Who Was Walter Scott?

Loren Anderson

The police killing of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina is placed in the context of institutionalized racism and the origins of police in the night watch and the slave patrol – Editors

PastedGraphic-2This is the question mainstream news outlets ask as soon as a tragedy like this strikes. People want to know whether the fate was deserved (a fate like this could never be deserved). Was Walter Scott a good man or a bad man? Could excessive police violence be justified? Should we mourn this man who ran from a police officer and was shot in the back trying to get away? Was justice served or was it thwarted, and an injustice put in its place?

In the first hours after Office Michael Slager (now formerly) of the North Charleston, South Carolina police department fired 8 bullets at the back of Walter Scott, hitting him 5 times, the story being circulated by media outlets was that of Officer Slager. The story went that Walter Scott struggled with Michael Slager, tried to gain control of Slager’s taser, and Slager feared for his life and so shot Scott until he fell and stopped moving. Without the cellphone video of the shooting recorded by Feidin Santana, this case would have gone much differently. In a country in which police officers shot and killed over 1,000 people in 2014 alone, with little or no official repercussions, there is not much reason to think that this case would have gone much differently than all of those. Perhaps a Michael Brown situation could arise, with protests and rebellions against state-sanctioned violence. – http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2014/09/08/how-many-police-shootings-a-year-no-one-knows/

When Michael Slager fired 8 shots at Walter Scott as he attempted to escape arrest, hitting him 5 times, he followed a historical trajectory, a pattern that has shaped the history of the United States. What we know as modern police forces found their embryo in the beginning of the professionalization of the night watch in New York City in the early to mid 1800s and the slave patrols that hunted down escaped slaves in the southern United States during the era of slavery. Only in the case of slavery, since Black people were treated like property, it was lucrative for slave-owners to capture them and return them to slavery, since they were bought and paid for, and if they were dead it was a lost investment. But that history of violence wends its way through the history of the United States all the way from slave patrols, through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow laws, through the war on drugs and modern mass incarceration in an era of officially color-blind racism.

Walter Scott’s family speculated on why he fled the scene of the traffic stop in the first place. They thought it might have been the warrant out for his arrest due to being behind on approximately $18,000 in child support payments. This came with the threat of going back to prison, a prison system where rapes by inmates and even prison guards against inmates are prevalent, and inmates work for 50 cents per hour just to feel useful and have something seemingly productive to do with their lives.

Why would missing child support payments come with a prison sentence? In a country where women make 77 cents on a man’s dollars, and Black women make 53 cents on a white man’s dollar, the state makes up for this by socially pigeon-holing men into the role of bread-winner instead of providing even the most basic dignified social safety net thereby setting some of the conditions for people to freely associate. By not reducing themselves to this mold, men make themselves vulnerable to prison sentences. Black men are especially vulnerable to prison sentences or summary execution by white police officers in the field because of institutional racism. And in the case of Walter Scott, Black police officer Clarence W. Habersham was the first officer to show up on the scene after the shooting. “Officer Habersham later said in a brief police report that he tried to aid the victim by putting pressure on his wounds, but critics say the video does not show him performing CPR or acting with urgency in response to the shooting.” The lack of concern for the lives of citizens, especially Black citizens, is an institutional problem, regardless of the race of the officers involved; there is a consistent pattern of disregard and apathy and just going along with the way things are done. “This is the Old South, and you have the Old South mentality here,” said Edward Bryant, president of the North Charleston chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. “The whites are always in charge. They’re the lead person, and Mr. Habersham is being in that role as they had it in the 1800s.” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/18/us/after-walter-scott-shooting-scrutiny-turns-to-2nd-officer.html?_r=0

When Walter Scott ran from (now former) Officer Michael Slager, he was carrying on a proud history of resistance to state violence against the oppressed. This is the same proud history that was being made by Harriet Tubman as she freed slaves during the Underground Railroad. This same proud history was exemplified and continued in the protests that took place across the nation: the 400 anti-police-brutality protesters who rallied in Union Square in New York City, the dozen or so protesters arrested for shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge, a group who marched from Staten Island to the Capitol Building in Washington, D. C. to protest police violence that killed Eric Garner and Walter Scott, the group who gathered the Monday evening after the shooting in Charleston, and the dozens of #BlackLivesMatter protesters who stood outside Charleston City Hall saying that this shooting was not an isolated incident. “Muhiyidin d’Baha, an organizer with Black Lives Matter – Charleston, rallied the crowd in front of City Hall, speaking into a megaphone before relocating to a stand of TV news station microphones. He described Scott’s shooting death as being more than an isolated incident, speaking about a history of ‘harassment, profiling, and abuse’ at the hands of North Charleston police ‘that we didn’t have a video for’.” – http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/TheBattery/archives/2015/04/08/walter-scott-protest-this-is-a-season-not-for-us-to-be-quiet

The details of this case are neither isolated nor uncommon. It is a systemic injustice carried on by racist institutions in a country build on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, with a capitalist economic system that continues to commodify, devalue, and reduce various aspects of human life and all life below its real value.

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