By DON JONES
The deadly confrontation between Walter Lamar Scott, a black forklift operator, and Charleston police officer Michael Slager began as a daytime traffic stop. It was April 4, 2015, Scott’s brake light on his 1991 Mercedes was out. A cell phone video taken by Feidin Sanatana shows Slager walking up to Scott’s car, talking with him a moment and then returning to his patrol car. We now know there is a bench warrant out for Scott for failure to pay child support for his four kids.
The video shows Scott exiting his car and dashing-off. Slager caught up to him in a lot behind a pawn shop.
The two men struggled. The video then shows Scott running away with no weapon in his hands. As Scott was running away Slager fired his weapon eight times at Scott from behind. Scott was struck a total of five times – three times in the back once in his buttocks and once in one of his ears.
In an audio recording made immediately after the shooting Slager is heard laughing. “[When] you get home you should jot your thoughts down…you know after the adrenaline stops pumping. “It’s pumping” Slager said, laughing.”
In his interview with investigators Slager said Scott had taken Slager’s Taser and was coming toward him (Slager) when Slager fired. But the video shows the opposite, Scott was running away with nothing in his hands. The video is corroborated by the location of the gunshot wounds, three in Scott’s back, and one in Scott’s backside.
The video alone is the equivalent of a smoking gun showing – at the split second that he fired his weapon – Walter Scott was unarmed and running away.
But despite the compelling evidence, on Friday, December, 2 the Charleston jury informed the judge they were deadlocked, a lone juror was holding out for acquittal. By Monday the judge declared a mistrial.
This stunning inability of the jury to reach a verdict and hold a white police officer accountable for shooting an unarmed black man in the back is part of a larger pattern of impunity on the part of police.
Police killed 346 black people in 2015. One every 25 hours. In 97% of the cases the police were not charged with a crime. Since January at least 193 black men have been killed, again with few, if any, even being charged.
Charles Blow commenting on this wave of deadly encounters between blacks and police said that” police abuse is terror.” The shooting of unarmed black men by police is frightening. But what strikes us to the core of our humanity is when the criminal justice system refuses to hold police accountable even when they have been filmed brazenly committing wanton acts of brutality in broad daylight.
Many will compare the case of Walter Scott to that of Tamir Rice. Tamir Rice, 12, was playing with an airsoft toy gun in a gazebo in a park. But someone had called 911 and reported “a man” with a gun in the park.
Officer Loehman arriving at the scene claims he told Rice to put his hands in the air but that Rice instead reached for a gun in his waistband. The video however shows that Tamir Rice had his hands in his pockets when he was shot. The video also proved the officer shot so quickly upon arriving Rice never had time to reach for a gun. Loehman was never charged.
For me the comparison that stands out is to a case in Sumner, Mississippi. Emmett Till was visiting from Chicago with his family. It was August 1955. Till who had a speech impediment sometimes whistled when he tried to pronounce certain words. A white woman Carol Bryant accused Till of “wolf whistling” at her. Till was abducted and brutally murdered. Mose Wright, Till’s Great Uncle, famously identified the men who abducted Till. “Thar he,” he said. There was other compelling evidence.
The jury simply disregarded the evidence and acquitted the white men. They later admitted they murdered Till.
The problem here traces back even earlier than 1955. During slavery blacks were seen as property, as servants, as beasts, but never as fully human. Orlando Patterson refers to this as a kind if invisibility. While we have been blessed with equal opportunity laws those laws did not expel the racist narratives on which slavery and segregation rested. The story of blacks as biologically inferior has simply been replaced with a narrative linking race with crime. While blacks are presumptively criminal, whiteness in today’s society is associated with law and order.
The significance of the failure to reach a verdict in the Walter Scott case, and others like it, shows that these old, false racist narratives are still widely shared. For those under the sway of these narratives, our humanity is still invisible. For them the facts don’t matter. It is not the evidence that determines who is guilty or innocent. For them, and for the hold out juror in the case of Walter Scott, that is determined by race.
Donald Jones is Professor of Law at the University of Miami, School of Law.