Like clockwork, Al Sharpton, race-hustler extraordinaire, is positioning himself as an “adviser” to the family of Walter Scott, the black man fatally shot from behind on April 4 by a white police officer in North Charleston, S.C. after Scott resisted arrest. The shooting was captured on cell phone video by a nearby pedestrian. On Sunday, Rev. Sharpton spoke at a local church, praising officials for firing and prosecuting the cop, Michael Slager, for first-degree murder. He stated: “This is not about black and white. It’s about right and wrong.” He added: “I didn’t come to start trouble. I come to help stop trouble.” Given his history of demagoguery, North Charleston officials should ignore him. For this case, like all his others, is about black and white. And Sharpton is trouble.
National Legal and Policy Center many times has dissected the Reverend Al Sharpton. For three decades, the New York-based black civil rights leader, who last October celebrated his 60th birthday, has been a national figure. And the nation has been the worse for it. His specialty is justice for blacks who supposedly cannot obtain it on their own. On a practical level, his campaigns have operated on an unspoken rule: Blacks deserve a presumption of innocence; whites deserve a presumption of guilt. Since the mid-80s, beginning with his attempt to railroad “subway vigilante” Bernhard Goetz into prison, he has employed his considerable skills as a preacher to whip up resentment among followers, grossly distorting facts and context in order to secure an outcome in which blacks gain at the expense of whites. More than once, he has used character assassination and incitement to riot during his campaigns. On occasion, the consequences have been lethal, as in Brooklyn (1991) and Harlem (1995). And while the initial wave of rioting in Ferguson, Missouri last August predated Sharpton’s extended visit, his repeated calls for the prosecution of Officer Darren Wilson helped provide a rationalization for more destructive rioting months later following the St. Louis County grand jury announcement not to indict.
My new book, “Sharpton: A Demagogue’s Rise,” published by National Legal and Policy Center, documents Al Sharpton’s lengthy and reprehensible career. The book notes more than once that his newfound “pragmatic” reputation is the result of an image makeover, not a moral self-reappraisal. The turning point was his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination during 2003-04. His political stock grew further with the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008, where he since has been a shadow cabinet member on racial issues. Sharpton’s star grew brighter in the summer of 2011, when he became a full-time six o’clock news anchorman for MSNBC. And all the while, he has built the New York-based National Action Network into a major player in the nonprofit world; in recent years, the organization has generated more than $4 million in annual revenues. While not as inflammatory or confrontational as he was in the Eighties and Nineties, he doesn’t have to be. He knows how to play the power game. He has been able to achieve far more for himself and his constituents by cultivating close relationships with leading figures in politics, business, labor, philanthropy and the clergy than he would have by simply remaining a loud New York City preacher.
The crisis in North Charleston is tailor-made for Reverend Al Sharpton. Indeed, given his recently-acquired gray eminence status in civil rights activism, it would be somewhat remarkable if he didn’t inject himself into the situation. Exploiting racial tension, all the while appealing for “calm” and “healing,” is his style. To grasp why his entry into the controversy would be unwelcome, it is necessary to summarize the sequence of reported events (accounts have differed) that has transformed this heavily black South Carolina city of about 100,000 people into a tinderbox.
Nearly two weeks ago, on April 4 at about 9:30 A.M., a white police officer, Michael Slager, 33, a five-year veteran of the North Charleston police, was traveling in his cruiser when he noticed a moving 1991 Mercedes vehicle with a broken brake light. Two people were inside the Mercedes. Slager pulled over the car, got out of his own car, and walked toward the driver, asking him for his operating license and vehicle registration. It was a reasonable request. This was not petty harassment. A broken tail light is a safety hazard. The black driver, Walter Scott, age 50, responded that he did not have a license or a registration because he had just bought, or was in the process of buying, the car from a neighbor and was headed toward an auto parts store. The mounted dashboard camera of Slager’s car was recording this conversation.
