In front of a somber mayor and a sheriff who later asked for salvation, the Rev. Al Sharpton said during a Sunday morning sermon in North Charleston that the city could set a new tone for American policing.
Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, appeared at Charity Missionary Baptist Church during a healing service for 50-year-old Walter L. Scott, a black man whose killing by a white North Charleston police officer was caught on video a little more than a week ago.
The service portrayed how community activists, from local ones to Sharpton in New York City, reacted to Scott’s death and, in some cases, ultimately played a role in the arrest of the man who shot him.
It also came on a day when Malik Shabazz, a lead organizer of protests in Ferguson, Mo., who once led the New Black Panther Party, announced a “mass demonstration” at 5 p.m. Monday outside City Hall and vowed to take the struggle against police brutality “to a whole new level.”
During Sharpton’s sermon, Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers sat near the front of the sanctuary and listened to the civil rights activist rail against police misconduct in the U.S. and refer to North Charleston’s past as one pockmarked with social injustices. Two protesters stood outside the church on East Montague Avenue and carried signs about police abuses.
But Sharpton spoke passionately as he praised the city leaders for promptly firing Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager when the video surfaced and for announcing the officer’s arrest on a murder charge. That set North Charleston apart from places like Ferguson and New York City, where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and Eric Garner was choked to death by police officers who were not criminally faulted, Sharpton said.
“When he’s wrong ... we protest,” he said of mayors like Summey. “When he’s right, we should have the same courage to say he’s right.”
Summey has been distraught and disappointed since he watched the video, he later said, but the service gave him some peace.
“I felt some healing myself,” he said. “We still have grief in our hearts. It’s very challenging for us.”
Driggers declined to say what he thought about Sharpton’s message.
Sharpton credited the city for its effort to outfit its patrol force with 251 uniform-worn cameras, a program that should be duplicated through a bill in the General Assembly and in other states nationwide, he said. He already had met and discussed Scott’s death with church pastor the Rev. Nelson Rivers III, a vice president in Sharpton’s network, along with state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.
Sharpton spent much of the service directly addressing Kimpson, in part because of the legislative measure that would require body cameras at police departments statewide.
“Let us use this hour to not only change what’s going on in North Charleston,” Sharpton said. “North Charleston, (which is) known as a place of intolerance, can be the place that could set a new tone in policing all over the United States.
“Maybe now between a Southern white mayor and a forgiving black mother,” he added of Summey and Scott’s family, “maybe this nation will deal with this.”
Sunday marked the beginning of a new week for North Charleston after residents endured one of the most trying in the city’s history. Hundreds gathered in protests throughout the week, but each event passed without violence.
But amid the religious leaders’ comments, Shabazz, now president of Black Lawyers for Justice, announced that he would take the effort to the streets. He said in a news release that American police were hunting black men “like a deer or a dog.”
“It is time the entire legal, political and physical struggle against police brutality be taken to a whole new level,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
Shabazz had also called for “rebellion” in Ferguson, where some protests turned violent.
Sharpton also joined about 100 residents for a vigil Sunday afternoon near Remount and Craig roads, where Scott ran from a traffic stop April 4.
Mourners have dropped flowers and affixed signs bemoaning “police terror” to a chain-link fence not far from where Scott died.
Slager had chased Scott to the area, and at some point, they got into a confrontation with each other. The officer said that Scott took his Taser during a struggle and that he fired at the man because he “felt threatened.”
But a video taken by witness Feidin Santana, who was on his way to work, showed Scott freeing himself from the encounter and running away. Slager pulled his .45-caliber Glock and fired eight times at Scott. Five of the bullets hit Scott from behind, with four striking his back and one hitting an ear.
State Law Enforcement Division agents arrested Slager after the footage made its way to the public Tuesday afternoon, and he has been jailed without bail ever since. In the sermon, Sharpton remembered getting a phone call April 4 from Rivers, who told him about the shooting. Rivers and James Johnson, president of the local action network chapter, expressed their concern and suspicions that Saturday.
“They said that it was disturbing,” Sharpton said, “and they suspect that it was unjustified.”
At the time, though, they had no direct evidence of that, and Sharpton said he thought local activists could handle the community’s reaction to it. That day, Johnson urged peace and told residents to be patient in awaiting the results of SLED’s investigation.
But Sharpton said he also thought about the ordeal that parents of other black men killed in police-involved incidents have been forced to endure elsewhere, he said.
“As I hung up the phone, I thought about (the parents),” he said, “and here they were calling me about another shooting.”
Then, he thought of the date’s significance to civil rights and American history in general: It was the 47th anniversary of the 1968 shooting death of Martin Luther King Jr.
Rivers, meanwhile, was at the scene within two hours of the shooting. From what he first noticed — that Slager had fired a good distance from where Scott’s body ended up — Rivers struggled to believe that the shooting happened in self-defense.
“I got to the corner of Remount and Craig,” Rivers recalled, “and I said, ‘There’s something wrong with this picture.’”
Loved ones had already built a memorial to the shooting victim. Rivers heard later in the day that Scott had been the man who died there. To Rivers, people portrayed Scott as a family man, someone who had an arrest history but would not turn violent, as the police had alleged.
“He was such a good guy,” Rivers remembered others telling him.
Then on Sunday, as he attended a vigil for Scott, Rivers learned of Santana’s video.
“When it comes,” Rivers was told at the time, he said, “the truth will come out.”
When it did, it changed everything.
Instead of observing from New York, Sharpton soon announced that he would visit North Charleston and speak here.
And on Sunday, he closed his part of the service by joining hands with others in the congregation. He prayed that Scott’s death would not be in vain but would “establish a new way we deal with one another in this country.”
Standing nearby were Summey, Driggers and Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, who would later hold Rivers’ hands and speak with the pastor about salvation.
Cannon found the ceremony inspirational, he later said.
“This community is in a position to dramatically change the landscape of community relations,” he said, “and jointly address a number of issues that exist.”