.

“They lack guidance that you ... gain with age and experience,” he said. “We all started that way.”

Perhaps no one who visited North Charleston after Scott’s death understands that more than the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and founded the social justice nonprofit Rainbow/PUSH.

During a visit Thursday, he praised Black Lives Matter Charleston and took up a collection for one of its outreach program.

He recalled how college-age people often led protests against segregation during King’s time.

“It’s a way of expressing outrage and pain,” Jackson said. “People express it in different ways.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede. Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/mboughton.