This should change everything

A woman stands in unity with a number of protesters Thursday afternoon at Coming Street and the Crosstown. The protest stems from the fatal shooting of Walter Scott by North Charleston Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager.

Walter Scott will forever be running across that grassy lot, a police officer squared up behind him, callously firing his pistol over and over again.

The scene will live on video for eternity — a middle-age black man staggering, clutching his side and falling, finally taking his last breath.

It is an image that should change the world.

The shooting death of Walter Scott could be a watershed moment for this country, the incident that proved indisputably that racial profiling is very real, that in America a black man can be killed for having a faulty brake light on his car.

The image is so nauseating, the act so heinous, that no one can dispute it — like film footage of Selma marchers being beaten by police.

It should make a difference. And in some ways it already has. The killing has spurred North Charleston to purchase body cameras for officers, and every police department in the country should follow suit.

But many people say that North Charleston should now become shorthand — like Selma — that Scott’s name will go down in history the same as Medgar Evers, a Mississippi man slain outside his home for daring to promote civil rights.

“North Charleston will have to bear this scar,” says the Rev. Joe Darby. “I’d like to think it would be different now, but I’m not optimistic.”

Few people are.

At North Charleston City Hall on Wednesday, hundreds of people jammed into City Council chambers demanding justice and calling for the jobs of city leaders.

It was a perplexing scene for many. After all, North Charleston officials fired Slager and charged him with murder within an hour of seeing the video.

That is action, and it was swift and decisive. Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers did their jobs, and have been praised nationally — including by Al Sharpton — for taking appropriate action.

No, arresting Slager does not bring Scott back — nothing will. And people have a right to protest that.

But perhaps some of those people were actually protesting our shared history. Too many times communities across the country have watched officers exonerated in controversial shootings. Sometimes justice was served, and sometimes not. Every time they wound communities, and those scars never really heal.

That’s another reason the protests continue. Some people fear that, if not for a random video, no one would have been held accountable for the death of Walter Scott.

Many prefer to think otherwise, that all those shots in the back would have been enough to tip off state investigators that Slager’s story did not add up, that he was not in danger from a man who was clearly running away from him. We will never know the answer to that question for sure.

The question now is: Will this make a difference?

Congressman Jim Clyburn says Scott’s death could change the climate, but he’s not sure it will. He said he would have been more optimistic if not for the aftermath of Selma’s 50th anniversary.

A bipartisan delegation of Congress traveled to Selma to march part of the trail blazed by civil rights activists in 1965. There, they listened to the stories of Ralph Abernathy’s widow, of George Wallace’s daughter. It is hard not to be ashamed of this country when confronted with that ugly past.

Clyburn thought that would make a difference, too. But the next week, back in Washington, many of the same people who sat alongside him in Selma refused to amend a simple civil rights law.

They saw no need.

“None of us will be on the jury,” Clyburn says, “but all of us have a role to play in the problem.”

The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, says that Scott’s death — and everything that has happened from Trayvon Martin’s slaying up until now — should be more than enough proof of a very real problem.

“All of these things should force us to recognize that we still have systemic racism,” Barber says. “When you see an officer shooting eight times at a running man, you have to ask, ‘What is he really shooting at? What is he really afraid of?’ ”

Barber argues that a system that allows someone like Michael Slager to have a gun and a badge endangers citizens and police alike, and he has a point.

“This should be troubling to every American because it undermines trust,” Barber says.

That is ultimately a danger to citizens and hard-working police officers across this country, and no one can deny the problem exists thanks to a sad video of a man being gunned down in North Charleston.

It might not change anything, but it must change everything.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.