Following this brief exchange, Officer Slager walked back to his car. In all likelihood, he was going to perform a background check. But suddenly, the situation changed. Scott opened his own door and got out, taking off on foot. Slager, observing this, got out of his car and gave pursuit. A block or two later, fully out of police dashboard camera view, he caught up with the suspect on an empty lot. Rather than submit to an arrest, however, Scott assaulted the officer. The pair struggled at least once and possibly twice. By this time, about three minutes had elapsed between Slager’s initial police radio call, indicating a routine traffic stop, and a second call, indicating hot pursuit of a suspect, a “black male, green shirt, blue plants.” Following that latter call, the dispatcher alerted other police units. Several officers radioed that they were headed toward the scene. About a minute later, Slager could be heard yelling, “Lie on the ground.” About 50 seconds after that, Slager radioed the dispatcher: “Shots fired. Subject is down. He grabbed my Taser.” There were eight shots in all; Scott fell to the ground after the final one. Immediately following that, Slager walked over to handcuff Scott, face-down and motionless. Officer Clarence Habersham arrived at the scene and notified the dispatcher: “Everyone is 10-4, except for the suspect…Gunshot wound, it looks like, to the chest, to the right side. Unresponsive…Another gunshot wound to the buttocks.” An ambulance arrived about seven minutes after the shooting, but Scott already was dead.
Unbeknownst to either Officer Michael Slager or Walter Scott, a 23-year-old pedestrian, Feidin Santana, filmed the confrontation. A Dominican immigrant, Santana had been walking to his job at a local barbershop when he observed the incident, took out his cell phone, and activated the camera unit. The footage reveals that Slager fired off eight rounds at Scott, who was running about 15 to 20 feet in front of the officer. The gunshots hit Scott five times – three times in the back, once in the buttocks and once in the ear.
Here was a news scoop to die for. Feidin Santana asked one of his Facebook friends if they knew anyone from the Scott family and if they could introduce him to the family. In short order, he found such a person. The pair met with the Scott family on Sunday, April 5, for a private showing. The next day, Santana turned the video over to state investigators, who in turn, quickly released the footage to the public. In a Thursday, April 9 interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s “The Today Show,” Santana asserted that Scott “never grabbed the Taser from the police.” The video shows Slager approaching Scott, lying on the ground, instructing him to place his hands behind his back. Slager then could be seen handcuffing Scott, leaving him face down, and rushing back to the area where the scuffle had ensued. He appeared to be picking something up off the ground and then dropping an object near Scott’s body. Another officer on the scene could be seen putting on latex gloves appearing to examine Scott.
Anti-racist activists and their allies now had a “gotcha” moment. This footage, and the eyewitness statement by Santana, could serve as proof not only of the guilt of one white police officer, but of white cops across the U.S. Not only was this murder, activists asserted, but by implication, so were the highly-publicized deaths at the hands of police last year of the “unarmed” Michael Brown (in Ferguson, Mo.) and Eric Garner (in Staten Island, New York City). That there were no indictments in those particular cases, in their minds, must have been due to a racist political culture, not the innocence of the accused cops.
The City of North Charleston, fearing demonstrations and riots of the sort that rocked Ferguson, raced to exercise damage control. The police department, directed by Chief Eddie Driggers, arrested Officer Slager for first-degree murder and held him without bail. The department also fired him. Mayor R. Keith Summey ordered an additional 150 body cameras, on top of those already ordered, to ensure that every police officer had one. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) announced it would investigate the case. On the federal level, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division announced a joint probe.
The wheels for civil suits also were turning. The Scott family announced last Thursday they were preparing to file suit against Officer Slager and his department. Their attorney, Justin Bamberg, also a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, put it this way: “We will seek every penny of compensation that the family deserves. People in society are fed up with people getting away with things like this, fed up with law enforcement abusing the power that they have.” He added that “a lot of questions” remain about other police officers who may have participated in a cover-up. This past Monday a local resident, Julius Wilson, announced that he was suing Michael Slager and two other North Charleston patrolmen for an incident involving him last year. Wilson alleges that the officers used excessive force, including tasing, when arresting him following a traffic stop in August. Also named in the suit are the City of North Charleston, its police department, and Police Chief Driggers. This story may be true, yet it is significant that Wilson’s attorneys admitted they previously had decided against bringing forth a lawsuit, but changed their minds after the Slager shooting. In other words, this may be a familiar lawyer’s ploy of establishing a “pattern” of abuse.
