A pall has been hanging over my hometown of Charleston since last Friday when a jury made up of 11 whites and a lone African-American failed to reach a verdict in the case of Michael Slager, the police officer videotaped fatally shooting an unarmed black man, Walter Scott.
Black Charlestonians feel that justice has been delayed — and fear that justice will be denied.
Charleston has earned a reputation for grace and poise in the face of tragedy. After the shooting of Scott and, a few months later, the murder of nine much-loved community members at Emanuel AME Church, the city remained a model of social decorum.
Demonstrations were peaceful and respectful. Family members of the victims of the church massacre publicly forgave the accused killer, Dylann Roof, in a show of Christian magnanimity that amazed the world.
But for the past few days, even the very religious African-American community in Charleston has been haunted by misgivings, wondering whether forbearance is really the right response, and whether justice for black people is even possible in the courtrooms of America.
By now, millions have seen the video at the center of the case. Shot by an unseen bystander, it clearly shows Slager firing his gun at Scott from afar as Scott runs away. The video then shows Slager indifferently handcuffing Scott while he lies dying. And it shows Slager moving a taser nearer to Scott’s fallen body.
At trial, Slager testified that he shot Scott because he was in “total fear.” He did not explain how an unarmed suspect threatened him from 17 feet away. Regarding tampering with evidence by moving the Taser, Slager testified, “I don’t remember doing that.”
When the trial began in early November, many black Charlestonians received the news that the jury would be overwhelmingly white with equanimity, believing the facts would speak for themselves.
Even Fox News host Sean Hannity seemed to think Slager’s conviction was inevitable. “You do not shoot an innocent man in the back eight times in cold blood like this,” Hannity said. “If he’s not a threat to the officer, or threat to anybody else, there is never a justification.”
Slager will face a new trial and a separate civil rights case brought by federal prosecutors. But after recent failures to bring police to justice in the deaths of Eric Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and a mistrial in the case against Ray Tensing, the Cincinnati cop who shot an unarmed black driver, the Slager case looks like part of a bad trend.
The jury’s inability to reach a unanimous verdict even on the lesser charge of manslaughter leaves some people wondering whether predominantly white juries will always choose to protect police officers despite objective evidence. Has this country moved beyond the notions of white supremacy that characterized the old South?
These are dark times. But a candle still burns with hope that America can move toward justice for all, even in Charleston.