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What If There Was No Video? White SC Officer Charged with Murder of Fleeing African-American Man

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A white South Carolina police officer has been charged with murder after a video showed him shooting an apparently unarmed African-American man who was running away. The killing happened Saturday morning after North Charleston police officer Michael Slager stopped Walter Scott for a broken brake light. On the video, Slager is seen shooting at Scott eight times as he tries to flee. The North Charleston Police Department had initially defended Slager after he said he feared for his life and claimed Scott had taken his Taser weapon. But the video shows Slager shot Scott in the back at a distance of about 15 feet. The video also appears to capture Slager planting an object next to Scott — possibly the Taser gun. The video does not appear to show Scott in possession of the officer’s stun gun at any time. We are joined by longtime South Carolina civil rights activist Kevin Alexander Gray, editor of the book “Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A South Carolina police officer has been arrested and charged with first-degree murder after cellphone video showed the officer shooting eight times at the back of a 50-year-old African-American man named Walter Scott, who was running away. The shooting occurred on Saturday morning after North Charleston police officer Michael Slager stopped Scott for a broken brake light. Walter Scott was a father of four who served for two years in the U.S. Coast Guard. Chris Stewart is an attorney for the Scott family.

CHRIS STEWART: What if there was no video? What if there was no witness—or hero, as I call him—to come forward?

JUDY SCOTT: Thank you, Lord.

CHRIS STEWART: Then this wouldn’t have happened, because, as you can see, the initial reports stated something totally different. The officer said that Mr. Scott attacked him and pulled his Taser and tried to use it on him. But somebody was watching.

JUDY SCOTT: Hallelujah.

CHRIS STEWART: There was a witness that came forward with a video, and the initial reports were wrong.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Before the video was posted online, the North Charleston Police Department and the officer’s attorney defended the use of deadly force. On Monday, The Post and Courier ran a report headlined, quote, “Attorney: North Charleston police officer felt threatened before fatal shooting.” The paper reported, quote, “Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer. The officer then resorted to his service weapon and shot him, police alleged.”

AMY GOODMAN: But video showed the police officer shooting Walter Scott in the back at a distance of about 15 feet. In addition, the video appears to capture Officer Slager planting a Taser gun next to Scott. The video does not appear to show Scott in possession of the officer’s stun gun at any time. Initial police reports also claimed officers performed CPR and delivered first aid to Scott. But the video does not show this. Instead, the officer is seen handcuffing Scott as he remains face down after the shooting, not clear if he’s dead or dying. Another officer later brings a medical kit but is not seen administering CPR.

On Tuesday, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey addressed the media after the video of Officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott was viewed by state investigators and a decision was made to charge Slager with murder.

MAYOR KEITH SUMMEY: We’ve got 343 police officers in our department. This was a bad decision by one of those 343. And I think the lesson that we take out of this, and hopefully the general public takes out of it, is that when an incident occurs, give us the appropriate time to investigate, find out exactly what happened, and we will act accordingly.

AMY GOODMAN: A recent study by The State newspaper in South Carolina found it is exceedingly rare for an officer to be found at fault criminally for shooting at someone. In the past five years, police in South Carolina have fired their weapons at 209 suspects. That’s in the past five years. None of the officers have been convicted. That is a person being shot in South Carolina by police once every few weeks, on average, for the last five years.

Joining us now is longtime South Carolina civil rights activist Kevin Alexander Gray. He edited the book, Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence, and is author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics. He’s joining us from Columbia, South Carolina.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you first, Kevin, respond to this videotape that came out after an initial police report that this officer felt afraid, so he opened fire and killed Walter Scott?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, if you can get over your initial outrage, you have to commend of the mayor for acting swiftly and bringing charges against the police officer. Obviously, the video shows that the police lied. And that’s not uncommon for police to lie. It’s just lucky that there was someone there to film it. We have to ask the question about the officer’s partner. But it’s clear that the officer lied about what transpired in that parking lot, and—but at least the police department in North Charleston acted swiftly. Now they need to act on some reforms.

They’ve got a population in North Charleston that’s 47 percent black, yet that police department is 80 percent white. We’ve got to go beyond talking about police reforming themselves. We’ve got to get serious about independent review boards. We’ve got to get serious about the policy on shoot to kill. We’ve got to get serious about whether or not we want ex-military as police officers. We need to take a serious look at just hiring people out of the military because they may have combat experience. Well, serving the people isn’t combat. The police are there to serve and protect, and if the police believe that by killing black people, by treating black people as subhuman, when they think no one’s looking, that that’s going to make their lives safer, it’s not.

We’ve got to deal with this epidemic of police violence. White people in this country think that it’s just black folk getting killed, and they believe that black people, for the most part, are inherently criminal or, as we say, busted or bustable. And so, when you mention certain things, when you mention drugs, when you mention prior arrests, people turn a blind eye. But more whites get killed in this country by police.

People better pay attention to this country becoming a police state. We need to tamp down this militarization of police departments. We need to look at the use of force and reform police departments across this country and start keeping track of the number of people that police are killing across this country. I believe it’s been reported that in the first three or four months of this year, over 300 people have been killed by police across this country—not just blacks, not just men, but men and women, people who are mentally ill. We have to take a serious look at how police are operating in this country right now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Kevin Alexander Gray, do you think that the kind of police reform that you’re suggesting is likely to happen now, given the overwhelming evidence that was presented in this video?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, we still have to engage in some grassroots organizing. It used to be that the NAACP, at least in South Carolina, was the place that you reported police abuse. The NAACP and other organizations need to step up and reclaim that role of looking out for the citizens and taking these reports, so that we can know what’s going on out there in the community and act on it. But, you know, it takes mobilization. It takes people being involved. It takes people like the fellow who filmed this being courageous enough to provide footage. I’ve had people that have recorded police and were afraid to turn the footage over, because they were afraid of what the police might do when nobody is looking.