Media outlets also piled on. The closing sentence of an April 9 CNN report chortled, “Instead of wearing his police uniform, Slager now wears a jail uniform.” That day, The Atlantic ran a blog headline, “The Total Rejection of Michael Slager.” The article noted with satisfaction that even the natural allies of the deposed and arrested cop have declined to defend him. Meanwhile, the April 20 cover story of Time magazine, written by David von Drehle, posted two stills of the Santana footage. In huge capital letters, the title read: “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” The article was slugged: “This time the charge is murder.” The implication here was that the reluctance by grand juries in Ferguson and Staten Island to indict police for supposedly similar offenses were grievous mistakes, thankfully not repeated here. The text of the article described Scott as “an unarmed black man whose brake light was malfunctioning” – as if his blatantly criminal behavior after being pulled over was immaterial.
The arrival of Al Sharpton on the scene was inevitable. At his annual National Action Network convention last Wednesday in Manhattan, Sharpton addressed the incident in his kickoff speech. Flanked by several elected officials, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, he announced: “We are saying for the sake of this family in (North) Charleston, that not only are we with you, we are saying that there must be national legislation around cameras and police accountability.” The conference agenda also included a panel discussion on police brutality featuring family members of blacks who had died at the hands of police, including Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Sean Bell, all of whom had committed assault or aggressively resisted arrest.
Immediately following the conference, he traveled down to North Charleston at the invitation of the Charity Missionary Baptist Church to speak at a Sunday vigil. Mayor Summey and Police Chief Driggers were in the audience along with the black congregants. At the podium, Reverend Al praised the officials for arresting and firing Officer Michael Slager. “In the Deep South,” he remarked, “a mayor and police chief did what we couldn’t get mayors in the North and the Midwest to do.” Apparently, it did not occur to Sharpton that those were entirely different cases and that they lacked any basis for prosecution. Yet local officials were receptive; apparently, nothing succeeds like a combination of fear and flattery. For good measure, Sharpton reiterated his deception in an article appearing in the Monday edition of the Huffington Post, “Will the South Teach the North about Police Reform?” The Reverend Al wrote: “We have seen case after case in the North and the Midwest dismissed, and those that stood for them were castigated; now in the heart of the old Confederacy, we see them follow the rule of law. That is, an officer must be held to the same standards as everyone else, and we prosecute cases and then let a jury decide.”
Sharpton is not yet an “adviser” to Walter Scott’s family. But that’s because the family has conveyed its wish to keep the event low-keyed. It has nothing to do with Sharpton being reticent about intervention. A source close to the family stated: “We don’t want another Ferguson type of circus here.” However reluctantly, Sharpton complied, and simply expressed his sympathy. The family attorney, Chris Stewart, acknowledged this. “The Reverend Al has called and expressed his support and condolences,” he said. “The family is very appreciative.” Sharpton commented: “They (the Scott family) are in mourning and we would never come unless they asked. We’re willing to be helpful to the family, but only when needed.”
