Walter Scott’s Death and the Cycle of Contempt for Black Lives
By now, many in America have watched the obscene video showing the death of Walter Scott, shot in the back as he flees for his life from North Charleston, S.C., Police Officer Michael Slager. Seemingly in an instant, eight shots from Slager’s gun turned Scott from a man to a memory. Then the officer adds insult to injury by appearing to try to frame Scott, with video footage showing him dropping what appears to be a weapon near his dead body.
Another black life that mattered has been lost and another name has been transformed into a hashtag symbolizing the latest inexplicable killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of law enforcement.
What is clear is that Slager knew exactly what to do in order to concoct the perfect formula for a police officer’s freedom. His lie was prepared and his version of events was designed to fit neatly within the same lazy narrative that always seems to surface when police show wanton disregard for black lives. Plant a weapon. Check. Fear for my life. Check. Black thug struggled with me and threatened the use of force against me and I reacted by using my service weapon. Acquittal (if there is even an indictment and a trial).
It’s a story to which we have become so desensitized that we expect it before it happens. So much so that media members and respectability apologists alike were practically tripping over themselves searching for a way to sully the character of Scott, a 50-year-old family man and father of four.
There are a few alarming things of note stemming from the public discourse about Walter Scott’s death. The first is the media’s failure to frame the discussion properly within the broader narrative of law enforcement’s continued abuses of people of color in America.
We have all heard the obvious question, “Would an arrest have taken place if there were no video?”
Let me assure you that that is an unlikely possibility. The fact is, as shocking as the video is, and even as it may have been a catalyst for Slager to be charged, it still may not be enough to overcome the thinking of jurors in South Carolina for a unanimous conviction.
This is because the video cannot itself address a mindset that exists regarding the alleged threat posed by black men in the eyes of law enforcement. Even as those black men are unarmed and running away in fear of their own lives, they still somehow pose a threat. As a former prosecutor, I have seen jurors’ personal biases defy common sense even in the face of incontrovertible evidence. That same possibility still exists in this case.
Another discussion emerging from this incident is the notion of #bluelivesmatter and #itsnotallcops. If that movement is to gain any traction, the blue wall of silence must come down. Looking at the video suggests that even as Slager attempts to drop what appears to be a weapon on Scott after shooting him, another police appears to observe this happening. For many Americans, this is a sensational shock, a thing from the movies. What everyone needs to understand is that this is hardly a movie. This is real life and this happens. Not in Hollywood’s studios, but in real America.
In the 21st century, black men and women areframed by law enforcement. Evidence is planted. Arrests are made, convictions rendered and lives are ruined—if life is even preserved—because we also know that innocent black men and women are killed by law enforcement. As far as the law goes, that officer, if complicit, should not simply be guilty of conspiring to tamper with evidence and myriad other ethical violations, but in so blatantly assisting in a violation of his oath to protect and serve, he should be charged as if he also pulled the trigger eight times himself.
For those of us who know and understand that these violations of our rights, liberties and, moreover, our bodies are more commonplace, there is a need to use this indisputable murder to dig deeper. To attempt to limit the discussion of Walter Scott to the unfortunate act of rogue officers is a lazy attempt to deflect from the real conversation about a serious need for police reform and fixing a broken criminal-justice system. This is so much greater than Walter Scott and we can no longer afford to ignore the fact that the police have become a risk to black men and women’s health.
Therefore the question remains, what will it take? Not simply for justice for Walter Scott, but for the scores of members of our community who continue to endure abuse from law enforcement when there is no video present. It requires a responsible and comprehensive discussion that fundamentally establishes that these are not discrete occurrences isolated to an occasional bad actor in a near flawless system.
Rather, this is the by-product of a mindset that has existed for as long as blacks have been in America and has persisted throughout slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights era of the ’60s, and up through what we are now witnessing as new-millennium Jim Crow. This mindset suggests that the perceived threat of a black man justifies any level of force be used to neutralize or eliminate said threat. Until everyone connected with the criminal-justice system—jurors, prosecutors, judges and law enforcement alike—concede that point, we will remain human targets, spinning our wheels and seeking to avoid the same fate as Walter Scott and countless others not on video.
From a man to a memory.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights attorney and former Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecutor. He is also an adjunct criminal-justice professor at Berkeley College in New York. Follow him on Twitter.