A Tragedy of Errors: the North Charleston Shooting and Its Aftermath
Here we go again. White cop confronts black man. Black man resists. White cop kills black man. Event generates national media furor. Black community protests war on black men, gets angrier. We seem to be stuck on an endless repeating loop.
The confrontation between Officer Michael Slager and 50-year-old Coast Guard veteran Walter Scott in mostly poor, mostly black North Charleston, South Carolina, started out uneventfully enough. A dashcam video revealed that the officer, who pulled Scott over because of a non-functioning brake light, treated Scott with courtesy and simply told him to remain in the car while he returned to his own car. Standard operating procedure.
We can forgive Scott for dreading an encounter — even a polite one — with the local authorities. He owed more than $18,000 in child support and related court costs, and had done time behind bars on account of his debts. He used to avoid heavily policed areas of town simply because he feared being incarcerated again.
Scott bolted from his car and broke into a run, and we know the rest. A tragedy, yes… but a tragedy of errors on both sides.
Error 1: How does it benefit anyone to lock up a man who owes child support? Unless he’s earning a salary in his cell, he’s less capable than ever of satisfying his debt. As an ex-convict, he’ll be hard-pressed to find a decent job after he’s released. It’s an unjust no-win situation for everyone involved.
Error 2: Scott had no registration for the 1991 Mercedes he was driving, and he couldn’t produce an insurance card. He told Slager that he had just bought the car from a friend, then amended his story to say that he was in the process of buying the car from his friend. If I were a cop, I’d see a couple of red flags there.
Error 3: Given the lethal nature of recent confrontations between black men and white cops, Scott should have known that it wasn’t a smart idea to bolt and run. Cops tend to get angry when you bolt on them, and even a man half Scott’s age can’t outrun bullets.
At some point not recorded on video, Officer Slager caught up with Scott and used his stun gun. Scott didn’t like being tased, as most of us wouldn’t, and apparently he struggled with Slager because the taser dropped to the ground. (I won’t charge Scott with an error here, but he should have known that you don’t grapple with a cop’s weapon — even if that weapon is causing you pain and distress.)
Error 4: Scott broke away and ran once again. Fatal mistake. By this time both men were undoubtedly pumped full of hormones, so we can assume that reason took a back seat to primal instincts.
Error 5: Slager could have let Scott disappear into the wilds of North Charleston. After all, a broken brake light isn’t a capital offense. But the officer had to get his man. So, without warning (as captured in a bystander’s viral video), Slager pumped seven shots at Scott and brought him down. It goes without saying that American police are dangerously trigger-happy these days. According to a widely disseminated statistic, U.S. cops killed more people in March of this year (111, to be exact) than British police have slain in all the years since 1900 (a grand total of 52), when Queen Victoria still sat on the throne. If true, this is a shocker and a wake-up call.
Error 6: It’s not clear whether Scott died instantly, but Slager and his African American partner made no attempt to revive their victim or check his wounds. They seemed content to let him expire on the spot.
Error 7: Slager picked up an object from the site of their struggle and carefully dropped it next to Scott’s motionless body. It’s assumed that this object was the taser that Slager used on Scott, and if so, this was a major foul on Slager’s part. To move evidence is unsavory enough, but to move it with the purpose of justifying a shooting is even more so.
Error 8: The media and the local community immediately framed the shooting as a racial incident. While we can’t know Slager’s mindset and prejudices, we do know that resisting arrest often results in death — for whites as well as blacks. (Whites actually get shot by cops, you ask? You’d never know it to judge by media coverage, but the ratio of whites to blacks killed by police between 1999 and 2011 was almost two-to-one.) This leads us to…
Error 9: Our mainstream and left-leaning media have been cherry-picking news stories that support the prevailing narrative of systematic racial oppression. This is both disingenuous (because it blatantly ignores incidents involving white victims) and dangerous (because it fans the already crackling flames of race hatred). News sources on both the right and left cherry-pick their stories to push their respective agendas. Nobody pays attention to self-described moderate news sources, of course, so we depend on mainstream outlets like CNN and the networks to steer clear of ideological narratives. When they don’t, the truth suffers.
Officer Slager was immediately charged with murder and fired from his job. While this was a smart public relations move that probably kept the anger in North Charleston from boiling over, it will be difficult to convict Slager of anything more serious than second-degree murder and tampering with evidence.
That’s serious enough, but when you take the taser struggle into account, Slager could end up with a simple manslaughter conviction. If history has any power to predict the future, a light sentence (or, God forbid, an acquittal) means we can look forward to more marches and unrest.
What can we do to break the endless repeating loop of police shootings and well-publicized black victims? Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes. Police culture and ghetto culture are both prone to violence; put the two together and you have a combustible mix. But obviously we need to do something. The status quo is unacceptable.
Short of gathering around a campfire with their assigned communities and singing Kumbaya, cops need to show blacks, through attitude and actions, that they’re a force for good. That means striving to help the people they’re hired to protect, and finding mostly non-lethal methods of bringing lawbreakers to justice.
Blacks, for their part, should acknowledge that their communities tend to have serious crime issues, and that they stand to benefit from the presence of a vigilant, fair-minded police force. Where crime is rampant, the “no-snitch” tradition of non-cooperation helps nobody.
Meanwhile, here we are once again: a tragedy of errors involving cops and victims, and the tragedy of a nation that, 150 years after the Civil War ended, still can’t seem to move beyond black and white.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.