This time, coming down on a killer cop
The most shocking thing about the Walter Scott killing is that we can still be shocked when a white cop kills an unarmed black man.
It’s not just that there was video. We’ve seen plenty of video. We’ve seen Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe”) on video and 12-year-old Tamir Rice with a toy gun on video. And the shocking thing in both cases is that despite the videos, we weren’t shocked quite enough.
This is different. And not just because the video is so horrific. It’s because this video so clearly puts an end to the usual arguments and challenges that might be posed by anyone who watches it.
Of course, it was about race. Of course, it was about harassment turned fatal. Of course, you could understand how, in an essay written for Time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would call Scott’s shooting death an assassination.
If you haven’t seen the video, you can’t understand just how great the shock is. An unarmed black man, stopped for a broken tail-light, is seen running away from a cop. The cop, officer Michael Slager, aims and fires eight times. Scott falls. It is horrific, and yet it does not look quite real, either. It looks like a low-budget movie, in which the bad guy shoots the good guy in the back. All that were missing were the white and black hats.
And then it sinks in. This bad guy shoots the unarmed man in the back and then rushes to cover up the crime. Slager had called in the shooting as a tussle about a Taser gun. He went to the body, handcuffed Scott, and then went back for what looked like his Taser, which he planted next to Scott. He did all this as Scott lay dying.
It was horrific and much worse. Scott had run away from the traffic stop, apparently fearing arrest for an old warrant. There had been a scuffle, according to the man who witnessed the event and caught it all on his cell phone.
But the cop killed a man and then lied about the shooting. He apparently tried to plant incriminating evidence. And you could see how, without the video, he probably would have gotten away with unaccountably — unimaginably — shooting an unarmed man eight times in the back.
It wasn’t the only shock. Some were shocked that the North Charleston mayor and police chief acted so quickly in removing Slager from the force and charging him with murder. Again, it wasn’t just the video. This was about the post-Ferguson world, in a time after #blacklivesmatter hashtags and after a damning Justice Department report about white cops and harassment and racist emails and tickets handed out as a tax on the poor.
North Charleston, in the heart of the South, didn’t want to be another Ferguson. That’s progress of a kind. And so we’re unlikely to hear testimony like we heard from Darren Wilson, who called Brown a “demon” who “looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”
Who knows if Wilson was telling the truth or how much of the truth? We learned later that Brown probably didn’t have his hands up in surrender. We can only wonder what a video might have shown of that fateful encounter, one that began with two teens walking in the middle of a street.
The story in South Carolina didn’t begin or end there, however, because a man was walking to work, saw the scuffle and did what people do. He pulled out his cell phone and started shooting video. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. And he was scared to death to think what he had in his phone.
Feidin Santana, a Dominican immigrant, would say he thought about erasing the video and leaving town. He worried that the cops must have seen him. He was afraid, after watching the shooting, what they might to do him.
“My life has changed in a matter of seconds,” Santana told MSNBC on Thursday. “My family’s afraid what’s going to happen next with me. I’m afraid, too, of what can happen. But I guess I feel that what I did is just, you know, look for justice in this case.”
After hearing what Slager had to say about the shooting, Santana took his video to a vigil for Scott and gave it to the family. The video was released to the press, and, as it was played for the world to see, Slager was charged with murder and Santana was rightly being called a hero.
Days later, the North Charleston police released the dash-cam video of the traffic stop. And the mayor had promised that the police would soon be outfitted with body-cams. And if more video doesn’t really solve the problem, it can force us to see it for what it is.
And so Santana would tell the Washington Post that if people see “something bad … happening,” they should reach for their cell phones to record it. It’s a matter of justice, he said. As shocking as that can sometimes be.
Mike Littwin writes a column for the Colorado Independent.
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