In the wake of the mistrial declaration on Monday in the murder case against former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, we reprint below a letter that African American Studies-affiliated faculty at the College of Charleston sent to the editor of the Charleston Post and Courier expressing our concern that local newspaper coverage of the trial stirred too many echoes of prior narratives in which murderous violence against African Americans went unpunished.
Here is the text of our letter, published on November 15th under the heading “Looking back at racial injustice,” followed by some additional remarks on the trial and our letter’s reception. The letter can also be found at http://www.postandcourier.com/opinion/letters_to_editor/letters-looking-back-at-racial-injustice/article_ae4b918e-aa85-11e6-916a-e77d2a787060.html
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Eighteen months after his arrest, former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager is now on trial for the murder of Walter Scott, a black man shot to death after a routine traffic-stop. Although the police department and SLED initially concluded the shooting was justified, a bystander’s video of the shooting led to Mr. Slager’s arrest for murder. We all have become witnesses to Mr Slager firing repeatedly into the back of the fleeing Mr Scott.
As Mr. Slager’s trial unfolds, we watch with concern and sadness, knowing that the North Charleston shooting is one in a horrific series of recent police killings of unarmed African Americans. The recent P&C headline, “Was Slager justified or overreacting?” stirs echoes of too many prior narratives that blame the victim—who should not have run, should not have talked back, should not have somehow looked threatening.
As professional scholars in a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences with expertise in American and Southern cultures, we are equipped to comment on the assumptions, stereotypes, and historical and cultural circumstances that have contributed to systemic problems in our policing and criminal justice systems. We wish to remind readers that Walter Scott’s killing is not a new outrage. Our state and our nation have a long and well-documented history of wrongdoing against people of color by police and government officials who have not been brought to justice. Sadly, many whites have seen these acts as justified. Years after having participated in the murder of African Americans (the 1876 Hamburg Massacre), Ben Tillman continued to boast about the killings on the floor of the U. S. Senate. During the century after the Civil War, of the thousands of lynchings recorded, many occurred publicly while government officials stood idle or even participated. In 1955, the murderers of 14-year-old Emmett Till were acquitted by an all-white jury after lawyers told them, “Every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.”
These historical facts are a few of many examples we might cite. More recently, statistics collected by our own law enforcement agencies have shown that a much higher percentage of our citizens of color are being stopped by police, just as Mr. Scott was, for traffic violations. Mr. Slager’s attorney has noted the police department’s quota of three traffic stops per shift. A local interracial organization, the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, has collected accounts of many of its members of color who have been stopped, and has joined the NAACP and the ACLU in calling for a public and independent audit of police practices in Charleston County, North Charleston, and Charleston. Even the North Charleston City Council has now voted to create a “Citizen’s Advisory Commission on Community-Police Relations.” However, many in our community are concerned that this gesture will not guarantee greater transparency or accountability in the city’s police practices.
Our academic expertise compels us to conclude that concerns about the Slager trial are thoroughly and sadly justified, and that the systemic problems this case has exposed will not be solved when the trial is over. We urge our fellow citizens and our elected officials to listen to the concerns being voiced and to take actions that will contribute to greater justice and safety for all residents of our communities.
Julia Eichelberger,PhD, Director of Southern Studies, CofC
Simon Lewis,PhD, Director of African American Studies, CofC
Vivian Appler, PhD, Theatre Studies
Mary Battle, PhD, History
Richard Bodek, PhD, History
Kristi Brian, PhD, Anthropology and Women’s and Gender Studies
Mari Crabtree, PhD, African American Studies
Matthew Cressler, PhD, Religious Studies
Adam Domby, PhD, History
Mike Duvall, PhD, English
Hollis France, PhD, Political Science
Valerie Frazier, PhD, English
Anthony Greene, PhD, African American Studies
Jon Hale, PhD, Teacher Education
George Hopkins, PhD, History
Gary Jackson, MFA, Poetry
Bernard Powers, PhD, History
Steven Profit, MLS, Research Librarian
Shari Rabin, PhD, Jewish Studies
Rebecca Shumway, PhD, History
Vincent Spicer, PhD, Psychology
Joy Vandervort-Cobb, Theatre Studies
John White, PhD, History
Patricia Williams Lessane, PhD, Anthropology
At moments over the last week, it looked as if the pattern of prior narratives of impunity might finally—historically—be disrupted, but with the news on Monday afternoon that the jury was deadlocked and that a mistrial had therefore been declared, we have once more seen a deferral of justice. Prosecutor Scarlett Wilson has said that she will retry the case, and there is still a federal case open against Mr Slager for depriving Mr Scott of his civil rights, but the failure of this jury to reach a consensus verdict is, as Ms Wilson commented, profoundly disappointing. We in the African American Studies program will continue to watch as this case unfolds further.
It is worth remarking that our letter prompted at least two responses published subsequently in the Post and Courier, taking us to task for being a “group of liberal professors” making armchair decisions. We had in fact deliberately drawn attention to our status as people with academic expertise in African American and Southern studies and had deliberately limited the number of people invited to co-sign the letter to professors with such expertise in order to offset just such a knee-jerk response. Racial injustice is not—or should not be—a partisan concern. The fact that it might have been so in the 1870s, 1920s, or 1950s when white supremacy was sometimes explicitly, always tacitly backed by law is part of the historical record. Our fervent hope was—and remains—that one day it will be only a part of that historical record, not a factor in contemporary life, and that one day, finally, this nation will live up to its ideals of providing liberty and justice for all.
In addition to the two published counter-letters in the Post and Courier, Julia and I received a couple of e-mails from an irate member of the public whose rationale for critique was perhaps even more disturbing than the entirely predictable critique that we were merely liberal academics. This correspondent had obviously gone to the trouble of Googling Julia and me and in a very telling phrase wondered why we were even concerned with the case since, as he said, “you have no skin in the game—you’re white.” I suspect the author was unconscious of the implicit denial of fellow-citizenship in his statement. Ava DuVernay’s film 13th has rightly been getting a lot of attention in recent months, but it seems as if the Fourteenth Amendment also needs to be re-emphasized:
Section 1: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Finally, we would like to reassert that as academics who study African American and Southern cultures, it is our business to tell the truth about our shared history and to point out links between the past and the present. We will continue to do so. As human beings we have “skin in the game.”