ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON STATE OF FORMATION, AN ONLINE PUBLICATION FOR EMERGING RELIGIOUS AND ETHICAL LEADERS WHICH WAS FOUNDED AS AN OFFSHOOT OF THE JOURNAL OF INTERRELIGIOUS STUDIES, HOUSED AT CIRCLE, A SHARED CENTER AT HEBREW COLLEGE AND ANDOVER NEWTON THEOLOGICAL SCHOOL.
I was born and raised in South Carolina. I love my home state; there are so many genuine, kind, wonderful people there who I care about deeply. But to be honest, most of the time when I see South Carolina trending on the news, it’s about something embarrassing. Like that guy who kept having sex with horses on Jon Stewart’s ongoing “Thank You South Carolina!” features. Or the congressman who shouted “You lie!” at the president. Twice. Or Mark Sanford, who Stephen Colbert dubbed the “Luv Gov” for disappearing when he was supposedly hiking the Appalachian Trail, admitting that he had actually gone to Argentina to visit his mistress, and calling her his soul-mate. He later broke up with her over Facebook and—guess what—South Carolinians elected him to office again!
But I digress.
The latest time that South Carolina was in the news, trending this week, was not for a simple face-palm moment, however. It was something far more tragic. An unarmed black man, Walter Scott, was killed by a police officer after a traffic stop over a taillight, in North Charleston, right near my hometown. He was shot running away, in the back, and his family would likely not have found any justice if a bystander had not recorded a video, for the cop lied in his original statements before the video came out.
It’s sickening. Another unarmed black person’s life ended unfairly. Another indicator of the systemic racism in our country. Another dying cry that #BlackLivesMatter.
And its fallout in South Carolina has been getting more and more troubling.
I have seen so many posts from people in South Carolina about the murder. I’ve seen a lot that say things like, It was just one cop that made a bad decision. He was charged with murder. Justice was served. Move on. Don’t protest. Don’t make us look like Ferguson.
True, the officer was charged with murder (thanks solely to the video). But he isn’t just one individual, one exception. Ferguson, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, North Charleston are not isolated incidents. They are indicative of a larger system of racism that devalues the lives of people of color. When we put the onus on the individual, instead of the system, we are invalidating calls for systemic change and reform. When we say it was just one individual who made a bad decision (and another individual who made a bad decision, and another one over there who also made an individual bad decision), we are chalking up the loss of black lives to “bad” individuals rather than a flawed system.
This is not about one cop. It’s about a system that perpetuates seeing people of color and poor neighborhoods as enemy combatants, dehumanizing them instead of being part of the community. When police officers are acculturated in these systems (from the training they receive to the policing policies they follow), the result is that the ways they handle conflicts and split-second decisions reflect this disregard for the value of the lives of people of color. It’s criminalization of race, it’s criminalization of poverty, it’s criminalization of the “other.”
He was charged with murder. Justice was served. Move on.
It’s not good enough. It’s not good enough for the officer to be charged, to be found guilty. There was still Walter Scott lying dead on the ground, a man whose life mattered and who deserved to live fully. Our aim should not be an eye for an eye. Here’s a thought—let’s aim not to have any eyes gouged out at all. Let’s strive to change the root of the problem rather than reacting to the bloodstained results. Let’s have better community policing and citizen oversight. Let’s have a world where lives are recognized to matter, regardless of their race.
Don’t protest. Don’t make us look like Ferguson.
I’m sorry Charleston—I’m sorry South Carolina—I’m sorry America. But we are Ferguson. Many of my progressive friends were shocked with the DOJ report about Ferguson came out, with its evidence of racially-targeted policing, an overwhelmingly white police force in poor communities of people of color, and using poor black citizens like cash pumps for minor infractions. I wasn’t surprised, disgusted as I was. Because I know it’s the reality in many American towns and cities, especially in the South. North Charleston has a 80 percent white police force while only 37 percent of residents are white. There have been rising complaints from black residents about “being discriminated against and arrested for low-level crimes.” Ferguson was not just about Ferguson. The anger and frustration and movement that rose out of Michael Brown’s death was about a much larger legacy of oppression.
Why are we afraid of looking like Ferguson, South Carolinians? Perhaps it’s because you see those protesters as of a different political stripe than you. Perhaps it’s because they seem angry (they probably are, and righteously so). Perhaps it’s because so many of us fear looking at the truth, of realizing how much injustice has been happening in our own communities, easy as it’s been for us to ignore it.
The funniest thing is, most of the people I’ve seen writing these things are Christian (it’s called the Bible Belt for a reason). To see them shrug off the gravity and implications of this murder pains me. I think of Isaiah 58:6: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” I think of Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” I think of Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
I think of Rev. Dr. William Barber, who I recently saw speak at a conference at the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma. He said, “There are some things beyond Democrat and Republican, beyond liberal and conservative. There are some things that are just moral.”
If in South Carolina—or anywhere in this country—people are trying to tell protesters to be quiet, to not make “us” look bad, to be content with how things turned out, all of us have lost that moral grounding.
The sacred worth of every life is not a liberal or conservative issue. The idea that a person should not be shot, unarmed, running away, in the back, is not a Democratic or Republican question. The vision of a just, liberative society that ends oppression and celebrates love is not a progressive agenda. It’s a biblical one.
And, as such, one I hope the Bible Belt will embrace. I still love you, South Carolina. I still believe such things are possible.