Reverend Al sounded like a healer here. But only the naïve are fooled. Over the years, in the aftermath of any number of lethal incidents, he has sought “healing” and “understanding,” only to reveal his real intent during other times. Late in 2006, for example, he called for peace in the streets following the death of Sean Bell, a young black man who was shot to death by New York City police outside a Queens nightclub after trying to run over an officer with his vehicle. Yet in the spring of 2008, following the acquittal of the NYPD cops in that case, he announced he was going to “close the city down in a nonviolent, effective way.” He would make good on his threat less than two weeks later, leading a demonstration that blocked key traffic arteries and bridges (he was among those arrested). Last August, he pleaded with blacks in the St. Louis area not to behave in a rash manner after the shooting death of an 18-year old local black, Michael Brown, by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Brown, said Sharpton, was a “gentle giant,” and going on a rampage would be contrary to this young man’s example. Yet during that same trip, Sharpton demanded the release of Wilson’s identity to the public, an act effectively exposing him to potentially violent retaliation and making his resignation inevitable (he got what he wanted). He also called for the prosecution of Wilson, even though all evidence against him turned out to be contradictory or fraudulent. And he bellowed before a packed audience at a black St. Louis church: “Michael Brown is gone. You can run whatever video you want. He is not on trial. America is on trial!”
Aside from the disingenuous nature of Sharpton’s call for peace and calm, the charge of first-degree murder against former North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager might not stick. This is not to assert his automatic innocence. Yet there is reasonable doubt. Much of the revulsion toward Slager appears to spring not from evidence, but from a collective desire to see whites, especially “racists” among them, get their overdue comeuppance. Because the fatal shooting was caught on camera, civil rights activists see an opportunity to imprison a palpably guilty white cop, and more importantly, to institute changes in the nature of police work that would put more officers, especially white ones, in harm’s way. One can be fairly certain of this: If Officer Slager was black and/or the shooting victim was white, this story would not be dominating the national news. It might qualify as local news. The possibility of confirming the script of “white oppressor, black victim” is the driving force behind this entire campaign.
Local officials, fearful of potential massive retaliation, have responded with fear and capitulation. If they looked more closely, they would realize that Officer Slager has a winnable case. There are a number of pertinent facts that might give even Sharpton pause for reflection.
This case is entirely separate from all others preceding it. Obvious as this is, it bears emphasizing. For the glee of “anti-racist” activists is over the prospect of laying bare the “real” character of racist white America. Since Officer Michael Slager is guilty, it follows that Officer Darren Wilson (Ferguson) and Officer Daniel Pantaleo (Staten Island) also are guilty. And, for that matter, so are white civilians such as Bernhard Goetz and George Zimmerman, whose claims of self-defense in the face of black violence can be made to look suspect. Here’s a reality check: Officer Slager’s guilt or innocence has absolutely no bearing on the guilt or innocence of any other similarly accused white individual — past, present or future. Officer Wilson, for one, was not indicted because the case against him was nonexistent. “Racism” had nothing to do with the grand jury decision. Even the most shameless trophy-hunting district attorney couldn’t have won a murder conviction with the scant evidence at hand.
South Carolina attorneys, though trophy-hunters themselves, already have concluded that the death penalty does not apply in this case. Arrested for first-degree murder, Officer Slager faced 30 years to life in prison, and possibly the death penalty. Yet the latter possibility already has been taken off the table – and with good reason. This Monday, the Charleston Post and Courier reported that prosecutors have determined that none of the 22 “aggravating circumstances” that enable state attorneys to seek the death penalty apply here. Scarlett Wilson, chief prosecutor for Charleston County, put it this way: “There are aggravating circumstances which can take a murder case from being a maximum of life to death being the maximum sentence. None of those factors are present in this case.”
Walter Scott was a lawbreaker even before the confrontation. On paper, Scott looked like the good citizen described by friends and co-workers at his funeral last Saturday. He had served in the U.S. Coast Guard (as did Slager, by the way). A warehouse forklift operator, the twice-married Scott, recently engaged, had four children – three adults and a teenager. But beneath the surface was a troubled individual. Much of his trouble centered upon the fact that he had been in jail at least 10 times for failure to pay child support. Indeed, at the time of the fatal incident he owed about $18,000 in back child support and court fees. And Scott’s Coast Guard discharge was less than honorable; he was let go for a drug offense. Scott’s relatives have stated for the record, in fact, that fear of returning to jail was the most likely motive behind his decision to flee after being pulled over.