So, you know, people have to be courageous. People have to hold police accountable. People have to hold the prosecutors accountable. People have to hold elected officials accountable. We need to start tracking how the police are operating in these communities. We need to know for certain how many people that the police are killing across this country. I think it’s estimated that police in the United States have killed, what, maybe 7,000 people since 2003, but no one really knows, because no one wants to keep records. We have to demand that the police keep records on every time they fire their weapons and what happens when those bullets leave those chambers.

AMY GOODMAN: Walter Scott’s brother, Anthony, said his family is grateful for the witness who came forward with the video that led to the arrest of Officer Slager.

ANTHONY SCOTT: And from the beginning, when it happened the first day, all we wanted was the truth. And I think, through the process, we’ve received the truth. And we can’t get my brother back, and my family is in deep mourning for that, but through the process of justice has been served. And I don’t think that all police officers are bad cops, but there are some bad ones out there, and I don’t want to see anyone get shot down the way that my brother got shot down.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Walter Scott’s brother, Anthony. It is quite astounding, Keith, that—Kevin, it’s quite astounding how brave this filmer was. I’m not going to say shooter, but we often say, you know, a person who’s taking the film is a shooter, but on the cellphone filming this and staying with it, not only filming him being shot at eight times—apparently five shots, I believe, went into his body, one pierced his heart—but the officer then handcuffing him as he’s face down on the ground, not clear if he’s dying or dead, goes away, sort of trots away, and gets this what looks like a stun gun, and it appears to be that he places it next to this dying or dead man who is face down on the ground, Kevin.

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: You know, it’s the idea, for the police officer, that the person shooting the film was invisible and the person he shot was a subhuman or an animal, that he would lie and say that the man tried to take his stun gun—and you can clearly see him planting this, going back and getting that stun gun and throwing it under his body—and then the way that he disrespected a man lying dead on the ground by handcuffing him. And people have to ask the question about him shooting that man running, shooting him in the back. Now, you know, according to the so-called American rugged individualist code, you know, to shoot someone in the back is scurrilous, you’re a coward. And, you know, that—what would have happened if he had shot someone, some innocent bystander? But, you know, I’m glad the young man was brave enough to film that officer’s actions and to call him out for the liar that he is.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, they were right near an auto parts store. Apparently he was stopped for a traffic stop, Walter Scott was, for a tail light being out. And I wanted to go to the record of Officer Slager, the man who’s been charged with murder. I’m looking at an NBC News report. It says that he had two complaints against him. He was cleared of a complaint regarding use of force. In that case, a man named—alleged that Slager had used his Taser for no reason, slamming him to the ground in September of 2013. The officer was exonerated upon investigation, documents show. I guess the person in that case wasn’t lucky enough for someone to have had a video of what he was doing.

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, and in the same case—in the same way, his partner backed him up. No one is talking about—although the other officer was black, that other officer came out there, and he co-signed basically on that bogus report. So we have to go back and really investigate that whole department. They’ve had allegations of having poor racial relations in North Charleston, as a lot of police departments that operate in predominantly black neighborhoods and especially lower-income neighborhoods. But as I said, it’s this idea for a lot of cops, especially racist, sadistic cops, that black people are subhuman, that they can talk to you any kind of way, that they can disrespect you at a traffic stop. And if, in fact, a traffic stop is going to be a situation where your life is in danger by someone who’s supposed be protecting you—and when you go back and look at the numbers, black people aren’t assaulting police officers. In the last, I think it’s five years, four police officers have been killed, but there’s no epidemic of violence against police officers in this country. And so, we have to look at how policing is being conducted across the board. This idea that police have the right to shoot to kill for charges that if they’re brought to trial would result in a misdemeanor charge—no one should receive the death penalty for a misdemeanor.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s turn to North Charleston Chief of Police Eddie Driggers speaking Tuesday after North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey announced state investigators would charge Officer Michael Slager with the murder of Walter Scott.

MAYOR KEITH SUMMEY: We’ve got 343 police officers in our department. This was a bad decision by one of those 343. And I think the lesson that we take out of this, and hopefully the general public takes out of it, is that when an incident occurs, give us the appropriate time to investigate, find out exactly what happened, and we will act accordingly.

CHIEF EDDIE DRIGGERS: It’s been a tragic day for many, a tragic day for many. I’m sure the family is going through remorse over the loss of a loved one. And when you hear news, it’s still tragic, when you first get news just that we’ve been—gotten today.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, followed by the police chief. Your final comments, Kevin?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, if that film hadn’t come out, that police chief would have covered up this murder. And, you know, I’m supportive of the family, but justice isn’t served until the officer is adjudicated and found guilty of murder and sentenced to prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Alexander Gray, we want to thank you for being with us, civil rights activist and community organizer in Columbia, South Carolina. He edited the book, Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence, and is the author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics. When we come back, we go to Ferguson. Elections took place there. Then to Chicago, where elections also took place there. And then we’ll be speaking with Tavis Smiley about his journey with Maya Angelou. Stay with us.

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