The Santana video, rather than establish Officer Slager’s guilt, may aid in doing the opposite. A blog site, The Last Refuge/Conservative Treehouse, should get the credit here. The site this past Sunday published an elaborate sequence of stills and footage appearing to show Walter Scott seizing control of Officer Slager’s Taser and shooting him with it. Slager, far from wantonly shooting an innocent man, may have been fighting for his own life. In the video, Scott apparently shoots Slager with the latter’s stun gun and drags the wires embedded in Slager’s body. The author of the article, “Sundance,” summarizes:
In the micro-seconds of decision-making, and having chased a fleeing suspect, and having struggled for almost two minutes, a scenario emerges where Slager – having lost the advantage of his Taser, and facing the risk of incapacitation from his own Taser being used against him – doesn’t realize (as they stand up – still fighting) the cartridge has dislodged from the trigger assembly.
The Taser wire is clearly still attached to Officer Slager as he draws his firearm to regain control against the risk presented by Scott. The whereabouts of the actual trigger assembly (is) unknown to Slager but in the video you can see it landing behind them.
If you frame by frame the video you will note the wire is still attached to the torso of Slager, and tightening by the fleeing Scott, as Slager fires the first shot.
This video footage should be examined carefully by prosecutors and the defense before making generalizations about Officer Slager or any other cop’s guilt.
Officer Michael Slager’s actions, even if illegal, do not even approach the bar for first-degree murder. Making the case for Murder One would be a vast stretch. There was no evidence of any premeditated intent on Officer Slager’s part to kill. The incident began as a reasonable traffic stop. Slager would not have pulled out his weapon, let alone used it, had Scott not fled the scene and then violently resisted arrest when caught. As a worst-case scenario, Slager conceivably could be found guilty of manslaughter. But very likely, he wasn’t guilty of anything except self-defense. And self-defense is not a crime. Even the current high standard of justification for shooting a fleeing suspect, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Tennessee v. Garner (1985), would not apply here. The accusation of first-degree murder seems a classic example of prosecutorial overcharging.
To any reasonable person, these considerations, taken together, casts high doubt on the prosecution’s case. And there are other questions that need to be addressed, such as: Who was the passenger in Walter Scott’s car? As a material witness, why hasn’t this individual given a statement to police, or if he has, why haven’t any of the details of the statement been revealed? How exactly did Officer Slager violate standard police procedure? Has the footage shown by TV networks and print media been deceptively edited to convey the appearance of a police crime? The prosecution has to be forthright about all relevant evidence. So far, it hasn’t.
Whatever one thinks of Officer Slager, the man is entitled to full due process. Prosecutors must proceed in ways circumscribed by rule of law. That means avoiding the temptation to overcharge or withhold evidence from the defense. The capacity for official misconduct and unofficial demagoguery is enormous, not only in North Charleston but in points beyond. People like Al Sharpton stand ready and willing to exploit raw emotion to achieve a chimerical “justice.” They’ll make sure that those not going along will pay a price. And if these activists don’t get a conviction, and a severe sentence, then rioting and cop-killing (which happened in New York City and came close to happening in Ferguson) may ensue. It is the responsibility of government to adhere to the rule of law, not to succumb to the rule of mobs.
Postscript: Insistent upon putting a white “trophy” on its wall, the State of South Carolina prevailed. On May 2, 2017, Officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty in Charleston federal court to a charge of deprivation of another person’s civil rights under color of law. In exchange for the plea, the U.S. Justice Department dropped two other charges, while state dropped its first-degree murder charge. According to the plea deal, sentencing guidelines will be those applying to second-degree murder, which carries up to 25 years in prison. Sentencing is set for later this year. Members of the Scott family, of course, are satisfied. “This is a victory for Walter,” crowed Scott’s mother. “This is justice for the family, but this is just the beginning.” Actually, this prosecution never should have begun. But there is no point in convincing Al Sharpton and his fellow tribalists of that.